Your horse will be on three tracks in the shoulder-in
Your horse will be on three tracks in the shoulder-in

[dropcap]A[/dropcap]t the risk of sounding like every instructor who has ever taught you, I am going to start with a critical piece of information: If you are ever struggling to master a new movement or technique, you need to go back to basics. In dressage horses, this boils down to establishing balance and straightness. Regardless of if your horse is three or 13 years old, he can never be the competition horse of your dreams without balance and straightness.

Every successful dressage rider competing at Grand Prix level consciously or unconsciously establishes these all-important principles in every single schooling session, because they know that a horse who is unbalanced and not straight will never be able to perform the kind of movements required of him.

Not as simple as you think

Straightness and balance sound like very simple concepts, but in reality a lot of practice is required to get you and your horse moving correctly in a straight and balanced manner. Firstly, as we are all aware, horses have their own ideas about how they would like to perform an exercise. If there is a way to cut a corner, they will find it! Remaining straight and balanced is a challenge for horses and they have found various ways out of performing a movement the way we expect them to.

The shoulder-in is excellent for developing straightness and balance
The shoulder-in is excellent for developing straightness and balance

Secondly, horses have a dominant rein, just like we have a dominant hand, meaning that they are not born perfectly balanced and straight. Even straightness and balance have to be developed over time. Thirdly, just to make things that little bit harder, we as riders are also not naturally straight and balanced! We need to consider our own balance and straightness and then hit the gym to fix it.

The outside shoulder

The best way to assess and establish straightness and balance is by concentrating on the control of the outside shoulder. Without control of the outside shoulder, you cannot hope to have any control over the horse’s hindquarters. I teach this to my youngsters early on, and constantly return to it with my more advanced horses.

These are three exercises I use to establish straightness and balance before training the shoulder-in.

Exercise one

Off track
Riding your horse off the track will teach him not to rely on the edge of the arena for balance

Each and every time I ride one of my horses, even if I am just walking to get them warmed-up, I practise this exercise to establish straightness and balance from the very beginning of the training session. Horses love to use the side of the arena to lean on, so this exercise encourages them to ride their own track and basically move off the side of the arena. I aim to keep the horse about 1m off the track. If your horse is already balanced and straight, then he will have no difficulty keeping straight on the line you have set him. If he is not straight or balanced, you will notice that he will really struggle to stay on a straight line. This is where the phrase ‘outside rein and inside leg’ comes into play.

Horses work diagonally, meaning that the inside leg needs to be working with the outside rein. If your horse is not straight and balanced you need to make sure you can feel the contact on your outside rein, without bending your horse to the outside. The inside leg is then used in conjunction with this to keep the horse on that contact. From there, your focus can shift to the outside shoulder.

Ask yourself if the shoulder is staying in line with your outside hip, if it’s bulging to the outside, or if it’s swinging to the inside. If the outside shoulder is not in line with your outside hip, you need to keep a firm contact on the outside rein, even if you feel inclined to strengthen your inside contact, and use your inside leg to engage the hind leg. Keeping the shoulder straight in walk and canter is much easier than in the trot, so only once you really have straightness and balance in the walk should you try the trot. Don’t worry if your horse finds this exercise difficult. Changes will not happen overnight, as your horse needs time to develop the necessary muscles that will support his balance and straightness.

The full article appears in the April issue of HQ.

Text: Bronwen Meredith