The Shoulder-in: More Than Dressage Gymnastics

The shoulder-in is more than just dressage gymnastics

Recent scientific findings support what many students of Classical dressage principles have known all along: The shoulder-in exercise is not only good for the horse’s physical development but it also influences their mental state – and the benefits of practicing it apply whether the rider is very skilled or less experienced.

The history of shoulder-in

Since its ‘invention’ over 300 years ago, the shoulder-in has received much praise from the who’s who of the classical and modern dressage scene. Particularly in the classical dressage world, the shoulder-in is regarded as the foundation exercise when it comes to improving straightness and balance, preparing horses for higher degrees of collection and the other lateral movements such as travers.

The Duke of Newcastle, a 17th-century Englishmen and classical dressage master, performed the ‘predecessor’ of our contemporary shoulder-in on a circle on multiple tracks. However, he reported that riding this movement on a bent line is very difficult.

A few decades later, the Baroque Frenchman and riding master de la Guérinière further refined Newcastle’s embryonic shoulder-in by riding it on a straight line (on four tracks) instead. This marks the birth of the shoulder-in movement as it is known today with one ‘minor’ amendment: The track numbers it’s supposed to be ridden on in dressage competitions has shifted from de la Gueriniere’s original four to the FEI’s three tracks.

Shoulder-in is held in ‘high regard’ in the equestrian literature

De la Guérinière describes the shoulder-in as “(…) the most difficult and the most useful [exercise] (…) which must be used to supple the horse” [1; p.62]. It “(…) produces so many good results at once that I regard it as the first and the last of all those [exercises] which are given to the horse.” [1; p.66].

Steinbrecht, a 19th century German dressage master, often referred to as the father of ‘modern’ dressage, highlights the important role shoulder-in plays in suppling the shoulders, achieving the best longitudinal bend, and teaching the horse to bend his hind legs when stepping under the center of gravity [2].

Decarpentry, an early 20th-century French cavalry officer and international equestrian judge, emphasises the positive impact of shoulder-in on the horse’s balance, muscular system, and the quality of the gaits [3].

With all these great benefits linked to one single movement, the FEI defines the shoulder-in as an essential schooling movement as it “(…) helps to straighten and supple your horse as well as develop the ability to collect and carry more weight on the hocks and hind end.” [4]

Shoulder-in in competitive and contemporary dressage

Today’s shoulder-in, as defined by the FEI and national riding manuals, is ridden on three tracks.

The German National Equestrian Federation (FN), for instance, describes the shoulder-in as a movement where the horse’s forehand (shoulder) is brought to the inside whilst the hindquarters stay on the wall. It is performed on three tracks with the outside hind leg traveling on track one, the inside hind leg and outside front leg traveling on track two, and the inside front leg traveling on track three [5]. The imaginary angle between the wall and the horse’s shoulder should be approximately 30 degrees.

Shoulder-in on three tracks, however, is a recent ‘innovation’, and dressage and horse training manuals of the first half of the 20th century still describe shoulder-in as an exercise ridden on four tracks, such as the German Heeresdiensvorschrift – a main work of its time on horse and rider training in the German cavalry [6].

New research backs the Classical masters

The claim that shoulder-in is beneficial for the physical and mental states of horses is supported by the findings of an interesting recent study.

Mendonca and colleagues [7] studied on a sample of 40 horses how being ridden in shoulder-in influences their behaviour and physiological responses. The horses were aged between 4 and 11 years and familiar with the shoulder-in movement.

Two FEI riders of different experience levels, one professional and one amateur, were asked to ride the horses during the experiment.

It was hypothesised that the lacking balance and precision of the amateur rider could impact the correct execution of the movement shoulder-in and therefore potentially affect the results.

In a first session, the horses were ridden on straight lines in walk, trot, and canter. In a second session, the riders were asked to ride the horses in shoulder-in (lateral exercise) in walk, trot, and canter.

Heart rate variability (HRV), used to measure stress, and horse behaviours indicative of lacking attention (“looking around frequency”) and relaxation (“playing with/chewing the bit”) were recorded in both sessions.

During the first session, horses were significantly less attentive and showed more ‘looking-around’ behaviours compared to session two where the horses displayed behaviours indicating relaxation/focus more frequently.

These behavioural observations are in line with the researchers’ measurements that showed increased activity of the sympathetic nervous system during session one (straight lines session) compared with a mainly parasympathetic nervous system activation during session two (shoulder-in session).

Authors’ conclusions

Based on their findings, it seems evident that riders, in general, have “(…) little if any influence on the horses’ behavioural parameters.” (e.g., looking around) (p.18) [7] [note: The riders were instructed to allow head movements in case the horses were looking around].

