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Western Dressage – Ground training: Haunches-in. By Lisa Wieben and Birgit Stutz

May 24, 2020

In this previous groundwork series we have been covering how to train your horse to maintain bend while on a circle, while on a straight line, and during a shoulder-in. In the process the horse was also learning how to adjust to the amount of pressure placed on the head through half-halts to maintain speed and rhythm throughout the exercises. This month we will bring all the skills together and learn haunches-in from the ground. Haunches-in can really make changes to your horse’s muscling and overall balance. When moving the hip to the inside the horse will be on four tracks, each foot stepping on its own track. This really lengthens the muscles along the outside of the bend and contracts on the inside of the bend. The pelvis, back, and ribs all become freer as the horse reaches more under with the hind legs. The weight will be more balanced on the outside hind leg, which will step further under the mid-line.

This is a much more complicated process as we will be asking the horse to move his hindquarters away from the wall and towards us. There are two ways to do this. (To prepare start by attaching your lead to the side ring of your halter or on the front ring of a cavesson.) The first method is to have the horse at a stand-still along the wall. Using a dressage whip tap the outside hip/buttock. The pressure will vary with each horse. Begin with a light tap and increase if needed. As soon as the horse takes a step to the inside release the pressure and reward. Walk the horse forward to straightness, then ask again. At first the horse will want to take his head toward the wall to bring his hip in. This is ok while he is learning the cue. As he gets the idea of moving the hip begin to block the head from going to the outside with light pressure on the lead. You may also have to remind the shoulder to stay on the track with pressure with your whip hand. This process may take several sessions before the horse truly begins to understand the cue of the tap and to keep his head in the direction of the track. Once the horse can do this consistently at the stand-still begin to add forward motion. For this exercise the handler will walk backwards to the inside of the horse. If tracking left hold the lead in your left hand, closest to the horse, and your loops and whip in the right hand. As you are walking backwards keep your hips open to invite the horse to keep his head to the inside. Again, as you add forward motion the horse may take his head to the outside and push the shoulder to the inside. You can use the whip or your hand at the shoulder or place your hand into the hollow just in front of the shoulder to ask the horse to keep the shoulder over and bend the neck. Keeping the shoulder over on the track and bending from the centre will also make it easier for the horse to move the haunches in. Only ask for a step or two at a time and reward often!


The handler has her hip toward the horse’s head causing him to bend toward the wall. Photo credit Lisa Wieben. Handler Diane Luxen and her horse Silverwind. Diane competes in Dressage and Western Dressage.


The handler has opened her hip to allow the horse’s bend. This also makes it easier for the horse to keep his shoulders on the track with the head in the direction of the maneuver. Photo credit Lisa Wieben. Handler Diane Luxen and her horse Silverwind.

If your horse does not respond to tapping to move the hip over, you may have to teach this maneuver from a walk. As above you can place your fist (right hand, tracking left) into the hollow in front of the shoulder. While walking backwards use your hand to press the neck. As the shoulder moves out the hip will move in. This will take many tries! At first the horse may want to push into or through you as he won’t understand, but by using half-halts with your leading hand and gently asking he will eventually bring the hip to the inside. Stop immediately and reward the slightest try. This is a lengthy process so patience on the handler’s part is key. If the horse does try to push into you, you can always take him onto a circle to reinforce the bend, then as you are coming back to the wall ask for the shoulder to move out. Asking before the haunches make it back to the wall may help to give the horse the idea of what you are asking.


Tapping the outside hip to ask the haunches to move in. The mare is about to step in with her inside front so Lisa will then block the shoulder with either her hand or whip at the shoulder. Notice how her hip is away from the mare’s head to maintain the flexion of the head and neck. Photo credit Gary Wieben. Handler Lisa Wieben and her horse You Otta Have Me.


Asking for haunches in by pushing the shoulder toward the track. This mare is stepping under nicely while maintaining head and shoulder position. Photo credit Gary Wieben. Handler Lisa Wieben and her horse You Otta Have Me.

Because these maneuvers are very new to the horse practice them at the end of your session so you can quit after a good effort. The horse will see that as a reward for what he just did. Give your horse plenty of time to learn them. Go very slowly. He will be using muscles and stretching his body in ways that he is not used to so you want to be careful you don’t over-do it and cause soreness. At first only ask for a step or two, then a couple of strides. Eventually your horse will be able to maintain this position all the way down the long side of the arena. Giving the horse plenty of time to learn will pay off immensely as he becomes more supple, relaxed, and willing.

Using the groundwork we’ve outlined in the last few articles will give you a wonderful way to warm up your horse prior to your ride. Giving your horse 10 to 20 minutes of walking work either from the ground or riding will help to warm up joints, ligaments, tendons, and muscles helping to prevent stress related injuries.


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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