Have you ever marveled at the dancing horses? Felt the magic of something bigger, something transcendent? I have. It’s there every time I swing into a saddle. It’s in every moment of harmony between my horse and me.
While not a true lateral movement, leg-yield is used to teach a horse about moving sideways from a rider’s aids. A shoulder-in is a true three-track lateral movement. Both exercises are introduced early in training. The shoulder-in is still presented in competition, even at advanced levels.
The question remains, why would a sideways moving exercise be advantageous for my horse or me to perform? Why is it necessary to differentiate between different lateral movements, isn’t one enough? Is there any difference in the benefits to be gained from shoulder-in and leg-yield?
What Is Lateral Work?
Sometimes we, as spectators, are privileged to share in the symphony of horse and rider when we watch them perform. That moment of connection, the magic is hard-won. It comes from hours and hours of dedicated practice from both horse and rider, from countless small adjustments over a million different moments.
A careful gymnatizing and strengthening program enables a horse to perform those intricate movements to have the balance, flexibility, and power to dance effortlessly. Lateral work is a central component of the training program. Leg-yield and shoulder-in are two movements that fall under the umbrella of lateral exercises.
Lateral work is broadly explained as any movement where the horse is required to go directly sideways or where there is some combination of forwards and sideways involved in the horse’s movement.
Line of Movement/Travel
The line of movement, also known as the line of travel, describes travel direction, e.g., parallel to the arena borders, diagonally across the arena, or on curved lines and circles.
When working in a school, the number of the horse’s legs that can be seen when looking from behind is described as “tracks.” Thus, if you say a horse is doing a two-track movement, it means that you can see two legs when looking from behind. A three-track exercise means you can see three of the horse’s legs when viewed from behind.
“Tracks” does not only refer to the number of lines a horse moves on; it can also refer to the arena track. This use of “track” is different from a horse’s tracks and refers to the arena border, where the riders ride.
The number of tracks a horse moves on is not to be confused with a “beat.” A beat is the sound of an individual hoof landing, i.e., in trot, the horse’s diagonal legs move together, and so you get two beats. Each gait has a different number of beats: four beats in the walk, two beats in the trot, and three beats in the canter. A horse can perform a two-beat movement on three tracks, i.e., a trot shoulder-in.
A lateral bend does not refer to a sideways movement. A lateral bend is the amount of sideways curve a horse has around the rider’s inside or outside leg. A horse can have a slight or pronounced lateral bend while moving forwards or sideways.
Collection is the degree to which a horse can move its center of gravity backward, towards the hindquarters. As a horse collects, the horse must tighten the abdominal muscles and tilt the pelvis. Thus, allowing the horse to shift its weight backward onto its hindquarters, freeing up the shoulders and forehand to lift and move with more freedom. The most advanced collected movements, such as the levade, allow a horse to carry a hundred percent of its weight on its hindquarters and lift the forelegs completely off the floor.
A lateral movement requires a horse to actively move with a lateral bend AND cross over either their front legs or back legs or both as they move, producing a sideways step with their whole body or part of their body. Different lateral movements may be performed, e.g., shoulder-fore, shoulder-in, shoulder-out, renvers, travers, half-pass, side-pass, and leg-yield.
What is Leg-Yield?
A leg-yield is not a lateral movement in the most classical sense of the word. It does not require a horse to have a pronounced lateral bend when performing it, and it does not encourage collection like other lateral movements.
When performing leg-yield, the horse moves sideways and forwards on two tracks while bending away from the direction of travel. Although the horse should remain relatively straight, it is encouraged to have a small bend at the poll. As the horse becomes more supple, the degree of the bend can be increased. The horse’s line of travel when performing leg-yield will always be diagonal to the arena track.
The rib cage will swing away from the rider’s driving leg and into the direction of movement. The horse should move sideways with the forehand slightly in advance of the hindquarters. The outside hind leg must cross in front of the inside hind leg. Like the hind legs, the outside foreleg must cross in front of the inside one.
The front legs and back legs of the horse must show an equal amount of lateral forward movement. The equality of the front and back lateral movement allows the horse to maintain the forward-lateral direction they were initially traveling without deviating from the line of travel.
If the hind legs cross over more than the front legs, the horse will gradually begin traveling on a circle with the nose facing the circle’s middle. The converse is true; if the horse crosses the front legs more than the back legs, the horse will begin to move on a circle with the nose pointing towards the outside of the circle.
What is Shoulder-In?
As with leg-yield, the shoulder-in requires the horse to bend away from the direction of travel. Unlike leg-yield, the horse must have a pronounced lateral bend and will need to bring the forehand off the arena track when performing the movement. During shoulder-in, the front legs cross over, with the inside front leg crossing in front of the outside front leg. The hind legs must not cross over and instead continue moving straight.
Competition rules dictate that a horse performs the movement on three-tracks with an approximate angle of 30° relative to the line of travel. However, when schooling, the movement horses can benefit from performing the movement on four tracks. Care must be taken when performing a four-track shoulder-in to prevent it from becoming a leg-yield.
When viewed from behind, the horse’s line of travel will be parallel to the arena track unless the shoulder-in is being performed on curved lines or a circle. All of the horse’s hooves will be visible from behind if the horse is being ridden in a four-track shoulder-in. Only the horse’s inside foreleg, inside hind leg, and outside hind leg will be visible in a three-track shoulder-in. The outside foreleg will move in the same track as the inside hind leg and is hidden by the inside hind leg.
A shoulder-in can be performed on or off the arena track, on the diagonals, curved lines, or circles. The difficulty of the exercise and the benefits of riding will be determined by when and how the shoulder-in is performed.
Benefits of Shoulder-In and Leg-Yield
Incorporating shoulder-in and leg-yield into your regular schooling program will provide guaranteed benefits if performed correctly and sympathetically.
