How to ride shoulder in

Shoulder in, what is it and how do we do it? Here are my best tips on how to ride a shoulder in, for the beginner, intermediate and advanced rider.

…minimalism is a privilege of the master.

Easily expressed, shoulder in, or versade, is when a bent horse is moving its shoulders inside of the track. To this very simple explanation we can add a zillion little details, as we by time are getting more experience. Or maybe it is actually better to say that we are removing a zillion little details when we gain experience. When we know what we are doing we can also try to do less and less and still get a response from the horse. But as Bent always says, minimalism is a privilege of the master. First you need to be coarse and “too much” to learn the difference, to know when you are riding a shoulder in and when not. For a beginner rider a shoulder in on a straight line is often easier, as you can easily see when the shoulder has moved inside of the track but for the horse a shoulder in on a circle is often easier as the circle helps the horse with bending.

Shoulder in for the beginner

To be able to ride a shoulder in the horse must have a basic understanding of leg and rein aids. If the horse does not yet understand these aids, they are easier to teach from the ground.  Here, in my free AAoR online school, you can find some tips on how to do this.

You can begin the shoulder in on a straight line, but as mentioned above you need a horse that is bent for the shoulder in. If the horse is straightening up you will get something more like leg yield, but do not bother to much about this in the beginning. First you need to understand how to organize your body, and then you can think about organizing the body of the horse. To help with bending, ride a circle in the corner and when leaving the corner you go into a shoulder in on the straight line. The Swedish term of shoulder in is directly translated into English as the word “open”. This is a very good explanation to what shoulder in is, because when you take the first step of a circle, or open the circle, you are in a shoulder in. Basically you can think of a shoulder in as starting a circle, changing your mind  and not going into the circle but continuing on a straight line. We are teaching the inside hind leg to step toward the point of weight, under your seat.

When moving into shoulder in you sit slightly more on the inside seat bone and turn your torso so that your belly button is pointing towards the inner ear of the horse. The outside rein move the shoulders in and the inside rein give half-halts to maintain stellning. The inside leg will ask the inside hind leg to continue moving forward. In the beginning just do one or a few steps and then end the exercise. As the horse starts to understand you may increase the number of steps.

Shoulder in for the intermediate rider

As you get more used to the exercise you want to start improving the quality of your shoulder in.  Side movements like shoulder in is used a lot in the academic art of riding. It is also quite misunderstood, in the sense that people often focus on the “side” of the side movements. They should not be more sidewards than forwards. When you focus too much on the sidewards the horse often straighten up and fall on a shoulder or step too much out or in with a hindleg. Better is to focus on the bending and not do more sidewards than the horse can maintain its bending.

In the shoulder in you want the inside hip to move forward and down, when the inside hind leg is stepping forward toward the point of weight. This will rotate the chest and lift the outside shoulder. You must be careful not to sit on the outside of the horse, as this will press down the outside of the chest, with subsequent loss of stellning and bending. It is time to focus a bit more on your seat bones. You want to lower your inside seat bone and lift the outside seat bone. The seat bones are pointing to where you want the hind legs to step. The direction of the movement in shoulder in is going through the outside shoulder, so you want to move your inside seatbone slightly closer to the spine. Your statical seat, or your upper body balance, is slightly pointing toward the outside shoulder when going forward, and when collecting you move your upper body slightly towards the tail.

I cannot emphasize the word “slightly” enough here. If you do too much you will loose the bending and the horse will fall on the shoulders and loose the stepping of the hind legs towards the point of weight, under the seat of the rider.

With proper bending and stellning the horse will give to the inside rein and bend into the outside rein, making the use of the inside rein less and less important. However, it can of course still remind the horse to give, if needed. As before, the outside rein is moving the shoulders in.

Shoulder in for the advanced rider

Your riding is now more and more focused on sending all four legs of the horse in the direction of the movement, the hindlegs stepping in under the seat of the rider and the front legs stepping in under the muzzle of the horse. This can most easily be seen when looking at the hooves of the horse. Are they all moving in the same direction or is the direction of some hoof twisted in or out?

Do the front legs step in under the muzzle and the hind legs step in under your seat? If not, can you ask the legs to move in this direction?

You want to ride more and more with your seat. The upper legs of the rider should lie flat against the saddle. The front muscles of the thighs move the shoulders of the horse and the back of the thighs move the hindlegs of the horse. To do a shoulder in you use the front of the outer upper leg (heel out) to move the shoulder in and the back of the inner upper leg (heel in) to move the hindlegs out. Think that you are having skis on your feet. The skis, or your feet, should always stay parallel to each other. The inside upper leg is always working in a downwards sense and the outside one in an upwards sense, to maintain the rotation of the chest.

You need to be very aware of your direction of movement and balance. The inner seat bot is slightly down and closer to the spine and when riding forward shoulder in the direction of movement is to the outer shoulder whereas the collected shoulder in has the direction towards the tail. You will now get moments when you just sit in the direction you want to go and do not need any other aids. Enjoy and try to get more and longer such moments. However, do not forget that when you need to use and aid, do it. Do not just think that you are only riding with your seat now and will not use any other aids, because then you will eventually loose what you have gained. Always add the aids you need and then relax and see if you can sit and enjoy the ride. Continue developing your feeling of the horse moving under you. Can you feel how the four different legs are moving? Do the front legs step in under the muzzle and the hind legs step in under your seat? If not, can you ask the legs to move in this direction?

Continue developing your feeling of the horse moving under you.