Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The shoulder-in

I love the shoulder-in and believe it has great importance in the training of a horse. The benefits of the SI is that it asks for increased engagement and straightness from the horse, it builds strength in the horse, and it also supples the horse. For the horse with excessive tension in its back, this exercise is especially useful. In such cases, I try to get the horse to the point where I can use the SI to supple and relax them, as soon as possible. Recently, I have been using SI a lot on spooky horses - it 'forces' the horse to relax, to supple, and to focus as they come 'through'. It's a great tool for the spooky horse on the trail or in the arena.

What happens BEFORE the shoulder-in...

The initial primary goal with a young horse started under-saddle should be developing forward - the horse must learn to push forward and to think forward. While developing forward, I am also developing downward transitions at every opportunity, without actual emphasis or focus on transitions. This means that every time I transition the horse from say trot to walk, I take this as an opportunity to school the downward transition and to create a soft, light horse who is responsive to my seat. This does not mean drilling transitions. The reason for developing forward first is that you want a horse who flows forward freely and with confidence - who develops rhythm along with relaxation and suppleness. This may often include trotting over poles, over hills, and simply moving out forward. When I do ask for downward transitions, I ask with my seat first - I take a deep audible breath out and relax my seat. If the horse fails to respond, then I may close my hands (but never pulling back). I like to start my young and re-started horses on a loose rein where they learn responsibility for themselves, so in that case I cannot simply close my hands but I can lift the reins up (signalling the horse) before taking up the rest of the slack and closing my hands. A little outside rein might also suffice in slowing or transitioning the horse downward. Another option could be the one-rein stop or emergency stop whereby if the horse ignores my seat cue, I slide my hand halfway down the rein, pinch the rein between my pointer and thumb, and slowly add the rest of my fingers to the rein as I bring the rein to my thigh and relax into my seat; I ask the horse to relax and stop moving its feet, then to disengage its hindquarters. By using phases of ask, you allow and teach the horse to be light - you are as light as possible but as effective as necessary. Most horses pick this up within a session or two and are halting strictly by seat cues thereafter.

In addition to forward, I also introduce the turn on the forehand (TOF), turn on the haunches (TOH), and sidepass almost immediately to a horse started under-saddle.

Once I have developed all the aforementioned, it is time to introduce yielding off the leg while moving out; at this point you have the forward to channel into exercises whereby the horse yields off the leg and you have established the building blocks (TOF, TOH, sidepass) to ask for such exercises. This type of work whereby we are asking the horse to yield off our leg, will include:
1. Asking the horse to respond to my leg cues directionally - ie, turning right when I apply my left leg at the girth. If the horse fails to respond to my seat and leg cues, then I may pick up my rein and then 'tell' the horse to move in the direction I originally asked for, via rein cue.
2. Simultaneously I also start asking for more bend and develop balance on the corners. I use my legs on a horse a lot, even if I have no expectations of actually achieving bend initially. I always ask then as I progress the horse, it naturally starts coming. I ask the horse to do various circular patterns and exercises under-saddle to provide me opportunity to ask for bend, balance, and also engagement (by virtue of the pattern + by asking for bend and balance): 20m circles, circles that spiral in and out, 10m circles, serpentines, serpentines with 10m circles at each change of direction, figure-eights, etc. 101 Dressage Exercises for Horse and Rider is one great book chock full of great exercises, as is Progressive Schooling Exercises for Dressage & Jumping by Islay Auty. The smaller the circles and exercises the greater the degree of difficulty for the horse so at first I start with very large exercises and patterns, usually 20m+. I work on patterns and exercises that are sized appropriate to that horse and increase the degree of difficulty only as the horse progresses. At this point, my hands are wide apart and low (but never below my hip) and I am 'tunneling' the horse between my aids: my outside rein and leg are supportive (ie, prevent the horse from falling in) and my inside rein along with inside leg at the girth helps initiate bend. This will naturally require some degree of engagement and balance of the horse. I am asking for the horse to accept my outside supportive rein and to relax into it even if not yet actually picking up contact. Most horses will initially resist a little to being pushed into that outside rein via your inside leg as you introduce the outside supportive rein, however if you maintain the proper position and remain soft and quiet on the circle, they soften quickly. When doing your circles, be sure to maintain gait and also degree of bend along the entire length of the circle (ultimately). Ensure your horse's spine is bent evenly around your leg.
3. I can also ask for transitions at this point, as the horse feels ready - transitions between gaits (ie, walk to trot) and transitions within gaits (ie, using half-halts at the trot). These transitions will further develop pushing power, strength in the hind end. They also introduce to the horse and develop in the horse longitudinal collection. Of course, with the young green horse we are not actually expecting collection - our focus is on developing pushing power, strength in the haunches. This is right in line with our focus on forward.
4. Lastly, I can also work on developing actual leg yields at this point - this further teaches the horse about the outside rein and requires a greater degree of yield off the leg. Refer to the previous blog concerning leg yields.

Keep in mind that while most of these exercises are introduced at the walk, they should quickly progress to the trot - you will have much more forward to channel at the trot. Furthermore, if at any point I feel the young or re-started horse 'sucking back' and losing forward at any point, I re-open my hands and just allow for forward, even if I have to move off the circle we were working on and just ask the horse to move out in a straight line. If the problem persists, we go back to focusing on developing lots of forward (even if just within that session). The point-to-point exercise can be a great exercise to develop forward and it has the bonus of also developing brakes and transitions in general in a horse. Forward is one of your major major major building blocks so throughout the aforementioned exercises and tasks and goals, forward should always be at the back of your mind - how to further develop it and how to maintain it.

