Shoulder Forward and medium canter

Bringing the horse’s shoulder a bit to the inside in canter is called shoulder fore.  It is a schooling movement that (to my knowledge) is not asked for in any test, yet is incredibly useful.

Why should this boring (until you try to do it correctly!) and little-used movement be so important?

1. If showing is you goal and you have ever got a comment about your medium canter down the long side “Haunches in,” or haunches drifting,” this movement is your friend.

2. If your horse understands shoulder fore in canter he or she also understands that you may use your inside leg to activate the inner hind in canter–without the horse offering a change of lead unasked–and that you may freely straighten the horse on your outer rein–also without them offering to change the lead unasked.  These are two absolutely essential things to be able to do at will.

Note:  In flying changes sometimes it can happen in the course of the work that the horse blackmails the rider into taking away necessary positioning influences: “If you use your leg or hand to straighten me I’ll get behind you and switch my lead!”  “I will, I really will!”

Shoulder fore is a way to make this concept clear to the horse:  “I am on the right lead canter, and the rider can actively use the right leg and left hand to influence my angle. They can also send me forward on the angle and bring me back onto my neatly positioned inside hind leg.”

What it looks like: it looks like a shoulder in with almost no bend, done in canter, typically down the long side.

The typical problem riders have with this movement is they approach it by attempting to use a lot of inner leg, seat and hand.  Effectively driving the shoulders of the horse to the outside and the haunches in–the opposite effect to the desired one!

The easier way to approach it is to first teach the horse to counter flex just a bit in the corners so they are familiar with the influence of the outside rein.  Then use the outer rein to line up the outer shoulder–an absolutely straight horse, directly in front of the rider’s pelvis and directly behind the rider’s pelvis.  Even on both sides.  (The angle is initiated with a slight, correct, angle of the rider’s body, weight centered.)

We are not approaching this like pushing the broken egg back into the shell!  It should feel like lifting the horse forward into the movement. The better the rider is and securing their own core the easier the horse will be able to understand what is expected.

And in schooling, take it easy at first if the horse has difficulty.  Just do a few steps and go on down the line again.  Once they understand to keep this angle until straightened on the line, you can send them forward to a nice medium canter and bring them back with no trouble.  It’s pretty easy, but the horse has to be straight or it will not work.  No bend, just positioning of the shoulders to the interior side.

Ch CH-CHanges.

Dale Forbes

I have a student who is currently working on flying changes.  (One of several actually).  This a dressage “journey to Mecca” that a lot of people dream about but never actually get to.

How come?

Well, “changes” (not “flies,” thank you!) take some set up, and they come in a certain order of the training and they tend to bring out issues in the training that people find daunting.  Issues that, if you see them in the changes, were there all along, but hidden.

Here is a nice first pattern that makes the first changes easier,  how I normally proceed, the problems involved and some solutions.  Here is the basic figure, performed by L Judge Honors Graduate with Distinction: Sally Sovey on her Ricarda, from Regazzoni.  This lovely mare has a tendency to get hot in the changes and needs to wait, not take over and do it solo.  Many horses have this issue–they find changes exciting!.  (You see this tendency on the trial positioning as they enter the line. Clever Sally to have “lost” almost all her bend before entering this line)  I will explain the important details of what they are doing below.  But here is what the practice looks like

Note: Because flying changes are a sequence of both preparation and balance, it is by far the best if someone who knows how to do them introduces the green horse to the first few changes.  (This is MUCH easier on everybody.)  If there is a good professional around, a month of training on a horse that is in the general neighborhood of being able to do changes will get you years ahead.  After the horse has learned the basic idea, the rider must then learn the setup.  This is much easiest if, as with Ricarda, the horse has a framework in place–if not perfectly finished.  Doing changes on a green horse is MUCH different than asking a school master.  Take this into account.

That said, when to start?  The classic answer from Rudolf is roughly this:  when the horse is okay with doing correct canter-walk, walk-canter transitions, and has been introduced to counter canter–though they may not yet be perfect at it.

Why not perfect?  Because if you want your horse to be happy experimenting with a change for you it is best if they are not drilled for years to never, NEVER, NEVER do a change.  You actually school changes sort of at the same period as counter canter.

One of the mind-bending elements of changes is straightness–in changes straightness at first it is really reverse crookedness!  (Later they feel much more straight, but at the start not so much so.)

For the horse to easily jump from one lead to the other there must be a place for them to do so.  There’s a concept called “relative straightness” that comes to play here.  Relative straightness has to do with the fact the horse’s hips are generally wider than their shoulders, so you are in effect riding a blunt arrowhead around the arena.  When you want X lead you in effect place the tip of the arrow just a tiny bit to the outside, giving a “hole” for the horse to put the lead in.  And then you generally canter around straight–or you think so anyway.  From the rider’s point of view the canter is asked for and maintained with inner seat bone forward, outer slightly back, but weight centered over the horse.

