You might have noticed the directive, “Freedom of the shoulders,” referenced in certain exercises on your dressage score sheet.
In this guide, we explain what freedom of the horse’s shoulders is, why it’s so important in dressage, and how you can achieve it.
What is “Freedom of the shoulders”?
A horse who is free in his shoulders is able to show more ground cover, especially in the medium and extended paces, and his steps have more elasticity, expression, and quality.
However, if the horse is tight through his shoulders, his steps will be shorter, and the rhythm will be choppy and stilted, and that’s not what a dressage judge hopes to see.
Why is “Freedom of the shoulders” important in dressage?
When the horse moves, he should be relaxed and loose through his back, pushing himself along from behind, ideally in an uphill balance.
That way of going enables the horse to open his shoulders, making him easier to maneuver and more able to demonstrate a great reach when asked to lengthen his strides.
So, if the horse works in this way, the judge can see that the horse has been trained correctly along the Scales of Training.
Freedom of the shoulder is especially looked for in the extended walk.
How can you free your horse’s shoulders?
1 – Off the forehand
When a horse works ‘on the forehand’ it means that the majority of the weight is being carried on the horse’s shoulders and front half.
Not only does this put a lot of pressure on the horse’s front limbs, it will make him unable to use the full mobility of his shoulders.
Improving the horse’s overall engagement will help to transfer his balance back onto his hindquarters, therefore, helping to free the shoulders.
Related Read: How to Get Your Horse off His Forehand
2 – Remove any blockages
Your horse cannot use his shoulders if your rein contact is in any way restrictive or blocking.
If the horse is working in a tight and cramped outline with a short neck he’ll probably lack engagement and will be tense, too.
So, first of all, you need to check that your horse is working in the correct frame for his level of training and the energy is flowing over a swinging back into an elastic contact.
Related Read: How to Stop Your Horse From Coming Too Short in the Neck
3 – Allow with your hands
The horse’s neck naturally has a forward-nodding motion, and your hands need to follow that. If you don’t, then the horse will most likely become tight through the neck and also in his shoulders.
This is especially important in the walk.
Watch a jockey riding a racehorse, and you’ll notice that the rider’s hands follow the horse’s neck in a motion known as “strapping.” That encourages the horse to really stretch out with his forelegs to cover maximum ground, especially in the closing stages of a race.
Here are two exercises that will help you to understand the importance of following the movement to allow the horse to use his shoulders:
Ride your horse in a working canter, taking up a slightly forward or jumping seat.
Rest your hands on the horse in the middle of his neck, and maintain even weight on them. You’ll notice that your shoulders and elbows need to flex to allow for the movement of each canter stride.
As the horse stretches out with his forelegs, you should be able to feel that you need to allow forward freedom through your arms, beginning in your shoulders and continuing right down through your elbows.
Now return to your dressage seat. Stay in the canter, ensuring that you can still feel the same sensation through your arms.
Sit deep and lengthen your back. Relax your pelvis and follow the horse’s movement underneath you, which will, in turn, free your hips.
Now that you have a more balanced and stable seat, you can give your inside hand more forward during the canter stride. That will allow your horse to lengthen his frame slightly and reach out more through his shoulder.
Note that you are not giving the contact away completely. You are still maintaining an elastic connection with the horse.
This exercise helps you to “feel” what your hand is doing as the horse canters, which can be extremely revealing to you as the rider!
In canter, close your eyes for a few strides.
Focus on the weight of contact that you have in your hands. The feel that you have in your hands should stay the same throughout the whole stride, and that can only happen if you allow your hands to move forward and back ever so slightly to follow the movement.
If your hand stays fixed, the horse will run against the contact every time he lands from the jump phase of the canter stride. That will feel like a stronger contact, and it will block the horse’s shoulder, causing him to shorten his stride.
4 – Use leg-yield
Leg-yielding is a very effective exercise that can be used to free your horse’s shoulders, as well as his hindquarters, back, and hips.
The most beneficial leg-yielding exercise for freeing the shoulders is riding the head-to-the-wall pattern.
Well, when you ride leg-yield in that position, you’re keeping your horse’s neck straight, which effectively means that the horse has to cross his legs more than he does when the exercise is ridden on the diagonal and he can get away with trailing his quarters slightly.
Also, the horse’s hindquarters are kept at an angle of 35-degree angle to the fence, so the horse has to cross his legs over at his knees and hocks, so you get the maximum suppling and freeing effect.
You’re going to ride the exercise down the long side of the arena. Remember that in leg-yield, the horse should be very slightly flexed away from his direction of travel.
Related Read: How to Leg Yield
Ride across the short side of the arena, about 10-meters in from the track.
As you hit the long side, position the horse with his head to the wall at an angle of roughly 35-degrees, and begin leg-yielding.
Ask for just a few steps to start with, concentrating on maintaining the impulsion.
After a few steps of leg-yield, make the horse straight again on the track and ride him forward to refresh the pace.
Repeat the exercise on the next long side, asking for a few more strides each time.
When you begin teaching your horse this exercise, you might find you can’t get enough angle.
If that happens, don’t use more leg to try to push the horse across. If you do that, your body will automatically lean the wrong way, making it more difficult for the horse to leg-yield. Always sit slightly in the direction in which you want the horse to move.
To solve this problem, momentarily open your inside rein away from the horse’s neck, remembering to maintain the contact with the other rein to keep the horse’s neck straight.
5 – Use shoulder-in
Shoulder-in is an exercise that is performed on three tracks and is an excellent tool to mobilize and free the shoulders. It’s also an effective straightening exercise and can be ridden on lines next to the arena boundary or on unsupported lines in the middle of the arena, for example on the center line, and even on circles.
It can be ridden in walk, trot, and canter.
Ideally, start on short straight lines next to the arena fence out of a well-ridden corner or off a small circle.
Turn your upper body and shoulders slightly, which effectively positions your shoulders where you want those of your horse to be.
Close your outside rein against the horse’s neck to bring his shoulder in from the track to create an angle of about 30 degrees.
The horse should have a slight but even bend around your inside leg away from the direction of travel.
The horse’s outside foreleg and inside hindleg should work on the same track. The inside foreleg and the outside hindleg should work on their own track.
As the horse assumes the shoulder-in position, keep your inside leg on the girth to tell your horse to keep moving along the track.
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.
Your outside rein controls the degree of neck bend, supports the horse, and prevents him from drifting out through his shoulder.
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.
After a few steps of shoulder-in, make the horse straight again on the track and ride him forward to refresh the pace.
Repeat the exercise on the next long side, asking for a few more strides each time.
When executed correctly, shoulder-in will encourage the horse’s croup to lower, allowing his forehand to elevate and and his shoulders will become freer.
It is advisable to keep the initial distances short, so as not to let the horse become out of balance and hence more onto the shoulders. Even at the start, the horse must be inclined to step under with the hind legs and take more of his own body weight.
Freedom of the horse’s shoulders helps to maximize his stride length and add more quality to his paces.
When the horse is totally relaxed and is working through his back from behind into a correct, open frame, his shoulders will be freer. Ultimately, the balance will be more uphill, and the strides will cover more ground, especially in the extensions. And that will give you a much more pleasurable ride, as well as higher marks in your dressage tests!