Have you ever wondered what the difference is between a shoulder-in and a leg yield or a side-pass? Do you incorporate these movements in your training? Lateral means sideways, but all lateral movements are not created equal.
Let’s start with the side-pass. This is the sideways movement you use for example to open and close gates. The horse moves off the leg strictly to the side and is usually bend away from the direction of travel. It is a useful exercise that every horse should learn, whether you’re riding on the trail, in the arena or working cows. The rider’s aids for this are pretty straight forward: one leg is applied slightly behind the girth and the rein on the same side applies gentle pressure to the neck causing the horse to step sideways.
The leg-yield is similar to the side-pass in that it is a partnership exercise. The horse moves away from the applied pressure of the rider’s leg. This time though, instead of going just sideways, the horse now travels an equal amount forward and sideways, therefore moving on the diagonal! The horse’s body is straight with just a little flexion in the poll away from the direction of travel. The leg-yield is a valuable exercise to teach your horse to stay straight between your aids while actively moving forward and sideways on 4 tracks. The horse’s legs cross, but there is no increased engagement behind and therefore very little increased suppling/strengthening effect as we will see later in the shoulder-in. The aids for the rider are similar to the side pass, only this time the horse is kept straight through the body and driven forward as well as sideways. Common challenges here are the shoulder bulging out in the direction of travel or the haunches lagging. The first problem is likely due to not enough rein connection to contain the shoulder and the second problem is one that is often seen in all the lateral movements: a loss of energy! Moving lateral takes more work than simply going straight, so if you require your horse to now move sideways as well as forward you have to build his strength and power. Which leads us to the shoulder-in!
The shoulder-in, haunches-in and half-pass are all sideways movements that are ridden with bend into the direction of travel. These are what in dressage is referred to as the true lateral movements. What distinguishes them from the other sideways movements is the bend, which creates increased engagement of the haunches and therefore is a true strengthening, suppling and straightening exercise for the horse. The bend is similar to the bend on a 10m circle. This bend causes the inside hind-leg to work harder. It has to compress, step forward and under the belly, therefore taking up more weight. So, if you can ride a balanced 10m circle you can start working on riding a few steps of shoulder-in down the long side. Notice I say a few steps. My students can probably hear me say in their heads now: “a few good steps are better than a lot of incorrect steps”! Remember you train your horse every time you ride. That is as true for correct work as it is for incorrect work. When you first start riding shoulder-in, chances are your horse does not have the strength to do more than a couple of correct steps. So praise him profusely, straighten him, go forward and then maybe do another circle and another 3 steps of shoulder-in. When you go to the shoulder-in, the horse’s hind legs follow the track while the front legs stay slightly off the track. Your hips and shoulders should mimic your horse’s hips and shoulders, which means there is a slight straightening of the hips when you go from the circle to the shoulder-in. When watching from behind you will see 3 tracks with the inside hind-leg stepping into the prints of the outside front leg.
The way I teach the shoulder-in, is by starting with a 10m circle at one end of the long side of the arena, for example at F and then go to the shoulder-in down the long side. Remember, the bend and therefore your aids are similar to the 10m circle. I tell my students when the circle is completed to take one more step off the rail, like you want to go on another circle but instead you are now putting more pressure with your inside leg to push the horse down the rail while maintaining the bend and about a 30 degree angle from the rail. Timing is crucial here. If you wait too long, the horse will have done more than one step off the rail causing the angle to be too large and straightening through the body, so now you are already set-up incorrectly. When this happens, just circle again and start over. Always start fresh, don’t try to fix a movement that has already gone bad, when you or your horse are first learning something new. Make everything clear and easy to understand! Cowboy Dressage is riding with soft feel and in partnership with your horse, that should always be apparent, even when things go wrong, or especially then!
I use the same method when first introducing the haunches-in. Do your 10m circle at the beginning of the long side, but this time instead of going one more step off the track with the front of the horse, you will put your outside leg further back and apply pressure to keep the haunches from straightening out onto the track. Again, a few good steps and praise. It is very common here to lose the bend, this is usually due to the rider’s weight aids starting to shift to the outside which straightens the horse. Be mindful to continue to sit centered on your horse with the inside leg maintaining bend and the outside leg controlling the haunches. While the horse’s haunches will still be to the inside, if you have lost the bend you are now leg-yielding. When looking from behind, the haunches-in has 4 tracks like a leg-yield, but again the bend is the discriminating factor here!
The half-pass is developed from the shoulder-in and haunches-in, but instead of moving up the rail, you are now traversing the arena at a diagonal, like you did with the leg-yield, but this time the horse is bend into the direction of travel!
Click on the diagram above to enlarge it for reference and as always I encourage everyone’s input and questions,