Shoulder-In, The Beginning of Your Dressage Journey

More Insight into This Classical Suppling Straightening and Overall Throughness Exercise 

Shoulder-in is the beginning of your advanced development work that influences all upper-level movements. Shoulder-in preceded by shoulder-fore and leg yield, improves the horse’s coordination, impulsion straightness, coordination, and the willingness cooperation letting through of the aids. For the rider, shoulder-in helps in the improvement and development of feel for the collaboration and coordination of your aids. It is the cycle of the lateral aids we are talking about which will improve your coordination in all your upper-level work. 

Shoulder-in belongs to the forward-sideways work we call laterals. The emphasis is on forwardness then sideways. Such a movement demands a sound understanding of; Diagonal aids, Aggregation of the rein and leg aids, the Giving of the Aids, Suppleness Flexion and Bending, Collaboration, and Coordination of the aids, and start of the Development of Feel versus Mechanical aids. 

“…shoulder-in gives you the form and function for all upper-level work…” 

In your mental preparation, it is better to think: shoulder-in is a forward movement with a lateral bend ridden in collection and in accordance with strength. For Shoulder-in there is no silver bullet “one size fits all” it has to be deployed within the horse’s capabilities or it is counterproductive. 

The exercise plays an essential role on the way to higher collection, and is expressed in a high degree of suppleness, carrying strength and self-carriage, and is an indispensable element of the daily training for all dressage horses. Whether working with a novice or Grand Prix horse, correctly done shoulder-in as with all lateral work will always improve the horse’s gaits and most of all, the trot. 

The key principle we learn in developing shoulder-in is to have our horses bend around the inside leg, stepping forward to the outside rein and willingness to accept the half-halts. Characteristically, the forehand in shoulder-in is deployed by the shoulders leaving the track to the inside approximately by thirty degrees, whereby the hindquarters stay on the track. 


By special envoy, every time I ride a horse mine or otherwise in shoulder-in: I ask the horse to go from inside leg to outside rein, it always the same story. 

No matter what you or are doing in shoulder-in we must have the feeling that the movement goes through the horse from behind in a fluent way, not in a stiff, running-against-the-bit way. It is key / critical no matter what you’re doing: whether in collection or stretching or something in between, you must find a way to put the horse in flexion, which determines the inside and the outside of the horse. 

When you have this positive connection from inside to outside and from behind to the front to the rein with flexion and bend, you’re not blocking your horse with your hands. With connection established between the inside leg and the outside rein, you can keep your horse on your seat and whatever they do in front, they have also already done behind. This gives you true back to front connection elasticity and throughness coming from one exercise! 


Principally, the Shoulder-in technically is a Three Track movement whereas Shoulder-fore is a lesser degree four-track movement, insomuch as Renver and Traver are more exaggerated angles in four tracks. 

But this was not always the case: 

A) Two Tracks: (1592-1767) The Duke of Newcastle 1658 published book “A Central System of Horsemanship” which ended being a two-track called a “Plie” a term hardly ever used or trained. Fundamentally a two tracked with inside flexion only, also referred to as the “Head in Volte?” 

B) Three Tracks: (1683-1751) it was Frenchman Francois Robichon de la Guérinière Seventy-five years after Newcastle published Ecole de Cavalerie where he became the father for three tracks, calling shoulder-in the “cure-all” of equitation: de La Guérinière was looking for an exercise that created more shoulder freedom in the horse, enabling him to move laterally in an easier and more beautiful way. 

As a result, he invented the shoulder-in, which has become one of the most fundamental exercises in the training of a dressage horse. 

C) Four Tracks: (1808–1885) Gustav Steinbrecht 1886 published posthumously “Das Gymnasium des Pferdes” – “The Gymnasium of the Horse.” The 1st where he recommended shoulder-in is to be executed on “four tracks?” 

D) Three Tracks: (1935) Steinbrecht’s “The Gymnasium of the Horse” and in 1935 influenced by German Military Manual HDV12 was amended to “three tracks as reflected in the FEI’s Dressage Rulebook ARTICLE W12 and USEF’s Rule Book DR11 confirming shoulder-in is three tracks! 


Shoulder-in, in trot, should be seen to smoothly flowing, rhythmically secure, and full of impulsion with the horse fully on the aids. The horse forelegs should be reaching and crossing over as much as possible without losing balance. Seen front on with three visible tracks with the inside foreleg in front of the outside leg whereby you can only see three legs. 


Initially, shoulder-in should be ridden in walk when learning and only for brief periods during the learning phase. When the coordination of the aids is confirmed then it can be applied in collected trot suitable and equal to the horse’s level of schooling on the long side. 

“…increase the flexion and bend, then shoulder-fore becomes shoulder-in…”

Always we riders should remember that a few good steps are the goal and are more valuable than riding to the point of tension fatigue and mistakes in rhythm connection contact problems. In particular, this exercise is to be deployed sparingly as it is very taxing. There is no movement in shoulder-in where the full longside is utilized. 

1) Preparation begins by applying an effective half-halt 

2) Shift your weight onto your inside seat bone preferably with a stirrup step 

3) The inside rein flexes the horse 1-2 degrees whereby the nose and eye can be seen 

4) The outside rein is a giving forward motion to accommodate and control the degree of flexion and the freedom of the shoulder. 

