Shoulder Control - Overview

These lessons teach your horse to elevate his shoulders, travel in frame and enable him to begin movements such as shoulder-in. They will help you to prevent the horse from falling in on a circle and dropping his shoulder - leading to improved performance in every discipline.


The purpose of this course is to teach your horse shoulder control off the rein. The horse will learn how to reverse-arc while maintaining frame and softness in the bridle. This leads to shoulder elevation and collection and will improve performance in all disciplines.

Does your horse:

  • Fall in on a circle?
  • Travel on the forehand?
  • Look left and go right?
  • Feel heavy in the bridle?
  • Steer like a Mack truck?

Or perhaps you just want to improve your overall performance - start this course!

The Basic Elements:

The SPOT on the horse that you want to move: The left front foot (to begin, we do both sides, of course)

The DIRECTION you want it to go: From 10 to 2 o'clock (on an imaginary clock in front of his chest)

The MOTIVATION for moving it: Rein pressure from the left rein

The REWARD given for the correct response: Release of pressure, praise and scratch the horse on the wither


The horse learns that his foot should be under the rein - rather like a puppet. So, despite the direction of neck flexion, the horse learns to step left and right while maintaining frame and softness in the bridle.

We are teaching the horse shoulder control from a rein aid so that we do not confuse and aggravate him with too much leg pressure. With 'educationally' young horses I try to keep leg aids to mean 'go forward' - both legs touch the horse together to get forward movement. As the horse progresses into lateral work (quite quickly) one leg signals 'whole horse move sideways'. I have found that this is considerably clearer for the horse and less likely to induce conflict behaviours such as kicking at the leg, ear pinning and tail swishing that can be so prevalent in horses subjected to unrelenting leg pressure, squeezing or kicking.


Give to the Bit

Shoulder Control can be taught to any horse that is wearing a bridle. The first few lessons here can, and should, be completed before your horse is under saddle (if you are fortunate enough to be starting your own) so that you have complete shoulder control for your first ride.


This lesson can be practiced for short periods, 5 minutes or so, any time you are riding or on the ground. If you practice out on the trail ride, for example, you already have forward movement and you can simply pick up the rein and move the shoulders in reverse arc from time to time.

This will help keep the horse engaged and stop the exercises from putting any unnecessary strain on his neck, especially those horses that don't have a great deal of strength. Be sure to change sides often to minimize this risk.

Things to Remember:

  1. Go forward first - practice the Give to the Bit exercises, having the horse walk around you, and then ask for a reverse arc step or two from there.
  2. You will not get 2 o'clock on the first day - the behaviour needs to be shaped - 11:30 is better than 11 o'clock so reward that.
  3. Changing sides often will relieve any stress on your horses neck.
  4. Once under saddle, the best place to do the exercises is when your horse is already thinking 'forward' - out on the trail is ideal.
  5. When you are on the ground try (very hard) not to pull your horse's head down. This creates a number of problems, not the least of which is you have so much more to re-teach the horse when you are riding because you cannot emulate that angle of pressure from the saddle.

ISES Training Principles:

  1. Release the pressure immediately when the horse responds. As soon as the foot moves in the direction you are signalling, release the rein - think of a puppet and the foot being at the end of the string.
  2. Use signals that the horse can differentiate. The horse can feel the difference when we move the rein to and away from his neck. Make it obvious for him, especially when you first get into the saddle.
  3. Train and initiate responses one at a time (shaping). We are connecting the rein to the foot (mentally). Reward the small correct responses you get and build on those until you can step to each of the areas of the 'clock'.
  4. Train habitual responses using consistency and repetition. You need to release and reward the horse for the correct movement each time. As you build on this you will find that less and less pressure is required as the horse learns the pattern - 'the rein moves to my neck, I step away from the rein, the rein is released'.
  5. Train only one response per signal. We are only 'talking to' the horse's shoulders in this lesson and the response we are looking for is 'move your shoulder left or right'. Don't worry about where the hindquarters are at this stage (we can address that later).
  6. Avoid fear during training. If your horse is finding it difficult to move across try to be gently persistent and find small tries to reward. Don't be tempted to raise your arms and 'push' him over. This will not only make the horse fearful of him but it will also result in him throwing up his head - both responses that you never want.
  7. Train persistence of responses.We are aiming for the horse to be in self-carriage. We want the horse to move his shoulder before pressure is picked up and maintain that behaviour until we ask for something else. Your horse will learn the pattern quickly and you will find less and less pressure is required to get the movement. Eventually simply moving the rein will elicit the shoulder movement.
  8. Check for relaxation. As with all lessons, the horse will only improve his overall performance if he is relaxed. Check for conflict behaviours such as pinning his ears, nipping at you or stiffening his neck. All of these are indications that you have not broken the lesson down enough for the horse. The more relaxed the horse the quicker he will learn it. We are looking for relaxation and engagement!
  • ISES Training Principles Poster
    ISES Training Principles Poster

    Download your copy of the International Society for Equitation Science's (ISES) Training Principles Poster here.

  • ISES Code of Conduct
    ISES Code of Conduct

    Download your copy of the International Society for Equitation Science's Code of Conduct. Parts of this document are particularly applicable to those of you that compete or hold events.