When I think about a horse who drops his inside shoulder a certain tone of voice sort of screeches through my mind. It’s the voice of a frustrated rider who believes they’ve done everything to correct the problem—without any luck.
What is it?
Dropping the inside shoulder is when the horse counter-bends or just tips his nose to the outside and shifts his weight to the inside foreleg. The sensation is that the horse is tipping toward the center of the arena. Sometimes this is called “falling in” or “laying on my inside leg” or “leaning.” Even though the terms are a little overly descriptive they indicate the level of frustration a rider feels in this situation.
But guess what? Most horses drop their shoulders at some point in their careers. He may “fall in” more on one rein than the other depending upon his favored direction.
The problem with falling in for students is that it’s uncomfortable and it can make the rider feel out of control. Feeling out of control is frightening. The horse will frequently “cut” his corners, especially at faster gaits, making the rider feel unsafe.
Who Causes It
Have you ever noticed what the rider does as the horse drops his shoulder? Nine times out of ten, if the rider is has not been corrected and is not consciously working on the issue, they drop and twist their own inside shoulder forward in harmony with the horse. Other subtle things happen, such as a shift in the inside hip to the front and lack of support in the correct placement of the rider’s inside leg. And the rider may be looking down or looking too far around the bend of the turn.
The rider’s position occurs when the horse shifts the rider to suit his own comfort. The rider’s shoulders and hips follow the horse because this feels more secure than going against the flow. At that point the horse’s position and the rider’s become somewhat symbiotic. They feed off of each other. They’re enablers.
Why Does the Horse Drop His Inside Shoulder?
There is no simple answer for every horse, so you will have to go through a list of possibilities and eliminate as many as you can to find your horse’s individual answer.
The first step with almost any horse situation is to rule out lameness, especially in the back, front legs and shoulders. Problems such as navicular can exacerbate dropping the inside shoulder.
Conformation- a horse that is much heavier in the front end than the back end will tend to drop his shoulder naturally.
Ruling out physical discomfort or limitations, the inside shoulder dump is usually a training problem.
If the horse is not trained to carry himself well with a rider, he’ll tend to drop his inside shoulders on turns. Muscles and flexibility (suppleness) must be developed with attention given to lateral flexibility. And the horse needs to be taught to respond to the rider’s inside leg. Correct balancing and lateral work will go a long way toward eliminating the stiffness that causes a horse to prefer one direction. Riders often talk about their horse being right handed or left handed. Muscles have to be developed equally on both sides of the horse.
It’s Natural for the Horse
Dropping the inside shoulder while he’s ridden isn’t actually the horse’s “fault”. Without a rider the horse isn’t concerned about whether or not he “bends around the turn”. A loose horse will lean to one side as he gallops a corner or through a gate. It’s natural for them. So not dropping the inside shoulder is only important when the horse is ridden. If his rider is unable to correct the problem, the horse does what comes naturally.
When the Rider Causes a Horse to Drop His Inside Shoulder
Riders who ride crookedly or ones who ride with one hand habitually higher than the other will inadvertently “dump” the horse on his shoulder. Since lesson horses are the ones who teach these riders, your lesson horses are conditioned through their job to drop the inside shoulder.
If you’ve ruled out lameness the only way to fix the problem is through gymnastic training and conditioning. This lack of flexibility and balance is common to all horses and justifies the dressage training scale. So if the horse has not been correctly schooled and conditioned, you will have to start with some basics.
The School Horse
The most common issue with school horses that drop their inside shoulder is that the rider needs to develop more seat and more ability to use leg. They need to experience the horse moving away from the inside leg. If you have a rider with whom the horse is continually dropping his inside shoulder, it’s time to move them to another horse, one that can teach them how to effectively use their legs. Lunge lessons may also help.
School horses are the saints of the horse kingdom and they’ll always be the victims of bad riding because their intended purpose is for “learners.” Good care and help for your lesson horses should be at the top of every instructor’s priority list. Our lesson horses do the dirty work for their fancy counter parts. People learn the basics on school horses and therefore the school horse should have a regular schedule of retraining with an educated rider.
Re-schooling for dropping the inside shoulder
- help the horse remember how to respond laterally to the inside leg.
- The trainer will walk the horse on medium contact,
- his weight slightly on the outside seat bone,
- looking into or through the corner.
- He will pulse with the inside calf at the girth (using the heel if necessary) and will ask for a shift of weight into the corner, some where between point a and b. (See diagram)
- The hands maintain a medium contact with enough feel for correction if it’s needed but not directing the horse.s head and neck. We want the horse to listen to the leg her, not worry about its mouth.
- As you work around the arena corner to corner and are satisfied that you’re getting a shift of weight to the outside then ask for 1 lateral step toward the wall in each turn.
- Hands are steady, not using an indirect rein.
- Hands are not moving the past the withers to the outside (wall).
- Inside and outside hand are level or the inside hand is slightly higher. Note: An inside hand that is lower than the outside hand directs the horse to dump on his inside shoulder.
- Once you get one step you can begin to ask for two.
- When you’ve gotten two steps you can begin to ask for a small circle in each corner about 8-10 meters.
- If the horse starts to fall in again, cease circle work and go back to body yield.
- Hands are steady, not using an indirect rein.
- Remember to repeat this exercise in both directions. Two sides to the same horse. Two sets of muscles. To memories to develop
- Next repeat this exercise at the sitting trot or jog.
You’ll have to decide how much retraining your horse can handle at one time. Some horses will need several sessions to refresh their training. Other horse will need reconditioning to make them strong enough to carry through a turn.
Remember- you’re trying to help and condition your horse. There are never any satisfactory short cuts. You are not looking to get rough with your horse.
Horses have the uncanny ability to anticipate what comes next, so you’ll have to vary your exercises. Maybe do a circle every other corner. Change the rein down the center line, down the short center line, on the quarter line. Incorporate your school figures to keep it interesting. Always look through your turn, not around it and always plan well ahead where you are going to use your leg and where you want to make your turn.
Back in the Lessons
Once you horse goes back into the lesson you’ll have to be aware of how he is ridden. Hopefully your student has strengthened and learned to turn correctly on another horse. She should understand the problem and be planning her turns. You can put your student through the same variety of exercises and changes of rein to keep things fresh for the horse.
And since arena work can bore everyone to tears, including the horse, try getting them out in the open for a change of—pace?
Should a Rider Always Look Through Their Turn Rather Than Around the Turn?
Hardly. I want jumping students to look around the turn before they arrive, so they can set up for the jump BUT I want them to be balanced and their horse responsive to the inside leg. If the horse is not responsive we’ll go back to basic exercises.
Every horse and every situation is different. Not all training ideas work with all horses—or all students. But if you want your lesson horses to stay fresh, help them with periodic re-schooling. They deserve it.
In training horses, often there are many ways to accomplish the same goal. Now it’s your turn. What do you do when a lesson horse drops his inside shoulder?
Thanks for reading The Riding Instructor.
Barbara Ellin Fox