Benefits of Leg-Yield
Many dressage enthusiasts regard Louis Seeger as the “inventor” of leg-yield. Regardless of whether the exercise originated with him, he was the first person to provide a detailed written account of the leg-yield: its form and benefits.
Many classical dressage masters will discard leg-yield as useless or, even worse, harmful to the horse’s future training. They cite that because the horse does not step forwards under its center of mass, the exercise has no collecting properties, unlike all other lateral movements.
Indeed, leg-yield cannot be used as a collecting exercise; however, this does not diminish the other benefits achieved by performing a correct leg-yield.
A correctly performed leg-yield provides the following benefits:
- To teach a horse to move sideways from a rider’s leg aids.
- To teach a horse to reach into the outside rein and obtain a level contact through the bit.
- It can be usefully employed as a warming up and gentle suppling exercise.
Benefits of Shoulder-In
The shoulder-in has more than earned the moniker: “The mother exercise of all lateral work.” Throughout the centuries, shoulder-in has evolved from a head-in volte-like exercise on a circle to a four-track lateral movement and eventually to the three-track lateral movement seen in modern competition.
A Shoulder-In Can Benefit the Horse by:
- Acting as a suppling and straightening exercise.
- Promoting the flexion and carrying capacity of the inside hind leg and the outside hind leg’s pushing power.
- Improving balance by shifting the center of mass rearward.
- Moving the center of mass backward towards the hind legs, allowing the forehand to be lifted, and collection improved. The horse gains more freedom in the shoulder and can demonstrate greater expression when moving.
- Acting as a precursor to travers, renvers, and half-pass. The shoulder-in lays an excellent foundation by giving the horse the understanding and physical conditioning necessary to learn the more advanced lateral movements.
Schooling Exercises to Introduce Lateral Work
In essence, almost all lateral movements are related to one another through the arc of a circle. The direction of bend and degree of difficulty differs, but producing the individual movement is a matter of understanding the interconnectedness of the different lateral exercises and introducing them in a sequential, easily understood manner.
Before introducing lateral work, a horse needs to be able to:
- Maintain a lateral bend when working on a circle and straight lines. Establish a consistently supple and elastic contact with the reins.
- Sustain a working rhythm in walk and trot.
Lateral movement of any kind can be introduced in-hand or under saddle. The approach depends on the horse’s needs and the rider’s preferences.
The majority of lateral work will first be introduced to the horse from the circle. The circle is a natural precursor to lateral movement as it establishes the lateral bend necessary to perform the lateral movement. A working walk or trot is the easiest gait to introduce lateral work to the horse.
Leg-yield may be introduced using an exercise that requires a horse to spiral in and out smaller and larger circles. A small circle is made larger by asking a horse to move sideways onto a larger circle’s circumference. Each step sideways puts the horse on the circumference of a larger and larger circle. In this way, a horse learns that when a rider sits a certain way or uses their legs and reins in a specific manner, they need to step sideways.
It is essential to ensure the trainer’s aids are clear when asking the horse, and the rider sits in the correct balance to encourage the horse sideways. It is beyond important that the rider recognizes a horse’s attempt to perform the requested action and quickly releases the pressure, lavishly praising the horse for trying. As the horse gains confidence, the rider can ask for more and more steps sideways.
Some people will introduce shoulder-in without first mastering leg-yield. I have personally found it beneficial to introduce the concept of sideways movement using leg-yield before progressing to shoulder-in. By introducing leg-yield first, the idea of sideways movement and lateral bend are taught separately before being combined in shoulder-in.
Shoulder-in is first introduced from a circle. The bend of the circle is used to establish the lateral bend necessary for shoulder-in. Once the horse reaches the arena track, the rider quietly encourages the horse to stay on the arena track while maintaining the lateral bend and 30° angle needed for a shoulder-in.
Horses introduced to leg-yield before shoulder-in may find it easier to perform a four-track shoulder-in. The travel angle is gradually reduced to a three-track shoulder-in as the horse becomes more confident in the movement.
The rider must gradually build up the number of steps asked for, being conscientious in guarding and building the horse’s confidence and trust in the rider and his ability to perform the movement. The quality of the leg-yield or shoulder-in is far more critical than the number of steps taken. The horse must stay relaxed, attentive, and soft to the rider’s aids. There must be no change in the horse’s gait rhythm and tempo when moving into or out of shoulder-in or leg-yield.
Lateral work and the conditioning obtained by incorporating lateral work into a rider’s regular schooling are central to reaching the pinnacle of riding, especially in dressage.
The most obvious definition of lateral work is simply defined as sideways movements of the horse. The less obvious but more classical description or purpose of lateral movements is any movement requiring the whole or part of the horse’s body to move sideways to improve collection, suppleness, and expression or animation of movement.
A Leg-yield is compliant with the more general definition of lateral work but is not classified as classical lateral movement according to the old dressage master’s definition of lateral movements. Leg-yields are performed on two tracks as a mixture of forward and sideways. The line of travel is directed diagonally relative to the arena track. A traditional leg-yield is performed at 45°. The front and back legs show equal amounts of crossing over.
Many classical dressage masters have justly named the shoulder-in “The mother of all lateral work.” The shoulder-in embodies the most classical definition of lateral movement. The shoulder-in is performed on three-tracks, although occasionally it is performed on four-tracks depending on the horse’s schooling needs.
A competitive shoulder-in must be performed at approximately 30° parallel to the line of travel. In a three-track shoulder-in, the inside front leg crosses in front of the outside front leg. The back legs do not cross over or move sideways. The shoulder-in helps to strengthen, supple, and balance a horse. It also acts as a precursor to the more complex lateral movements, such as half-pass and travers. Advanced horses will still benefit from schooling that includes shoulder-in.