“The results concerning LAF [“looking around frequency”] and PCB [“playing with/chewing the bit”] between the two sessions suggest that lateral exercises, as performed in session two, may be useful to increase attention and decrease tension, independent of the rider.” (p.18) [7]

The researchers conclude that “(…) lateral exercises are an important tool that unexperienced riders could use to reduce stress-related events during training (…)” (p.20) [7]

Take-home message

It seems evident that lateral movements in general may reduce stress-related responses in horses. Therefore, besides their ‘gymnastisising’ effects, they may also be used to help lower a horse’s emotional level and re-focus their attention on your aids.


  1. De la Gueriniere, F. R. (1992). Ecole de Cavalerie, Part II. Cleveland Heights: Xenophon Press.
  2. Steinbrecht, G. (2004). Das Gymnasium des Pferdes. 3. Auflage. Brunsbek: Cadmos Verlag.
  3. Decarpentry, A. (2012). Academic Equitation. North Pomfret: Trafalgar Square.
  4. Federation Equestre Internationale (Fei) (2020). Dressage Movements 101 – Intermediate. [internet]. Available from: Accessed 22nd June, 2021.
  5. Deutsche Reiterliche Vereinigung (FN) (2008). Richtlinien Reiten und Fahren Band 2, Ausbildung für Fortgeschrittene. Warendorf: FN Verlag.
  6. Heeresdienstvorschrift H.Dv.12 (2007). Stuttgart: Frankh-Kosmos Verlag.
  7. Mendonça, T., Bienboire-Frosini, C., Sanchez, N., Kowalczyk, I., Teruel, E., Descout, E., & Pageat, P. (2020). de la Guérinière was right: shoulder-in is beneficial for the physical and mental states of horses. Journal of Veterinary Behavior 38, pp.14-20

The original study is published in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior and the abstract is available here.

Tanja Bornmann, BSc, MSc, MSc, Trainer B (FN)
Tanja Bornmann, BSc, MSc, MSc, Trainer B (FN)

Tanja is an equine scientist, qualified riding coach (dressage specialist), and writer. As a lifelong equestrian, she competed her own and clients' horses in dressage, showjumping, eventing, and at young horse shows, earning one national dressage championships title on her young mare. With a strong emphasis on horse welfare, Tanja’s training approach combines the principles of learning theory with classical dressage and up-to-date scientific findings - aiming to create ‘happy’ horses and well-informed riders.

Follow Tanja on twitter @academicequitat.


  1. What I find interesting when we’re talking about shoulder-in, is that it is highly valued today because it is the beginning of the training of lateral movements and particularly bend. In today’s shoulder in the forelegs are going a little sideways but the hindlegs are staying straight on the outside line with hips perpendicular to the wall. Yet in both his first and second editions, De La Gueriniere seemed to equally value the lateral moving of the hindlegs as well as the forelegs. And as you say in the article, it was on four tracks then, instead of three as it is nowadays. But what is interesting is that bend is hardly mentioned by De La Gueriniere in relation to shoulder-in. It is obscurely mentioned in relation to shoulder-in in the first edition (1750), but in the second edition (1791) when he is talking about shoulder-in he makes no mention of bend, as if he now thought it unimportant. Also, In the very carefully drawn illustrations of shoulder-in (as well as haunches-in) in both editions, the illustrations give no hint of bend and interestingly, they show all hooves pointing in the same direction. As far as the suppling and mental effects of lateral movements of the fore and hind legs, this has been mentioned as early at 1559, in Grisone’s treatise “The Rules of Riding”. After I read de La Gueriniere’s original masterpieces in French in the USA National Sporting Library in Virginia in 2014, I began to wonder whether we had pinned too much credit on De La Gueriniere for shoulder-in, because basically his illustrations show the horse going sideways along the wall on 4 tracks, which could be easily mistaken for leg-yield.

    • Very interesting to hear about the history and the bend component. I am now interested to know when half-pass first appeared (did De la Gueriniere train half-pass? or was it much later?). It seems to me that the three track shoulder-in is important as a preparation for half-pass which is the only lateral movement required in Grand Prix, that is other than the pirouette which could be seen as an evolution of (the most collected version of) the half-pass? I guess that the pirouette has a practical application in the field – obviously useful in war, cattle work etc – but other than that, going sideways whilst looking at/bending in the direction you are going, doesn’t seem to have a practical purpose? E.g., horses used in rejoneo (bullfighting), move sideways but away from the bull since they have to keep an eye on the bull, so they have the opposite bend than in the half pass. But for pirouettes, the collection and balance required demands the horse is either straight (like in the Western version which is not really collected), and it’s the bending and the hind leg control in the pirouette that develops the real collection? Lots of questions!


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