In a flying change, before the change you also position the tip of the arrow-head slightly away from of your desired new lead–that is, right over the top of the lead leg you are actually on.  This gives a space for the horse to jump straight into the new lead.  Hint–your leg positioning and seat are already occupied by maintaining the lead you are on.  Those will not be useful to you in the new positioning.  It is done with the hands.  See Counter Canter post if you have not already.

So in effect the horse must allow you to move their shoulders both ways without falling off the lead they are in.  (Easier said than done.)

Probably THE most important part of schooling a change is to approach it like a jump–and that is with a straight line in front of it and a straight line after it.  Slight change of direction in very natural in the first few green changes your horse does. (They tend to lose their balance toward the change and veer off that way.)  This is one of the any reasons it is important to position your horse slightly before the change, but not DURING the change–let your hand be the instrumental in the preparation, but not the aid itself.  (This is very easy to get wrong.)  In fact you should feel the horse jump more into your outer rein–and be straightened and supported by that during the change–than you should any pull to the inside during the change.  That makes your horse lose balance even more.  If you need for some reason to “rob” your horse of a change by using the inside rein–he just doesn’t get it!–then make sure that is not your goal and habit.

So, again here is the horse doing the most basic change pattern.  That is down the center line from the middle of the arena.  She has been taught to flex slightly to either direction in a normal, rhythmical canter, without doing the change–and then more times than not, turned to the true lead direction.  In this case you can see the rider practice positioning her–and her attempting to put the change in early, but then not.  The rider rides forward softly, maintaining rhythm, again positions, the horse waits and then the leg aid comes.   Ricarda then jumps nicely into the new lead, travels straight for a moment and then on with the work.

The advantage  of this figure is if the horse gets nervous or hot you can just say “What change?” and canter to your lead side.  In fact the wise rider practices this many times well before they will be doing a change.

In the next post on changes I will give you lesson number two, Placing a Change.

Happy riding!

Counter Canter (free video clinic!).

Dale Forbes

If you have a counter canter question please feel free to send a short 10-15 second clip of you and your horse doing some part of the canter work.  We’ll tell you what we think. And if it is a great example, maybe ask your permission to post the ride.  You can find contact information under both Melynnda and my information on the home page–our team of experts.

Counter canter. That is cantering with the outside leg leading instead of the inside.  It’s use is to fine-tune the rider’s understanding of balance in the canter and encourage the use of the legs and hands independently of one another, getting ready to eventually school flying changes.

(You will notice I have not said anything about the horse.  They actually find it quite easy.)

Probably because people deem it as a “failure” if the horse should swap the lead, they sometimes approach counter canter with great caution.  (Actually, breaking to the trot instead of maintaining the effort needed to canter is a bigger problem than swapping the lead.)  Since the purpose of correct counter canter is to get ready to school the changes, if the rider contorts the horse to such a degree that it would be impossible for them to change the lead, then it is likely that no lead change will happen.  But also no benefit will be derived from such a practice.  Therefore dedication to it is misplaced.  It is okay if mistakes happen.  The horse should be in a balance where they COULD do a change, but have been taught that is not what is expected–yet.

Here is a post that talks about the actual flying changes–preview of things to come:

Rider positioning: As in a correct canter depart: inside seat bone forward, leg at the girth, outside seat bone back, outside knee bent to bring the calf back.  This must be maintained 100% through the exercise–and that takes a bit of practice.

Hint: if the horse is in a tight spot and needs help, it helps to center the rider’s body slightly to the lead side–a fraction of an inch.  This will need to be abandoned as one gets ready for a flying change sequence.  A slight increase in true flexion (toward the lead side) will also help if questions are being asked.

One of the goals of counter canter is to accustom the rider that they must keep their legs in a position, yet be able to maneuver the horse with their hands–both positioning and steering if necessary in different directions and to accommodate the balance.

Another goal is to have the horse understand that the rider’s weight and leg aids guide the eventual change of lead–NOT the hand.  So the horse must get used to being slightly flexed away from the direction of the lead, yet not jumping off into that lead. The very easiest place to practice this is a counter flexion in the corner on a true lead.  (You will see here a pattern of stacking the deck in the horse’s favor.  If you practice lots of little counter flexions all through your canter work he or she will find it no surprise that you may on occasion ask for this in unusual places.)  It makes sense to do these beginning exercises in the very easiest place for the horse

The figures: As with most things, it makes sense to not over face yourself or the horse.  When you school counter canter always have a plan A and plan B.  (Examples:  I would like to make the shallow loop down the long side go to the quarter line, but the horse is having difficulty, I’ll use the second track for now.  Or, I would like to cross the short diagonal and make a half twenty meter circle in counter canter, but the horse is starting to lean or take over as I begin the diagonal: near X I turn back in the direction of my lead and go around to start again.)

Now what we need are some videos.  Your place or ours?  If you have questions, please ask.

Aids to canter


Rider, Melynnda Thiessen, with correct positioning, initiating a circle in canter.

For more on canter skills please see

Dale Forbes

The aids to canter are fairly simple, particularly if you think of them in stages.

