The shoulder-fore is the like the little sibling that always plays second fiddle to the shoulder-in. But don’t discount its power.
When left to themselves, most horses will travel crookedly up a line. In fact, they may also be crooked on circles.
On a straight line, they tend to lean outward toward the rail with their front end. So, if you watch a horse go up a rail from behind, you will clearly see the front end traveling on a line closer to the rail, while the hind end drifts somewhat off the rail. There might be a tendency for the horse’s head and neck to point outward, away from the direction of travel. So if the horse is going right, the head and neck point left.
Sound familiar? If so, you’re not alone. Most horses start life with a stronger side and a weaker side, and if left unchecked, that crookedness can maintain itself or even become more pronounced through riding. So it falls to the rider to become educated and sensitive enough to feel the crookedness – and then correct it over time. As with all other skills, if the horse is ridden in a manner that encourages suppleness and flexion, the horse will overcome the crookedness.
The rider, too, has a significant role in the process. For if the rider just follows the horse’s movements, she will also be riding in a way that points her core to the wall, travelling with a crooked seat and imbalanced posture.
What is the shoulder-fore?
Although we often hear about the shoulder-in, we tend to overlook the shoulder-fore as a less worthy exercise. This is far from the truth. The shoulder-fore is easier to learn for both horse and rider and sets them on their way to becoming straighter and more supple.
The shoulder-fore is a movement that positions the horse’s shoulders slightly to the inside of the hips. The way you know the horse is “in” shoulder-fore is by looking at the horse’s footfalls. Simply put, the horse that has hind footsteps falling into front footsteps is straight. The horse that has the front footsteps landing slightly to the inside of the horse’s hind footsteps is travelling in shoulder-fore.
The shoulder-fore requires the horse to “articulate” more with the joints in the hind end, encourages a deeper stride length, and helps the horse balance better, allowing the energy to come over the topline and release the muscles over the back. It is a movement that should be in your riding vocabulary from the beginning to the end of the ride.
How to shoulder-fore:
1. Negotiate a turn or corner in the same manner as usual. Position your body on the bend to the inside, with your seat weighted slightly to the inside, inside leg at the girth, outside leg behind the girth and rein aids following your shoulders toward the turn.
2. Then come out of the turn.
3. But keep the horse on the same mild bend, going straight on the rail.
4. Feel for the horse’s shoulders. They should feel slightly off-set to the inside.
At this point, the novice horse tends to want to fall into the middle of the ring, coming off the rail. It is the job of your inside leg, seat bone and rein to keep the horse on the line. Your outside rein can also help to keep the straightness by half-halting to counter the horse’s momentum toward the inside. It can also keep the neck fairly straight.
Get a friend to monitor your horse’s foot falls and let you know about the angle of the horse’s body. She should tell you when you have it right so that you can memorize what it feels like to have straightness in your horse’s movements.
When you get good at it on the rail, try it off the rail. If you go straight up the ring on the quarter line, you will have enough room to your outside so that you have to really use your outside aids to help maintain the shoulder fore, but not so far that you can’t use the rail as a reference point to see and feel the position of the shoulders.
Then try it on center line. It gets harder to feel the angle when there is no wall to gauge your position with. But eventually, you should be able to actually feel the angle of the horse’s body regardless of whether or not you have a wall to refer to.
For more shoulder-fore fun, start up the center line with a right shoulder-fore, then as you cross X, switch to a left shoulder-fore.
Finally, give it a try on a circle. At this point, you should be able to identify the shoulder position on a bend. So when you feel that your horse is pointing his shoulders to the outside of the circle, be a responsible rider and bring those shoulders into the shoulder’fore position, even while you are travelling on a bend around the circle.
See what your horse thinks about it. If you get a snort, be happy! If you get a softening of the neck and jaw to the inside, be thrilled. And if you get bouncy-bouncy, rolling gaits (do this in walk, trot and canter) and the feeling that you are spending more time in the air than on the ground, then celebrate!
For helping the horse to release tension, swing through the back, stay straight and energize is the goal of all riding!
*P.S. All the above is also equally relevant to the shoulder-in. But that can be a topic for another time.
Try the shoulder-in during your next ride and let us know how it works for you and your horse.
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If you enjoyed the above article, you might also enjoy the following:
Bend: How to Drift Out On Purpose: When it’s ok to let your horse drift to the outside.
4 Steps to Help Your Horse Through A Turn: How to prevent an abrupt turn.
A Question of Imbalance: Can You Tell? All the different ways your horse can lose balance.
Here’s How (And Why) You Should Ride With Bent Elbows: Improve your elbows to improve your contact with the horse.
Why You Should Ride the Left Side of Your Horse Going Right: In order to help straighten the horse (and elongate the muscles on the right, and help the horse bear more weight on the left hind leg), we need to work on the left side going right.