Shoulder in… how and why it’s so good.

Learn the art of a good shoulder in and how it can help you develop your dressage further.

We’ve all probably heard the saying that the “shoulder-in “is the ‘mother’ of all exercises”. But do we really know why it holds such value and how to ride it well enough to reach the grand excellence and magic of this exercise?

Let’s dive deeper into how to ride this exercise and why it is considered of such great importance as a lateral exercise. It is the first and foremost leader of lateral learning and the first one we teach our horse.

The ‘shoulder in’ is performed in collected trot on three tracks: the outside hind is the closest to the wall, the inside hind and outside foreleg share one track (because the shoulder has come away from the wall), and the inside foreleg is the furthest away from the wall.

A good shoulder in should show the horse’s haunches staying on the track and travelling straight down the long side. The shoulders come off the track to the inside, and his body is bent at a 30-degree angle to the wall, with a uniform bend around the leg of the rider putting the horse onto three tracks.

The correct application of the aids holds the key to unleashing the brilliance of the shoulder in, but more so the art of how to really get that feeling of riding your horse from the inside leg to the outside leg.

As Isabel Werth quotes: “The shoulder-in enables the perfect connection between the inside leg and outside rein and it develops freedom of the shoulder. For that reason, it’s considered the mother of all lateral movements.”

The correct aids for a shoulder in are:

  • Rider’s inside leg at the girth asking for bend and impulsion.
  • Outside leg slightly behind the girth to guard the hindquarters and to maintain correct bend.
  • Both hands slightly to the inside to guide the shoulder off the wall, with the inside hand creating a slight flexion of the poll.
  • Hips straight and parallel to the wall (i.e. square to the end of the arena) showing the horse that you want to continue down the long side.
  • Shoulders slightly turned to mirror the horse’s shoulders.

Top tip – our hips with their hips, our shoulders with their shoulders

Performed correctly, the shoulder-in helps to straighten and supple your horse, as well as develop the ability to collect and carry more weight on the hocks and hind end. This helps to develop expression in the paces and lightens the forehand, which is valuable in all disciplines. With the shoulder-in, you develop this free shoulder, which is necessary for a good half pass. If you start with a good shoulder-in, you can then lead into all the other lateral exercises.

Personally, I find the benefits of using the ‘shoulder in’ for straightening a must. Horses are built very much like me – hip wide, front narrow. If you are riding down a long side without positioning your horse’s forehand to the inside, chances are your horse is crooked and not able to work evenly engaged from behind. Next time you’re out and about, study others’ horses from behind, and check out the relationship between straightening and collection. This might really help to reinforce the importance of straightness.

Another huge note is that, if your horse is carrying himself in good balance and pushing evenly from behind, his chances of soundness and risk of injury are a lot lower than that of a crooked, one-sided horse propelling his 500kg mass onto his limbs.

And if I haven’t convinced you enough of the importance and brilliance of the shoulder in, let’s say something that has been in use as far back as 16th century, and is still considered of utmost importance today. It has certainly stood up to the judgement of time.

It was introduced by The French dressage master Francois Robichon de la Guérinière (1688- 1751). This man realized the necessity of the interaction of inside leg and outside and therefore discovered a movement which revolutionized the possibilities to make a horse supple, straighten it and increase his collection: the shoulder-in.

This is his description from hundreds of years ago!

“The shoulder-in has multiple effects. (…) First and foremost, it has a suppling effect on the shoulder (…), it prepares the horse to sit on the haunches because with every step it brings the inside hind-leg under the body and puts it over the outside (…) and it teaches the horse obedience to the leg aids.”

For him the shoulder-in was the ideal means to achieve the suppleness of the whole body of a horse, with the goal to perfect the natural movements. So next time your schooling your horse and perform your shoulder in I challenge you to ride this exercise to the highest of standards, straightening, lightening and engaging your horse to the age old high school standards.


Here is a snippet from Season one of Master your Dressage Movements, where Vanessa coaches Renee through accuracy in her shoulder in and lateral movements.


Get access to the full program here  Master your Dressage Movements

Want to learn more? Check out these articles.

Accuracy in lateral movements

How to do flying changes

Centre lines and halts season one

Learn how to improve your canter walk transitions

Check out all of Vanessa’s online programs here

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Improve your riding posture off the horse


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