Also remember to keep in mind that much in training a horse is about feel. Much of the aforementioned exercises (#1-4) can be taught to and developed simultaneously in a horse, at least to an extent. What is necessary for that horse in that moment will depend on the feedback your horse is giving you but ultimately all the above is crucial to developing the basics and a solid foundation in your horse. Generally I am often picking at each of the above exercises, ie, picking at 'A', 'B', 'C', and 'D' (ie, where 'A' might be yielding off the leg directionally, 'B' might be bend, 'C' might be transitions, and 'D' might be actual leg yields), progressing the horse in baby steps in each direction with more emphasis on the 'A' exercises to build the 'BCD' part of the alphabet for my horse. Then with 'A' essentially established, I can focus on 'B' while occasionally returning to 'A' and continuing to pick at 'C' and 'D', and so on and so forth. Make sense? Although everything should be presented in a progressive step-by-step fashion to your horse, you may school baby steps in a variety of directions at once.

Once all the preceding is developed, it might be time to introduce the SI. Generally, the SI is not overly difficult to teach a horse when bend and yielding off the leg is firmly established. Depending on the horse, the SI might be an appropriate exercise to introduce even within 60 days of starting a talented horse. Or it might not be appropriate for several months. It all depends on the horse (and the rider of course!). Generally though, I like to introduce it sooner rather than later, even if I am not expecting the horse to really come 'through' for me - to fully engage and come onto the bit. At first I might primarily be looking for the horse to understand the basic concept. From there I can slowly refine to asking more and more from the horse, and in more and more steps to the point where eventually the horse has sufficient strength to carry itself down the length of the arena in a (more or less) correct shoulder-in - this might take months before the horse has sufficient strength. This schooling is done while simultaneously working - and focusing - on other strengthening and conditioning exercises that require less engagement, strength, and straightness of the horse. Remember this is an exercise that requires increased engagement from the horse - it requires more strength of the horse's hind. For this to be possible, sufficient 'pushing power' - hind leg strength and power from behind - must first be developed. So while the SI might be introduced, it should not only be fully schooled as the horse is physically capable. Little steps here and there - fantastic. However focus primarily on developing pushing power via other approaches before asking the horse to use and further develop that strength in the hind end.

Lastly, one way of ensuring success in the shoulder-in is to ensure you can initiate bend in the horse using primarily your inside leg - and not your inside rein alone. This is also a good stretching and suppling exercise for your horse. Ask the horse to walk down the centerline and while maintaining a straight line from A to C through X, ask the horse to bend to alternate sides (again, without moving off the track). You should be able to apply your inside leg at the girth or a tad behind the girth and be able to push the horse's barrel into an arc so his spine is arced evenly around your leg. Be sure to also bend your own ribcage as you ask the horse to reflect your position. At first you might need to help initiate the bend with a little inside rein, but your ultimate goal should be to be able to do this with very little to no rein. Change the bend multiple times down the centerline - each time you achieve the bend and some 'release' or 'give' ie, softness in the horse, release and ask for bend in the other direction. If your horse tries to fall out on the track, correct with leg or rein as necessary, then immediately release - this should be done while simultaneously continuing to ask for the bend without release until the horse responds and soften. Be sure your leg and seat cue is not asking for the horse to actually change direction and walk off, but to simply arc around your leg briefly. The bend does not have to be extensive, just enough that you feel your horse soften and supple and respond with lightness to your leg. While performing this exercise, keep your eyes UP and focused on the letter at the end of the arena. If you do not focus on a specific object or letter at the far end of the arena, you will likely forget to look up and will end up looking down and your horse is likely to waver off his straight line.

So, on to the actual shoulder-in:

I love Anna Ross Davies' 'How-To' videos (below). Here is a little about her.

Anna is very apt at explaining the rider's cues and setting the exercise up in such a manner that makes this exercise an easy progression for the horse. The circle at the end is a great way to set the horse up for the correct bend down the long side - wait for softness and correct bend on your circle to ensure a more correct SI. Remember to ask for this in small steps - just one step of SI might be a success for your horse at first! Maintain the bend and ask for the horse to yield over - when you initially feel that release (ie, the horse yields off your leg in that bend), release right there and continue forward. Then build off that and increasingly ask for more correct SI and for more steps.

Inside leg - at the girth, initiates bend in the horse and helps prevent the horse from leaving the track by pushing him at an angle down the track
Inside rein - helps initiate bend and actually guides the horse's front end off the track and into the SI track later
Outside leg - behind the girth, supports the placement of the haunches if necessary (but mostly passive)
Outside rein - supports the bend, helps prevent the horse from leaving the track

Here Jane Savoie explains the SI - what to watch for on the ground:

Here is another good look at the SI from the ground - the trick is then to learn to feel for this on the horse's back....

Excellent trouble-shooting on the SI:

If possible, riding a schoolmaster versed in maneuvers such as the SI will greatly aid a rider in learning what to feel for in their own horse as they develop the SI. It will feel right when you obtain it and the more you practise achieving it the better you will get at feeling where your horse's feet are and how to obtain the shoulder-in.

Here is a great written explanation of the shoulder-in should you require further in-depth explanation.

Remember that though I have used solely dressage videos to describe this exercise, this exercise is beneficial to every horse and rider, both english and western. It is the product of much control over the shoulders and haunches, which can only be beneficial. It also helps develop strength in your horse for whatever you choose to do with him and it also can be a great tool for suppling and relaxing a tense and spooky horse. It is an exercise I use and recommend on horses regardless of their intended discipline and is one I use a lot on a great variety of horses, especially those with the tendency to hold a lot of tension in their backs and to be spooky or fearful.

Happy riding!

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