MULE CROSSING: Shoulder-In and Lengthening the Trot
By Meredith Hodges
In order to perform the shoulder-in properly, it is important to understand its purpose. The shoulder-in causes the equine to engage his hindquarters so that they carry the bulk of his weight, giving him more freedom and suppleness in his shoulders and front quarters. A strong base must be established to carry this weight forward while the shoulders remain light and free to proceed forward while tracking laterally.
The shoulder-in is done on a straight line. Normally, an animal traveling in a straight line makes two tracks in the dirt behind him, because the front legs are positioned directly in front of the back legs. In the shoulder-in, the shoulders are positioned so that they cause a three-track pattern behind—the inside front foot makes one track, the outside front foot and the inside hind foot make one track, and the outside hind foot makes one track.
Begin by walking your equine around the perimeter of the arena. When you reach the corner before the long side, make a ten-meter (30-foot) circle. As you close your circle at the start of the long side of the arena, maintain the bend that you had for the circle, using steady pressure on your inside rein. At the same time, nudge your equine with alternate leg pressure in synchronization with his hind legs as they each go forward. Squeeze your outside rein at the same time that you squeeze with your outside leg, and then release the outside rein. Ride the hindquarters straight forward from your seat and legs, as you offset the shoulders with your hands. Be careful that your inside rein is not so tight that your animal bends only his neck to the inside. As you squeeze with the outside aids, feel your equine rock his balance back to the hindquarters, giving you the sensation of pedaling backward on a bicycle. Simultaneously, you should feel the front quarters begin to lighten and become supple.
Take your time and don’t try too hard. Be content at first with two or three steps of shoulder-in and then straighten him down the long side of the arena. After a few accurate steps of shoulder-in, as he straightens his body, you will feel him surge forward with more energy. Collect and slow your equine’s gait through the short side of the arena and then repeat the exercise on the next long side. As your equine begins to understand the concept of rocking his balance to the hindquarters, the surge of energy that you feel when he straightens will become more and more powerful.
Much body strength and coordination is involved in this exercise and at first, you may feel like you are all thumbs. Time, patience and practice will bring about positive results, so stay with it. Over time, do this exercise at the walk, the trot and the canter, and do it the same way in both directions in the arena. Don’t forget to praise your animal for each correct step that he gives you.
The next exercise to enhance hindquarter engagement and lengthen the stride is quite simple, yet still a little tricky because lengthening your mule’s stride means covering more distance yet maintaining the same rhythm and cadence. It does not mean speed up, although that is what most equines will try to do. Track the perimeter of the arena again. This time, collect the trot on the short sides, and then urge your equine to lengthen his trot down the long sides. To add variation, ask him to lengthen across the diagonals (from corner to corner) as well. Your equine’s first impulse will probably be to shift his weight to the forehand and just speed up. For this reason, do not push him too hard too soon. At first, just ask for a little more energy—be aware that your rhythm and cadence will not be lost as his stride increases. He will just be spending more time in suspension. Keep the forehand light and free while you ride the hindquarters. Let your hand open slightly with the foreleg going forward on the same side, and close as the leg comes back. This will help you to determine how far you can let that stride go before the balance begins to shift forward. It will also allow you to check the balance with your hands before it begins to shift. If he has too much difficulty, you should go back and practice lengthening over ground rails again to gain more strength and coordination.
As your equine gains strength in the hindquarters and is better able to carry your weight, his lengthened gaits will continue to improve until, perhaps a year or so later, he will be able to fully extend his stride at the walk, trot and canter. I caution you, however, that if your animal begins to rush, ask for less.
Another exercise that is helpful in lengthening the trot is to canter your equine around the arena, then cross half of your diagonal at the canter. Break to the posting trot and finish the diagonal. After the diagonal, sit the trot through the short side of the arena, pick up the canter on the long side again, and then cross the next available diagonal again and repeat the pattern. The drive that an equine gets from his hindquarters in the canter will carry through into the trot for the few strides on the diagonal and will create the true lengthening. This also holds true when teaching the lengthened walk (add trot work and back to walk) and the lengthened canter (add galloping and back to canter). This is your opportunity to tell your equine, “Yes, yes, this is what I want when I urge you on!”
Learning to ride from back to front (from the hindquarters forward) will greatly improve the harmony between you and your equine. Loss of balance seems to be the single most common cause of disobedience and problems with riding and driving animals. Carrying your weight and his in a properly balanced posture minimizes the chance for a loss of balance, and recovery from such a loss is much easier. Your equine will soon discover that your aids are indeed for his benefit as well as for your own, and he will become more accepting of them over time. As he becomes more balanced, you will find a world of different activities that you and your equine can do!
To learn more about Meredith Hodges and her comprehensive all-breed equine training program, visit LuckyThreeRanch.com or call 1-800-816-7566. Check out her children’s website at JasperTheMule.com. Also, find Meredith on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.
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This article is an excerpt from the book, Training Mules and Donkeys by Meredith Hodges, 2013.