How to Teach Shoulder-in and Haunches-in: At Liberty, In-hand and Ridden!

Think this is just for the dressage folk? Think again – this stuff is for you!

Of course, if you are a dressage’y person, you’ll know it’s for you, but even if you just want to tootle round the block on your pony, making sure he’s supple, strong and engaged will keep him sound and healthy for years to come.

Another benefit of this work? It helps horses to become more body-aware, relaxed and focused on you. When horses are more aware of their body and know how to come into balance, it really helps them to relax. Because horses are such physical creatures and rely on being able to move fast to get out of danger, any feeling of imbalance tends to make them anxious. For some horses, this makes them freeze and not want to go forwards, and it makes others speed up in anxiety. When it’s not addressed it can escalate, and this is often the cause of rushing, bolting, bucking, stumbling, planting and napping.

So, when you work on building your horse’s body awareness and come into healthy balance with a rider, it is a key piece of helping them to relax under saddle.

Plus, as you muddle through training it (it’s always wobbly to begin with – check the video out!), you and your horse are working on building more subtle communication and improving responsiveness.

And those are just some of the reasons I LOVE this stuff!

Shoulder-in and haunches-in are two of the most common and useful lateral exercises. For those of you who are new to these exercises, here is a link to a brilliant website which explains each exercise and its benefits: Sustainable Dressage.

It doesn’t tell you how to train them using positive reinforcement, though – that’s what we do! All this stuff is taught step-by-step in-hand and under saddle, why you do it, how to ride it, what to look for etc in our Riding with Connection home study course. Check it out HERE!

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9 thoughts on “How to Teach Shoulder-in and Haunches-in: At Liberty, In-hand and Ridden!”

  1. Thanks for sharing this gorgeous work Hannah! And thank you for all the tips which are clearly working for you. India looks like she really loves the puzzle and working with her body like this. Just the inspiration I needed 🙂

  2. This is really interesting, Hannah! I was wondering how you break down the steps for teaching a horse to bring his hip towards you – would be so useful in getting my horse to line up to a fence, say, as well as teaching lateral work. I can think of a few ideas, but rather than reinvent the wheel… 🙂 Maybe there is a video about this – I wasn’t able to locate it if there is, but if you could direct me to it, that would be great. Thanks!

  3. very nice. I did it with Sampa with the halter, but not at liberty. I had no good idea for a cue for the “head inside”. Now I have it 🙂
    thank you very much for sharing all these super things.

  4. I can hardly wait to sign up for the connected riding modules. This looks like great stuff.

    I taught my horse hip/hip using what you have here in the video but ours is very messy right now. But actually I taught him shoulder in from the ground using your videos Hannah and he has a lovely shoulder in. But our haunches in is harder for me to break down. So I will sign up for your connected riding sometime in the future.

    Thanks for a wonderful video.

  5. Thank you for your comments, I’m really pleased it’s helpful and inspiring! Thank you for letting me know 🙂

    The steps for the hip towards are shown in detail in the Riding with Connection course but a quick low-down: use a rope from the headcollar round the quarters and teach them to follow the feel round in a circle. this means that as they begin to turn away from you, they are turning the quarters towards you – click the moments the hips move. Slowly phase out the rope cue so that it’s only on your hand cue and there you go! You can also use a target over the back to get them to turn a circle away from you but I find it a bit clunkier and more awkward than the rope but it’s up to you!

    A couple of safety points – you must begin to click when the hips stop as they touch your hand or your horse will knock you flying (this also ensures that the movement is slow and controlled); your horse must be calm and relaxed and understand stimulus control because unruly quarters are dangerous; and never teach it to a horse who shows any anxiety, defensiveness or aggression as turning the quarters to you is, of course, a threat to kick so you must make sure that the emotions are soft, happy and relaxed and that it is a true learned behaviour so that they don’t get it mixed up with threatening to kick people, you wouldn’t want to train that!

    You can also teach it all from the saddle (shown with freckles in the riding with connection course), because by this point your horse will know high, round and slow and long and low head positions, lateral flexions and quarters over from the leg, so you can combine your varous ridden cues and shape it from on board. This is great for people who feel more co-ordinated in the saddle than on the ground, horses who prefer to learn stuff under saddle (some can get tense moving in close proximity to people so in-hand work can be tricky for some, especially mares. India struggles with it now and again when she’s in season) or if you are working with a horse with any history of what I’ve described above because this way you won’t be teaching them to turn their quarters towards people on the ground at all.

    Hope that helps! It’s pretty tricky to describe stuff – hence videos! – so hope that all made sense 🙂

  6. Thank you, Hannah! I found that video in “Haunches in and Quarters In” in Riding with Connection. Very helpful! I was trying to teach it with a tap of the whip (from the ground) on the opposite side, but that wasn’t working so well, as I wanted to use the whip as a cue rather than an aversive, AND it was very difficult to reach over my horse (who is 16.2) with the whip to give a consistent cue! So teaching the horse to “yield the hindquarters” (as it is often called in the US western world) with a unilateral cue on the rein or rope works perfectly. Great! Thanks!

