Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Back the Arena; Lateral Work; Shoulder-In

Now that the weather is not always going to be conducive to traveling down the road for a conditioning ride, a lot of my time with JB will transition focus to lateral work. As a kid, I was more interested in taking my horse over the fences or galloping at mach chicken speeds between the corn fields any day over practicing what I perceived as “boring” lateral work. Now that I am an adult, I know the value of good lateral work and the benefits my horse and I can both reap from it.

You would think that for someone who has been riding most of her life, I would have lateral exercises mastered by now. Well, unfortunately, the more I worked on it, the more it seemed to make me question things like my seat aids, leg aid, etc. Thankfully, after working with a dressage instructor who also understands human body mechanics and studying Sylvia Loch’s references, I do have this exercise down. Knowing that my own struggles to understand it and then execute it properly are not unique among riders, I thought it was worthy of a blog. In conversations and various observations of other riders, it seems to be a bump in the road for a lot of folks out there. Usually, the Shoulder-In is one of the first lateral exercises a rider/horse begin working on when starting lateral work. In theory, it’s a relatively simple maneuver.

Before attempting a Shoulder-In, there are a few pre-requisites in order to accomplish this successfully. Those include being able to perform a turn on the forehand, leg yield, spiraling in and out of a circle and the ability to ride your horse in a 10 meter circle without losing balance and tempo. Most of these are pretty basic exercises but crucial to having a solid foundation from which to work from when beginning lateral work. While you don’t have to be perfect in these pre requisites, you and your horse should have these things down reasonably well and as the rider, you should be able to clearly communicate the aids to ask for such things. I would suggest starting on the ground with some of these above mentioned exercises. Lateral work from the ground you ask?? Absolutely! Clinician, Alice Trindle does a great job of explaining some of these. There are various resources out there that you can plug into.

So, what is a shoulder- in and why should it be practiced? And .. why is it important for my endurance horse you might be wondering? Other than the fact that the Shoulder-In is really one of the first exercises needed to open the door to collection, it develops the flexibility within the horse so that they can lift the forehand. If you are ever going to have correct transitions, the shoulder in can be crucial. It also helps strengthen the hind quarters. In endurance horses, I am thinking that last part alone is a fairly important piece, don’t you? When performing the Shoulder –In correctly, the horse has to shift the weight to the hindquarters , which helps to strengthen the back and loins, both of which are required to give the horse the physical capacity to begin lifting his back and travel rounded , stepping deep underneath himself with the hind end.

“My endurance horse doesn’t have to travel rounded because we are covering miles and miles over varied terrain, right?” one might say. Maybe not, but strong back, strong loins?? It seems to be that this could benefit even an endurance horse who has to cover miles and miles carrying a rider over varied terrain. Well developed loins and back certainly would apply.

One of the most important elements of the Shoulder-In that you don’t always hear about is that it while is strengthens the hip, loins, back and lightens the front end, this naturally leads to helping crookedness within a horse. Crookedness within a horse is typically related to the strength the horse has to carry not only himself, but his rider correctly.. It only stands to reason that a horse that is strong and has the correct development might not break down physically as much either.

Since JB is one of the most crooked horses I have ever ridden, I have heavily focused on this. Eventually in time it will help him to develop the strength and muscle in order to become straighter in his travels. Without trying to reinvent the wheel , I will run through the correct aids to ask for a shoulder-In. Keep in mind there are many considerations with asking for the movement, ie: injury to horse, injury to rider, etc. There may be some physical limitations you have to keep in mind. Your horse is not going to get this the first time out.

When you first begin the Shoulder –In, remember not to ask too much from your horse. It is much like a person starting a new exercise. It takes time to build up the strength and flexibility within the muscles and joints to master it. If you have ever taken a Yoga class as a beginner, you can appreciate what I am saying! So, do both yourself and your horse a favor and introduce it slowly. He’ll love you for it later!

The Aids for the Shoulder-In

Seat: While sitting lightly in your saddle, your weight should be slightly shifted to your inside seat bone. Your waist and upper body should be slightly be turned to the inside, following the direction of where your horses shoulders should be. Be careful not to collapse at the waist.
Inside hand: Ask gently for a soft feel or flexion to the inside by massaging or squeezing of your fingers around the inside rein. Your hand should beat at the wither, not away from it or crossing over it.
Outside hand: Use your outside rein to support the horse's shoulder and to maintain the direction of travel , all while keeping a soft feel on your horses mouth and keeping this hand very quiet. Your hand should be placed just to the outside of the wither.
Inside leg: To begin to ask, your inside leg should encourage your horse to move away from your leg pressure; do this by a gently squeeze or nudge at his side just behind the girth. As you and your horse become better at this, you can apply your leg at the girth with gently pressure.
Outside leg: Your outside thigh and knee should remain quietly against the saddle and not any more active than to support the horse's forehand. Keep your toes parallel to the travel of the horse.

When you look at the tracks your horses hooves are making, you should see 3 distinct hoof patterns. Inside hind to outside fore (1), outside hind (2)and inside fore (3).

When beginning this, as soon as your horse responds and takes one or two lateral steps, reward him by walking back in a straight line or you can continue around in a 10 meter circle. Remember, it may not be perfect and his tempo may slow to almost a stop, but reward any try he offers in the beginning stages. You will find that in no time at all he can maintain it longer , with greater ease and if you look carefully, he might be smiling!

Other considerations : In beginning lateral work, you may discover other training holes in the process that you have to get squared away before moving on. Yes. With training horses, that is the nature of the beast, revisiting things you thought were fixed up already. It takes time for the horse to develop the muscling and strength and for the rider to get in sync with their horse. It’s like good Jazz music when it all comes together.

Executing this exercise incorrectly can actually be easy to slip into. Asking incorrectly with your aids can result in blocking the exact thing you are trying to accomplish. Always prepare your horse for this exercise so that when you do ask, he does not worry, becoming tense and rushing down the rail with all of his weight on the forehand. Often times, when this occurs, there is an exaggerated use of the inside hand, pulling the horse's head and neck inwards, and throwing the shoulders to the outside, opposite of what you are trying to accomplish. The result? Usually an unhappy horse, heavy on the forehand with locked hindquarters. Yuck!

One aspect of mastering the Shoulder-In that I feel is important to pass along is that this seemingly simple suppling exercise can really go haywire and cause a lot of unnecessary problems if it is not done correctly and carefully. If done correctly, it may take you longer to get there but the other suppling exercises you move onto next will come that much easier and you and your horse will both be that much happier.

So now that summer is officially over and snow is in the forecase, its high time I get back into the arena to start practicing on this lateral work again! Look for the next in the series.. LEG-YIELD

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