4) With your inside leg at the girth ride the horse into the outside rein (diagonals aids) and guarding leg position… 

this ensures the bend in the rib cage and encourages the inside hindleg to step forward to the centre of the forelegs and is responsible for the engaging lifting power. 

5) The outside leg in the guarding position thus prevents the haunches swing out and unilaterally used as a driving aid and is responsible for the driving pushing power. 

Unilateral aids are singular aids applied inside and outside independently, whereas bilateral aids are both leg aids together. If unilateral aids are not attainable for you the bi-lateral is perfectly acceptable. 

6) Value-added rein aids are to move both reins to the inside 1-2 cm’s thus controlling the shoulders inwardly. 

Please Note: The outside rein also controls the shoulder from falling out, running through with applicable half halts, and or if needed and open outside rein half halt. 

“…the rider should develop a mental image of riding straight line with a full-length lateral bend…” 


We always start with the lesser shoulder-in principally the shoulder-fore. Shoulder-fore is essentially the same as shoulder-in but with a lesser degree of angle of shoulders off the track, greater ease into exercise. 

Start slowly using your 20-metre circle to introduce a small degree of shoulder-fore and gradually increase the angle as close to shoulder-in as possible, especially slower and sparingly for the freshman or youngster if you are working with a youngster… 

Useful Tools Such As Voltes: these small circles are the foundation for developing the shoulder-in. The horse must have learned to move on bent lines in the correct lateral bend and take up more weight with the inner hind leg. 

Quick Starter Tip: To achieve shoulder-fore or shoulder-in ride from “C” the corner as if you are going to ride a diagonal, instead immediately after the corner ride straight then 6-metres after “M” start your 20-metre circle. 


a) For the hot or distracted horse riding shoulder-in will bring them back to you and invariably they start to become willing and cooperative (nee submission) and they start to relax and chew. 

b) Again I repeat that we must never ever overwork this exercise like the pirouette in Shoulder-in it is very hard on the horse as it briefly takes the entire weight of the horse and rider is briefly on one leg. Be aware of that and don’t ask too much. 

c) Keep the big, swinging, forward, uphill attitude in all lateral work. Remember that the outside rein collects. You are not able to give your horse the proper advice if he’s not in the outside hand. 


In our training, we always train one or two levels above the competition levels as a given. In our dressage tests, the shoulder-in is introduced at Second Level. However, it is prudent to start earlier in your First Level schooling as an early starter exercise. And, when the time comes for the use of shoulder-in you have done the hard yards incrementally and this will be easier and more confident for your horse. 


If we think more of shoulder-in aids in their individual forms this helps us come to grips with what is happening under us! Whereby we can increase focus more like you are in a slow-motion movie improving your focus ability and therefore you have great improvement for refinements. 

Try and mentally divide the deployment of the shoulder-in into these four sections then the individual aids. It’s crucial that we first: 

a) Guide the horse’s head 

b) Then the shoulders 

c) And the midsection / rib cage and 

d) Only then, the hindquarters. 

e) Mentally separate each individual aid and their components 

This then gives you the chance to develop feel and understand the individual aids (separations) and your horse responses: does he or she move more effectively from the inside leg left than the right? 

As riders, if we better understand how the horse’s four-legs interplay between what we ask for and the ensuing response. By careful observation, we have a greater feel for the horse and its individual responses. In the beginning, choose a slow tempo and apply your aids step-by-step self analyzing as you go, create an internal dialogue such as: inside leg to outside rein, outside leg behind the girth in the guarding position and so on

“…separation of the aids increases rider focus and the refinement of individual aids…” 

The beauty of separating the aids incrementally you really focus inwardly and tune more so into your horse, which they pick up and harmony levels are increases, very much a win, win matter. With this level of mental focus and commitment that the all-around you starts to merge into the background and all of your movements seemingly are in slow motion to the point where you can see mid exercise see someone in the spectators that you otherwise would never see. 


While the lateral bend is the catalyst for the framing of the diagonals how much lateral bend is enough is the question? 

It is highly important to distinguish between a horse with “long back” conformation and a horse with “shorter or normal” conformation. The square longer back horse requires more lateral bend in the shoulder-in as the distance from the hind leg reach is longer whereas for short backs the reach is shorter. 

It is this aspect that more bend the shorter the distance conversely less bend less distance for the hind to continue. Should you use too much bend you have a “haunches-in” aspect clearly this then is viewed as fault and marks will be lost as is the throughness. 

“…longer back horses require more bend with shorter backs require less bend…” 

In a worst-case scenario working with a longer back conformation horse, one can easily end up on four tracks instead of three if one allows too much lateral bend. At most we riders should only be able to see the inner half of the horse’s face. 

However, we can unwittingly use too much flexion and bend which tends to make them too short in their necks. As the horse is sitting more on its haunches making it is easier to flex and bend too much. 

The key to good riding, however, is to be able to control and correct oneself constantly. If the rider encounters a problem, he must first look for the cause in himself. Most of the time, the rider is the cause of the problem. Only someone who looks at his own riding critically and is willing to improve constantly and learn more will be a good rider. 

Trevor Ibborson Woodward is an international dressage trainer with over four decades of experience in showjumping and dressage. His career has extended from work with the Swiss Calvary to the Danish Bereider 5 star International Henning Frankaert working with young horses from Training Level to FEI events. He now works and trains out of Australia and provides training material on Dressage to Flying Changes on a bi-monthly basis.


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