  7. LOL Hannah, yes my horse at times can really get those hips flying into to me – not aggressively though. I had to laugh. That was part of our messy part. I am now aware of that and need to watch what I am doing with him. I want to learn this in-hand stuff as it is very new to me. He really enjoys doing the shoulder in from the ground too.

    I will read that part about the rope. Can’t quite picture that in my mind right now. Of course I will be signing up for your connected riding module and can hardly wait for that. We are starting into to our cold winter so not much will be done after November. Burrr…. too cold for me.

    Thanks Hannah

  8. Desr Hannah. This video is very helpful and well made. Watching it we had a question: why do you click several times before reaching the food reward? One of the “iron rules” I have learned about clicker training is that after every click comes food. And in some cases a “process praise” is used to mark the process and then the click comes at the end of the sequence.
    Thank you for posting!

    1. Hi Sveva, thanks for your lovely comments, glad it was helpful! And a great question! It’s a big answer that we’ve discussed in detail in some of members videos but here’s the gist of my experiences 🙂

      I, too, was taught that the click must be followed with a predictable food reward every single time. This worked for some horses, but sometimes I was seeing over-arousal issues such as over-excitement, frustration, sexual arousal and other problems. As I started to experiment with every part of the training and pick apart what helped to bring joy, relaxation and fun to the training instead, ONE part (there were plenty of others) was playing with the rewards following a marker. Using a variety of rewards following the marker, such as cues for well-known behaviours (including asking again or continuing with a well-known behaviour) made a big difference in softening the horses. I think because it became more conversational between horse and human rather than behaviour = click = predictable food reward which can be a little mechanistic at times.

      Also, science shows us that variability is more rewarding that predictability and I’ve certainly found that to be the case, too. When your horse doesn’t know what reward is coming but knows it’s going to be something good, it keeps their interest and enjoyment. I found this was another key in keeping the connection between me and my horses, as well.

      Another area I struggled with at times was building duration in behaviours. Asking for more without marking often causes the horses to think they’re not doing the right thing and change their behaviour – after all, that’s what we want them to do in the problem-solving stage! Another traditional option is to just ask for one more second or step each time, but frankly I find that can get a bit boring and drill-y for both of us. I played around with a keep going signal to explain to my horses that I wanted them to keep doing that for a little bit longer, but found in the end that simply marking it with the click was the most powerful way of saying yes to my horse and keeping up their confidence and motivation in the behaviour as we work on it.

      Again, science tells us that the marker itself is a conditioned reinforcer and I see this to be the case in practice, too – the horses react to their marker positively (one study showed that horses reacted positively even if only fed 1 time out 12 and still maintained behaviours on that. That’s much more than I tend to use because I want to keep it stronger than that but it’s an interesting study.) Horses are also highly social mammals, just like us, and like to know when everything is hunky-dory in the group – marking moments seems to have this effect and the horses really relax and settle when they know they’re doing the right thing. Clarity in learning is also intrinsically motivating for learners so it plays this role, too. Especially for behaviours like haunches-in which are hard for the horse to know when they’re in the correct position, this is a great way of being able to say “that’s it! whooops, lost it… yes! that’s it!” They appreciate the information as they’re learning and it often speeds learning right up in situations like this. By this time, the horse should be enjoying the whole session anyway – it’s all a conditioned reinforcer! – so they appreciate the clarity as they’re figuring out the answer.

      Of course, if you feed your horse after every single click for years and then suddenly change it, you will cause frustration, confusion and anxiety. This is the same with every change for your horse, though. Introduce anything new slowly, positively and in a way they understand so feel happy with it. So, I begin to use this approach in tiny steps with really well-known behaviours like targeting – can you touch it? yay! click! can you touch it again? yay! click and massive jackpot! Can you touch it? yay! click and feed. and so on so they understand and are happy with the process.

      That, then, is one step towards fading out the marker completely and food mostly from known behaviours. Generally, I’ll feed pretty much every time I mark when first introducing a new behaviour, then intersperse it as we’re building on it, then transfer it to praise when they no longer need the click pinpoint specific moments. That way I keep the click strong and clean for teaching new behaviours and praise becomes another marker and conditioned reinforcer, which I maintain forever with a variety of rewards, interactions, games and so on.

      Overall, I do what works and will change any aspect of the training to help the individual horse I’m working with to find relaxation, confidence and joy. This is one aspect which I find you can use in different ways to help get the best emotional balance and clear communication for your horse. I also look for connection with me above all things so I want that two-way conversation to be going on all the time – if one or other of us does something unexpected (or something happens in the environment), well, no big deal. We’re used to working things out together rather than working to a set pattern, so we just tune in to each other and figure out together what to do in this situation. This actually builds great emotional calmness and resilience for life. It seems small, but I have found that varying the rewards the following the marker is one piece to teaching horses the general concept that the unexpected is nothing to worry about but tune into your human and you’ll figure it out together. I’m a fan of what works, though, so I’m perfectly happy to click and feed every time if it’s working for that horse 🙂

      Great question and I hope that explains a little more about why I do what I do!

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