When the horse creates habits (or find points on the circle) to throw his shoulder in or out, the underlying issue is usually a simple matter of lacking strength, balance or straightness (or a little of each). Whether it’s a subtle bulging or full-on V-like bend and stumbling sideways, he needs your support and a few exercises to help him strengthen himself and learn how to balance.
So how do you straighten him out?
Are you centered in the saddle? Is your body in the position it needs to be for that movement? Are you getting in the way?
Whether we like to admit it or not, we’re all a little off-balance. One side is stronger, the other weaker. It’s totally natural. We strive to remain centered, balanced, but when you start asking for specific movements (especially lateral work, or even canter departures), that is when it begins to show. Especially when you ride a crooked horse, it’ll rub off and snowball.
Don’t fret. But when you begin to notice it and want to start cueing this leg that way, and that rein over here to get after the horse, do a quick self-assessment.
It can be quite educational to detach from your ego in those moments of frustration and realize that maybe that stubborn counter-bending is really because in all your tension trying to get that inside bend, you’re putting so much weight into your outside aids that your forcing his ribs to bend away to the inside. So adjust your seat, ride him as if he is bent the way you want, and, short of extenuating circumstances, he likely will.
Catch an Outward-Bulging Shoulder
So you’re trying to ride a 20 metre circle, let’s say, and he is consistently popping his shoulder to the outside on the side of the circle open to the arena.
Three to four strides before you get to that spot where he tries to push his weight out onto that outside foreleg, start thinking counterbend. Push your weight into your outside thigh and sit heavy to the outside to push his ribs inside, away from your outside thigh. If it is an area that is consistently a tricky spot, it is your responsibility to anticipate that and correct it before it happens. It is much easier to prevent a bulge than fix it.
You can up the ante by asking for haunches-out or shoulder-fore with a correct bend, forcing him to take the weight on the inside hind. That outside thigh will likely come into play in that “tricky spot”, but keep your seat centered where it ought to be and ride him with insistence, correctly and kindly. Start at the walk so he understands the exercise.
Lighten the Inward-Bulging Shoulder
Instinctively, we want to use the inside rein to pull the head in, or “supple to the inside”, hoping that it will in turn force the neck to bend appropriately and thus the shoulder to arch in line. What really tends to happen is that the horse loses balance and his corners disappear and circles shrink to oblivion.
When we pull that inside rein, it generally causes us to tighten our inside shoulder, forcing it to the inside, thereby tensing our upper bodies and pulling our weight to the inside. When compared to the outward-bulging, it sounds forgivable, using the same logic where our weight would push him out, but the dynamics do not work the same here. When our weight and his weight are coming to the inside, he will “fall” into that side, losing balance entirely.
To remedy it, ride him as if he is bent correctly. Sit with your outside seatbone slightly forward, inside seatbone down and slightly back. Set your inside leg about a hand’s-breadth behind the girth where his barrel just begins to swell and keep your shoulders in line with your hips, tall and rolled comfortably back. Aim your belly-button where you want to go. As the horse’s inside hind leg comes forward (while rising in the trot), cue your inside leg while maintaining your body’s position as if everything is A-OK. If that’s not enough, while maintaining that posture in yourself, lean slightly onto the outside stirrup and push him towards it with the inside leg. This will help him correct his balance.
Like the outward-bulging shoulder, practicing haunches-out or shoulder-fore will strengthen his hindquarters and help him figure out how to carry himself. You can also try spiraling in to 15- or 10-metre circles (3-4 spirals maximum, 12-13 metres minimum for younger or less-fit horses) before pushing him back out to the full 20 metre circle. Using the cues and corrective measures for both outward and inward bulging shoulders as necessary, keep his body and weight balanced as correctly as you can. This is a great exercise to reinforce your balancing aids while developing his straightness at different degrees of bend.