Although it doesn’t appear in dressage tests, the counter shoulder-in is a very useful training exercise that helps develop lateral suppleness and the horse’s carrying power and engagement.
It’s also a great way to test the rider’s ability to control and position all parts of the horse.
Here’s how to ride it!
What is counter shoulder-in?
Counter shoulder-in is basically shoulder-in that’s ridden along the inside track or quarterline with the horse’s head facing the wall.
The exercise should be rhythmical and fluent, with the horse bent around the rider’s new inside leg and slightly flexed to the inside.
Why ride counter shoulder-in?
Riding the counter shoulder-in is an excellent way of testing that the horse is truly “through” on both sides. The exercise also helps to get the horse to work consistently into the outside rein.
The counter shoulder-in helps to develop greater lateral suppleness and develops the horse’s ability to take more weight onto his hindquarters, lightening the forehand, and improving his balance.
It’s more difficult than standard shoulder-in since the horse and rider don’t have the boundary of the outside track.
In theory, you can ride counter shoulder-in in the walk, trot, and canter.
To benefit the most from this exercise, it’s best to ride it in trot. However, as with any new exercise, it’s advisable to begin teaching your horse the counter shoulder-in in the walk. That gives you more time to get your aids correct and coordinated and allows the horse plenty of time to process the new movement without becoming anxious and tense.
Although it is possible to ride counter shoulder-in in canter, you’ll probably find it easier and more productive to ride counter shoulder-fore when cantering as you don’t need as much lateral bend, making the exercise easier and less prone to resistance, drifting hindquarters, or a change of canter lead.
What can go wrong?
The counter shoulder-in is a difficult exercise, and there are quite a few things that can go wrong, especially in the early days when you and your horse are both learning the new movement.
Common problems with counter shoulder-in include:
- Loss of rhythm
- Loss of impulsion
- Too much neck bend
- Not enough bend through the body
- Tilting the head at the poll
- Evading the bend by trailing the quarters
- Varied positioning
Some horses become very tense when learning new exercises. That can cause the horse to hollow through his topline and come above the bit. If your horse becomes stressed and upset, allow him to walk on a long rein for a few minutes, ride a few large circles in a forward, rising trot, and then begin the counter shoulder-in lesson again once your horse is more relaxed.
If your horse struggles to perform the movement correctly at first, you can make the exercise easier for him by riding counter shoulder-fore instead. Once your horse is more supple and confident, you can progress to riding the counter shoulder-in.
What are the aids for counter shoulder-in?
So, how do you ride counter shoulder-in?
Step 1 – Position your horse
Ride onto an inside line parallel to the track.
Most riders find that the quarterline works very well.
Step 2 – Establish inside flexion
Next, put a little more weight into your new inside seat bone while asking for a small amount of inside flexion.
NOTE: The terms “inside” and “outside” are not used to describe the horse’s position in the arena. Instead, they are used to illustrate the horse’s direction of flexion and bend. So, in counter shoulder-in, the horse still has “inside bend flexion” even though the horse is being asked to bend and flex to the outside of the arena.
Step 3 – Position the shoulders
Turn your upper body and shoulders slightly, which effectively positions your shoulders where you want those of your horse to be.
As you turn your shoulders, this should close your outside rein against the horse’s neck to move this shoulders across.
Step 4 – Ease your inside hand
As soon as you’ve positioned the horse in preparation for the counter shoulder-in exercise, lighten your inside hand slightly so that you don’t block the horse’s inside hind leg.
If your inside hand is fixed and blocking, the horse won’t be able to step underneath his center of gravity and stretch into the outside rein.
Step 5 – Apply leg aids
At the same time, you need to apply your new inside leg at the girth to create bend through the horse’s body and push him along the quarter line encouraging his inside hind leg to step under.
Your new outside leg is positioned behind the girth preventing the horse’s quarters from swinging out and asking his outside hind leg to stride forward.
Step 6 – Keep travelling down the quarter line
If your horse begins to drift off the quarter line, us a half-halt down your outside rein and a stronger inside leg aid to keep him moving forwards.
Step 7 – Finish the movement
As with all the lateral exercises, you must finish off the movement properly by making the horse straight again.
To do that, you must release the bend that you created by repositioning your legs and upper body to their usual position. This should lead the horse’s shoulders back onto a straight line again.
The movement should finish as it started; smoothly and fluently and with no loss of rhythm, connection, frame, or balance.
As mentioned above, loss of rhythm and impulsion are the most common problems that riders experience when teaching their horse the counter shoulder-in.
You can fix both those issues relatively easily by injecting more impulsion into the pace. If that doesn’t work, ride straight for a few strides and then start over.
Useful counter shoulder-in exercises
Once you and your horse have got the hang of counter shoulder-in, you can mix things up and make the exercise more challenging by riding it on a large circle or through the corners of your arena.
Riding the exercise on a curved line is more difficult since you must be able to keep the horse’s quarters precisely on the line of the curve.
You can also ride counter shoulder-fore, which is an easier version of counter shoulder-in that doesn’t require as much lateral bend. That’s a useful exercise for improving counter-canter.
The counter shoulder-in is an extremely useful advanced exercise that can improve the horse’s lateral suppleness and throughness, as well as helping to develop the horse’s engagement and carrying power.
You can ride the counter shoulder-in in all three paces, although it’s most beneficial when ridden in the trot.
A simpler, easier variation of the exercise is the counter shoulder-fore that doesn’t require as much lateral bend. Ride the counter shoulder-fore when initially teaching your horse the exercise and in canter.