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Western Dressage – Ground training part 2 – Shoulder-In. By Lisa Wieben and Birgit Stutz

April 4, 2020

Last month you learned how to bend your horse from a standstill, walk on a circle with bend, and back your horse without pulling. This month we will take the bend you have created into a more advanced exercise, the shoulder-in. By teaching this maneuver from the ground the horse will better understand the cues when under saddle and will also begin to release tight muscle patterns. Think of this as yoga or somatics for your horse!

Now that your horse is bending nicely on a circle we will take this to bending on a straight line. To begin with, walk your horse along the track around the arena, or along a fence line if outside. Having some sort of boundary on the outside will help when performing the maneuvers.


Walking on a circle with bend.

For this exercise we will change our leading and whip hands. If tracking left, hold your lead rope in your left hand and keep the loops and whip in your right hand, closest to the horse. If using a halter, snap the lead to the side ring of the halter so that when you ask for bend the pressure will be to the side rather than from underneath which could create a twist in the head/neck. In this position the whip can be used along the body of the horse to maintain position on the track and forward energy. With the horse straight, ask the horse to bend to the inside with light pressure on the lead. Keep all four feet on the track, but ask for the head and neck to bend slightly to the inside, not past the point of the shoulder line. You may need to keep your right hand at the shoulder to keep the horse from stepping in with his inside front leg. When performing this exercise correctly the horse will lengthen the muscles on the outside of the body and contract slightly the muscles on the inside. Your hand at the shoulder will act much like your leg at the girth when riding, asking the horse to bend around that point. The hand at the shoulder will be used in a pulsing pressure, rather than steady pressure to prevent the horse leaning into it. The hand on the lead will also ask and give rather than holding steady. The goal is the keep the horse light. Head position should be low to level, just like we did on the circle last month. Walk one lap in each direction. You may want to spend several days with these exercises (the ones from last month and this straightness one) before progressing to the next ones.


Walking straight with bend. Handlers hand is at the shoulder.


Shoulder-in: To ask for the shoulder-in from the above exercise, you will allow the horse to step the front legs slightly to the inside. In a shoulder-in the horse will walk on three tracks. Inside front leg, outside front leg and inside hind leg, and outside hind. The bend of the horse is still through the centre so your hand at the shoulder will now maintain the bend and the amount the horse can step off the track. When a horse is first asked to bring the shoulders in he may think he is being asked to walk a circle and push around you. That’s ok and quite normal. Circle back to the rail. When you ask again be prepared by lifting the lead slightly up and to the outside (toward the neck). This will act as a half-halt and shift the horse’s weight back. What is great about teaching the horse the half-halt in this way is that when you ask from the saddle the horse will already understand that shift of weight back. Again, give your horse several days or more to get comfortable with the exercise before moving on. In the beginning reward the slightest try – ask, receive, give. Ask for the step in, feel the movement, then release the pressure and allow the horse to move straight again. Eventually you will be able to go the entire long side in shoulder-in.


Shoulder-in: handler’s hand at shoulder to ask for bend and block stepping in further off the track. Notice the three tracks the horse’s legs make. Inside hind and outside front step on the same track.

All of these exercises can be done with an ordinary nylon halter with the lead attached to the side ring. You may also want to try using a cavesson with a lead or rein attached to the middle ring on the nose piece. This gives a little more precise movement of the head and neck. When asking for more precision hold the lead close to the halter or cavesson ring. Once the horse starts to carry himself you can then move your hand further down the lead.

Photos by Gary Wieben. Handler Lisa Wieben. Horse Ava (You Otta Have Me), 8-year-old AQHA/APHA mare.

This article is part of an ongoing series of articles that appear in the horse magazine SaddleUp on a monthly basis. The articles are a collaboration between Lisa Wieben (see biography below) and Birgit Stutz.

Lisa Wieben is a versatile and exceptional riding coach, balancing her skills as a Level 2 Centered Riding Instructor, Equine Canada Western Competition Coach, and Irwin Insights Level 4 Master Certified Trainer. Currently specializing in Western and English Dressage, she trains youth, adult amateurs, and professionals as well as coaching a local 4H group at her facility near Bowden/Olds, AB. Through dressage and foundational training she helps riders of all disciplines create stronger partnerships with their horses. Also, as a Hanna Somatic Instructor and Practitioner in Training, Lisa works with riders, in class or privately, learning movement exercises that target specific muscle issues in the body brought on by stress, injuries, surgeries, and overuse. Her approach, using Dressage, Centered Riding, Irwin Insights principles, and Somatics, all come together to develop a balanced rider and a balanced horse.

Birgit Stutz is an Irwin Insights Level 4 Master Certified Trainer and offers horse training, riding lessons in the English and Western disciplines, horsemanship clinics, mentorship programs, intensive horsemanship courses, workshops, short courses and demos on various topics, as well as working student programs at Falling Star Ranch Academy of Foundational Horsemanship in Dunster, BC. Birgit’s passion is to help humans have a better relationship with their horses through understanding of equine psychology and body language, biomechanics, as well as fundamental riding skills based on classical dressage.

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