If you’re new to the world of dressage, you may have heard the terms shoulder-fore and shoulder-in mentioned both in terms of schooling your horse and as elements of dressage tests.
So, what’s the difference between the two exercises, how do you ride them, and what are the benefits of doing so?
In this article, we answer all your questions about shoulder-fore and its cousin, shoulder-in.
Shoulder-fore versus shoulder-in
Shoulder-fore is basically an easier version of shoulder-in and is used as the introduction for both horses and novice riders to the more challenging exercise.
Tests from British Dressage elementary level onward include shoulder-in as an exercise. However, shoulder-fore is a simple schooling and training exercise and is not “tested” in dressage tests at the time of writing.
Related Read: How to Ride Shoulder-In
What is shoulder-fore?
The idea of riding the shoulder-fore is to bring the horse’s inside hind leg more underneath his body to improve his balance and also to help his straightness, especially in the canter. For a correct shoulder-fore:
- The horse’s forehand is brought slightly in from the track so that the inside foreleg travels slightly to the inside.
- The horse’s inside hind leg tracks between the prints left by his two forelegs.
- The outside hind leg follows the track of the horse’s outside foreleg.
- When in shoulder-fore, the horse should be flexed very slightly to the inside.
Shoulder-fore should be ridden at a very shallow angle, just enough to displace the horse’s shoulders very slightly to the inside of the track and bring the inside hind leg more underneath his body.
What about shoulder-in?
Shoulder-in is basically the same exercise as shoulder-fore but made somewhat more challenging because a greater angle is demanded.
- The horse’s shoulder is displaced more to the inside than in shoulder-fore.
- The inside foreleg moves on one track.
- The inside hind and outside forelegs move along a second track.
- The outside hind leg moves along a third track.
So, effectively, the shoulder-in exercise should be performed “on three tracks.” As with shoulder-fore, the horse should be bent to the inside when in shoulder-in.
Shoulder-in should be ridden at an angle of around 30 degrees to the track. If the angle becomes too great, the exercise becomes leg-yield, and the horse ends up moving on four tracks, rather than three.
Common problems when riding shoulder-fore
Although the shoulder-fore and shoulder-in exercises look easy when ridden well, there are a few common problems that dressage judges frequently see.
- Too much angle, not enough bend, so that the horse’s quarters swing to the outside.
- No angle or not enough angle.
- Varied position, usually because the horse loses his balance and can’t maintain the position throughout the exercise.
- Wrong bend or no bend at all.
- Unsteady to the contact.
- Loss of or varied rhythm.
- Loss of impulsion and throughness.
- Too much neck bend, allowing the horse to fall out through his outside shoulder while he continues to move in just one track.
What’s the purpose of shoulder-fore and shoulder-in?
Both the shoulder-fore and shoulder-in exercises are intended to increase the horse’s engagement, lateral and longitudinal suppleness, and collection.
When you ride your horse correctly in shoulder-in, he will need to take more weight onto his inside hind leg, flexing the joints more as he does so. That makes it much easier to balance the horse when riding transitions and has the effect of lifting his forehand so that his paces become freer and lighter.
Note that many top riders use shoulder-fore routinely when riding dressage tests as an aid to keeping young horses balanced and straight. You won’t be marked down for doing that, and the judge will most likely be impressed at your demonstration of such skill and knowledge!
Straightening the crooked horse in canter
Your horse’s hips are wider than his shoulders. This means that if you riding on soft ground and you look at the imprint of his front and hind hooves, you will see that the front feet land on the ground slightly closer together than the hind feet, so although we talk about alignment as the front and hind hooves traveling in the same lines, this is not quite possible.
Due to the nature of the canter sequence, where the legs on one side (the ‘leading’ side) are always moving in advance of the legs on the outside of the body, the horse’s spine is predisposed to curling up towards the leading leg.
This is why judges often comment that a horse is ‘quarters in’ in canter.
To prevent this natural crookedness, canter should always be ridden with a slight feeling of shoulder-fore, so that the two feet on the leading side are aligned (in one track), and the horse’s nose is positioned above his inside knee.
Remember that difference in the width of your horse’s shoulders and hips? Then you will see why you must move the shoulders slightly in to put the front hoof directly in front of the corresponding hind hoof.
How do you ride shoulder-fore?
Essentially, the aids for shoulder-fore and shoulder-in are the same. The only real difference is that you ask for less bend and angle when riding shoulder-fore.
The aids for shoulder-fore are:
Sit up straight and look along the inside track. That turns your upper body and shoulders slightly, which effectively positions your shoulders where you want those of your horse to be, keeping you both in balance and perfect alignment.
Open your inside rein just a little to ask for a slight inside flexion. Don’t overdo it! You only want to be able to see your horse’s inside eye.
Close your outside rein against the horse’s neck to bring his shoulder in from the track. Again, don’t overdo it. Your aim is to literally displace the forehand slightly to the inside. Your outside rein controls the degree of neck bend, supports the horse, and prevents him from drifting out through his shoulder.
To establish the correct position and bend, ride as if you are beginning a 10-meter circle. The first stride on the circle gives you the correct shoulder-fore position.
As the horse assumes the shoulder-fore position, keep your inside leg on the girth to tell your horse to keep moving along the track, rather than moving onto the circle.
Drop a little more weight into your inside seat bone and push your outside hip back, which in turn brings your outside leg back slightly behind the girth. Keep your outside leg passive to prevent the horse’s quarters from escaping to the outside.
Throughout the exercise, think of keeping your horse swinging freely forward through his back. Provided that the horse is working forwards into your outside rein, your aids can be subtle, and the all-important throughness, freedom, and fluency are maintained.
NOTE: Although shoulder-in in dressage tests is ridden down the long-side of the arena, as a schooling exercise, you can ride shoulder-fore and shoulder-in on a circle too. That makes both of these exercises brilliant for suppling a tense horse through his back and encouraging him to work more into your outside rein while staying soft and round into the inside rein.
Be very careful that you don’t try to pull the horse around into the shoulder-fore by using your inside rein. That will result in too much neck bend, and the horse will fall out through his shoulder. The horse will most likely become tense and unbalanced, and he won’t physically be able to go forward.
Once your horse is confident and fluent in performing shoulder-fore, you can increase the angle slightly to create the shoulder-in position without compromising the horse’s rhythm, flow, and balance.
Shoulder-fore and shoulder-in are both excellent exercises for developing engagement, suppleness, and throughness in horses at all levels.
We’d love to hear how you get on riding the shoulder-fore exercise. Did you see an immediate improvement in your horse’s balance and straightness? Tell us about your experience in the comments section below!