I remember the confusion I felt when I first heard someone say that a horse was ‘dropping his shoulder.’
An example of a horse ‘dropping his shoulder’ would be a horse traveling to the left (counter clockwise) in a circle or around an arena. As the horse travels this path the rider feels them ‘dropping their shoulder’ into the direction of travel (left in this example) which causes the horse to track to the inside of where the rider desires to be. If left unfixed the horse will often travel more and more to the left.
To compensate for this ‘dropping’ the rider is often instructed to use the inside leg or rein or both to ‘hold’ the horse up. In this example the rider will often apply pressure with the left leg and/or the left rein to push the shoulder back out (to the right).
I dislike the phrase ‘dropping its shoulder’ because generally the more the rider takes the responsibility of ‘holding up’ the shoulder…the more it allows the horse to lean into the pressure. Much like a dog pulling on a leash as it is led, part of the problem lies in the handler holding pressure and allowing the dog to pull.
I would rather replace the term ‘dropping the shoulder’ with ‘falling in’ or simply turning; because if the rider didn’t ‘hold up the shoulder’ the horse would turn.
Fixing a horse that is turning too soon often seems easier to understand than fixing one that is ‘dropping his shoulder’….although it could be argued that they are the same thing. This may seem like a small difference in phrasing but when coaching I have often found that it is the key to getting the rider to find a true ‘fix’ for the problem.
In the example above, if the rider didn’t use the left leg or rein to ‘hold the horse up’ the horse would simply turn to the left. The horse isn’t dropping something, he is turning early. The easiest way to prove this is to NOT hold up the shoulder. The rider will be pleasantly surprised to find that they are still upright….nothing dropped…but they will also find that the horse has turned earlier or sharper than the rider wanted.
There are many reasons why a horse will ‘drop his shoulder’ or ‘fall in’ or turn early; here are a few:
- anticipation-the horse traveling to the left thinks ‘the last 200 times we got to the corner we turned left…I bet we are going to turn left…lets go ahead and turn left now’
- rider leaning-the rider anticipates the turn and leans, subtly cueing the horse to turn
- difficult body frame to hold- many events favor horses who carry an animated body position where the horses body frame carries a curve. This is more difficult than carrying the body straight and some horses while trying to move straighter will turn.
- bracing against the rider-at some point the horse either anticipated the turn or the rider anticipate the turn and then slowly over time the horse and rider have become unbalanced…the rider feeling the need to ‘hold’ and the horse believing it is O.K. to lean
Einstein said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”
The subtle difference of viewing this issues from another angle may lead you to solve your problem.
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