1. It is important not to surprise your horse with the canter.  The horse, as in many transitions and movements, should know what he is going to be expected to do very slightly before he is asked to actually do it.  This helps maintain relaxation in the horse–a sort of “Ready? Set? — Now proceed!” order of things.

How the aids work.

Preparation: practice positioning your horse’s head and hind leg very slightly to the inside at the same time.  Rider’s outside leg is ready to go back, weight centered, outside seat bone positioned slightly back–and therefore the inner slightly forward–inside leg in a natural, at the girth position. Do this  first in walk, then in trot.

Take your time here.  If the horse is not comfortable with the setup for any movement you can never get the balance to have things go smoothly.  Practice this until your horse is comfortable, even if it takes several training sessions. If your horse knows canter he will probably try to offer it to you when you first take the hip back.  Say thanks, but not yet.  It is important for the horse not to leap to canter in a hurry, but wait until you say, “Now’s the time.”  That’s how you eventually get an accurate transition placement.

(Note: in the end the canter transition should be perfectly straight, but we are talking the most basic form and you are trying to make it easy for your horse.  The double inside positioning of leg and poll helps him understand.  You can become perfect later, for now make it simple for your horse to understand.)


1. Rider’s outside leg slides slightly back, outside side of pelvis back, inside side of pelvis downward and forward, weight centered, inside leg at girth. (You will note this is similar to getting the horse to double position–the difference is it is just a positioning of the aids–no pressure is applied.)

2. Pause a moment attracting your horse’s attention with a half halt.

3. Stretch upward through your sternum slightly accentuating the forward/downward push of your inside seat bone–not a shove!–outside leg gives light pressure, inside leg more pressure. Tip: it helps to look over your outside shoulder to position your inner hip forward.  The horse should canter. If not, half halt and repeat the aid.

Green horse tip: If a young horse trots off faster before cantering, repeat the aid rhythmically until it “falls”  (we hope not literally!)  into canter.  Again, you are not striving for perfection, just getting the horse to understand the gait.  Wrong lead?  Don’t worry about it, ride that lead.  If you stop your green horse because of a bad transition it will not have experienced canter, so there is no way to reward the poor creature.   Don’t worry how much canter you get.  If the horse loses balance and has to trot, go with it for now.  Better yet, if you feel he must trot, ask him to do so.  We can fix this later.  If it feels fun for the horse, say “more!” direct and support where you  can.

Insisting on a lot of canter when the horse can’t balance and you can’t help, gives you a frightened horse galloping to catch his balance.  This is not going forward, or as Rudolf said, “just running”–not what we want to encourage.  Use your feel.

A note here about utterly green horses.  Many advanced riders, used to a horse responding to the half halt in canter, will unintentionally kill the canter in a young horse.  Oddly, green riders are not so inclined to do this–not really knowing how to half halt!  There are many occasions when just cantering on is indeed the right decision with a young horse.  Again, use your feel.  If it seems fun for the horse it probably is.  You can always circle on landing in trot to regain balance.

Basic level horse tip: the horse takes a fast step of trot before cantering, kindly say “No thanks” half halt, regroup and ask again.  Be careful you are not carrying the “young horse ride” into this older horse transition.  A young horse should have minimal restraint in front until it knows to “go forward, no matter what”.  But it is actually much easier for the horse to balance if you regulate the rhythm and give direction in front.  Be there for your mid level horse.

Upper level horse tip: Even an upper level horse will “fall off the cliff ” in a canter transition if the rider does not half halt, or as riders are inclined to do in this moment, gives no upward direction at all.

Common problems and solutions:

Nothing happens when you ask: Solution, be very sure your aids were clear.  If you are sure, then short kick, says, “Think about it!”  Set up again and ask nicely.

Horse kicks quarters in, does not canter:  Be sure you have not applied too much outside leg–he may honestly think you want a leg yield.  Correct yourself first, then correction as above.

Horse leaps to canter: Be sure your setup was methodical and clear–don’t attack the horse with the aids.

Advanced horse raises head in transition, inverting:  Keep in mind this is natural for the horse–they can use the muscles that connect the poll and shoulder to haul themselves forward–jerking the head up.  We prefer they use a different method. Position the horse a bit more at the poll before the transition, and increase that positioning during the transition.  This will not work unless your outside side is back and controlling the outside hind leg from stepping out.  The inside positioning must connect with the outside hind leg–line them up.

Haunches swinging:  (I told you I was going to get to this).  A common problem in upper level horses is that the horse positions the quarters too much to the inside.  This is usually caused by the rider using not just a positioned outside leg, but a really active outside leg. Don’t do this.  Swing the leg back softly, positioning your body as above, then ask mainly with the inside seat and leg as you half halt and think of balancing uphill.

When in doubt go back to the training scale.  Do the most basic and obvious things first.  This is not complicated.  Take time to figure out the root of the problem.


Rider, Melynnda Thiessen siting nicely “upward” assisting the young horse to maintain balance.

Another note.

For something that does work, and will cost roughly three riding lessons, not three months of training, improve your girthing strategy.

Best wishes,