Shoulder-fore is a useful tool to help your horse travel straight.
The majority of a horse’s own weight is supported by his front legs. When the weight of the rider is added, this shifts the horse’s center of balance even more to his front end and especially onto his inside shoulder. The horse tends to carry his haunches to the inside to compensate.
As a result, the horse stiffens his topline and loses the thrusting and carrying power for his haunches that would come if his hind legs were more in line with his front end and thus more able to reach under his body.
A young horse just starting out in training will naturally carry his haunches to the inside, especially at the canter. If he’s allowed to continue in this way, the crookedness can become a habit and the horse will also be harder to bring into condition. One answer to this training and conditioning dilemma is shoulder-fore.
In our August 2008 issue, we discussed leg-yield as a device that will supple the horse’s topline, make the horse more responsive to inside leg aids, and connect the horse better on the outside rein. When the horse understands leg-yielding, he’s ready for shoulder-fore.
When we talk about ”shoulder-fore,” we’re referring to the outside shoulder. The concept of shoulder-fore is rather mysterious to many riders, especially since it’s not all that easy to see from the ground unless you’re directly in front of the horse.
You can think of it as sort of a baby shoulder-in. Or you can think of it as placing the outside shoulder between the hind legs. Or you can think of it as a clear half-halt on the outside rein. The horse’s balance shifts from being weighted too much over his inside shoulder to being more equally balanced over the two front shoulders. He can then work more over his topline because he can shift some of that weight from his shoulders toward his hindquarters. He literally stands up more under the rider.
When a horse is particularly crooked, some riders will place a leg back to try moving the hind end over. This rarely works since the horse will shift his weight more into the pressure and become even more lopsided. If he’s trotting he’ll break into canter, and if he’s cantering he may swap leads. With a crooked horse, it’s generally much easier to move the front end in line with the hind end than the other way around, and shoulder-fore is the way to do that.
Once the horse has learned even a rudimentary leg-yield–where he softens through his ribcage in response to an inside leg aid and thus better accepts the outside rein???he’s ready for shoulder-fore. The same inside leg aid is applied, but this time there is more connection with the outside rein against the bulge along the outside of the horse’s neck. Instead of shifting sideways away from the inside leg, the horse will lighten his forehand and allow it to be placed in line with the hindquarters.
This is not a static effect. It needs to be renewed every few strides, even just by something as simple as lightly closing the outside fingers or putting a little more weight into the outside elbow. The hands shouldn’t raise the neck, because this will cause the back to drop. Instead, the rider may be better off picturing a slightly lower neck. This should allow the shoulders and back to come up and the hind end to support the front end, resulting in a lighter forehand overall.
Above all, the horse shouldn’t drop his poll too low. If the rider glances down, he should at least be able to see the horse’s crownpiece behind his ears. Otherwise the horse is behind the vertical or too much on his forehand, or both.
Nor should the horse lean on the outside rein — shoulder-fore makes the horse lighter on the bit, not heavier, because his weight shifts back and he’s carrying the rider, not the other way around.
Now, what is your inside hand doing while all this is going on’ Pretty much nothing. Bring it a little wide of the withers to direct the nose to the inside (just enough so you can see the horse’s eyelash). Make sure you keep the degree of pressure equal on both corners of the horse’s mouth. Do not pull on the inside rein or draw it back toward your body or the horse may swing his haunches toward the increased pressure of the inside rein and become even more crooked.
Shoulder-fore is an ongoing private and subtle conversation between horse and rider that includes a series of half-halts on the outside rein. The rider can do an entire dressage test, hunter round or hack class in shoulder-fore in order to keep the forehand light and the hind end from slipping out to the side.
Shoulder-fore is an essential tool in helping to straighten and strengthen a young horse. It thus prevents the horse from leaning on the rider’s hands.
Margaret Freeman is a USEF ”S” dressage judge living in New York, where she also teaches and does clinics. She earned her USDF silver medal on a horse she bred and trained herself. She is associate editor of Horse Journal, on the editorial advisory committee of USDF Connection, and she has covered the equestrian events at six Olympics.