Improve Your Horses The Easy Way
Dressage in Hand
When we train horses for better performance under saddle, we usually don’t think any different than training them from the saddle, no matter what kind of sport or art we perform with our horses. However, another often times proven more effective option, is recurrently overlooked because it is not well known any more in modern times. It has become my life’s work to change that.
There is a method to improve horses’ performance under saddle which at the same time also improves their physical health and mental well being. I call it ‘Dressage in hand’. This work is based on the natural equine communication, which consists of body language and simultaneously, on the dressage steps and movements, such as shoulder in and piaffe. These movements or exercises are not just pretty to look at, or fun to ride. They have a natural function to improve the horse’s balance, strength, straightness, flexibility, and overall health. Asking the horse for these exercises, whilst walking next to him, does not only make him stronger and more agile, which will improve his ability to perform under saddle, it will also vastly expand the communication between horse and rider, producing a more calm, willing, safe or in short, a horse that reacts with lightness to the aids. Or, as it was called in the old days; ‘sprezzatura’. Working the horse in hand regularly, with the basic and later advanced dressage exercises, produces astonishing results when back in the saddle. The most asked question to this I always receive is where to start and how. Where to start depends obviously on your horse’s level and your own. Let us say though, that your horse knows all basic gaits under saddle, but you are not yet able to produce an exercise like shoulder in. I would suggest that you start there, as shoulder in is the mother of all exercises. When a horse can produce shoulder in on request, you then can create all other exercises from shoulder in.
Execution of Shoulder In From Ground
To start with shoulder in as a dressage in hand exercise, stand next to your horse’s shoulder and hold the reins in both hands, the same as if your where riding, while halting on the track. Now, with your inside rein, squeeze the inside rein gentle, without too much contact, ask and release, until your horse start looking a little to the inside. If you were mounted, you with see a little of the inside eye. That is called ‘stellung’. Stellung releases the jaw, neck, and shoulders, that is to say, it relaxes the muscles of the forehand, and therefore
lightens the forehand, needed to proceed in shoulder in. Next, with your outside rein and bending a little bit towards the horse’s shoulder, while at the same time walking backwards a little -to make room for the forehand to come to the inside track (hence the name ‘shoulder in’) – you invite the shoulder to come on the inside track. The outside rein, as it were, pushes the shoulder in, your body language asks the shoulder towards you. Reward your horse with voice and maybe a treat as soon as he complies only a little and repeat your request until your horse stands with his hind legs on the outside track and his front legs on the inside track. When you have succeeded with that. Bring your belly a little forward, while moving a tiny bit behind the shoulder and now click your tongue and ask the horse to walk one step, while you focus on his shoulder stepping sideways, meaning the inside front leg crosses over the outside front leg. Reward your horse when he complies. Make sure you do not have pressure on the inside rein, because this will cause the horse to fall onto his inside shoulder and probably make a circle around you. If that happens, circle back to the track, return to the position of shoulder in, then ask for one step again, making sure your inside rein has no pressure and your outside rein has an elastic contact. When you need to halt your horse, use the outside rein, your voice and your body language; drop your energy to your feet and stand, leaning a bit back. Reward instantly with voice and or caress or treat, when the horse complies. Work on asking your horse a step of shoulder in, one by one. If that works, you can proceed to more steps at once. The reason for this is, that you have complete control over the steps and your horse keeps his attention on you, constantly, because he does not know when he needs to stop or move forward. By taking a little time to teach your horse this exercise from the ground, you will have the following advantages:
- Your horse now knows the transition halt - shoulder in – halt
- Your horse has lightened his forehand, which opens the road to collection
- Your horse is much more in tune to your aids and body language
- You are now able to vastly increase on your horse’s balance, straightness and flexibility but also the strength of his hind legs, which improves overall health and durability of your horse.
- You can easily transform this exercise from in hand to under saddle.
Benefits of Shoulder In, In Hand
After a few sessions of shoulder in, in hand, you will feel a distinct difference while riding. Your horse’s shoulder will feel lighter, he will be easier to stir, he will be more reactive to your aids and he will make better transitions… and this is only the beginning. I do not know anyone, who, after starting with this work does not get hooked and makes dressage in hand a regular part of training, and I trained hundreds if not thousands of people over the course of 15 years.
After a few sessions in hand of shoulder in, it is also easy to produce the exercise under saddle. There are two ways to do this: Either ask the horse from the ground with a rider on, and ask the rider to slowly take over, while you phase out your aids from the ground, or, if you do not have a helper, ask the horse in the same way from the saddle with your outside rein and a little stellung and now add your body language aids from the saddle, instead of from the ground. Press your outside knee against the saddle, helping to aid the shoulder to the inside track, together with the outside rein, keep your inside leg against your horse’s side, and ask his body sideways over the track with your inside calve. Keep a little more weight in your outside stirrup to explain to the horse to remain on the track, instead of going onto the circle. Do not forget to reward your horse the second he complies, if only in the slightest. If your horse comes off the track, make a circle until you are back in the shoulder in position and repeat, the same as you did in hand. Your horse will soon connect the work under saddle with that in hand, and voila, shoulder in.
Shoulder in will improve all other work. It is the aspirin, alpha and omega of riding, no matter what discipline you do.
Try it, put in the little effort and you will thank me later.
If you would like to know more, I wrote the ultimate book on Dressage in hand and horse welfare which you can find under the following link:
About the author:
Josepha Guillaume is an international renowned trainer, instructor, and equestrian writer. Her specialities are classical dressage, dressage in hand and horse health and welfare. It has become her life’s work to improve horse’s health and happiness with logical forms of training that are easy and fun for both horse and rider.
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