What is a 'dropped shoulder' in a horse and how can I fix it?

horse drop shoulder dropping fixYesterdays blog discussed ‘Confusing terms people use around horses‘ and the following comment showed up on the Facebook post.

 “I’ve been yelled at – and still don’t know what a dropped shoulder is.”-Karen S.

This is a great example of a confusing term. I agree that people over use this term AND I believe it would be possible to sit down with three different professionals and have at least three different definitions of the term.

Dropped shoulder:

  1. the horse leaves the desired path of travel around the arena, cutting to the inside
  2. the horse desires to leave the current path of travel and turn early, the rider uses a cue to keep him from doing so (inside rein, inside leg) resulting in the feeling that if the rider ‘let go’ or stopped ‘holding him up’ the horse would ‘fall in’
  3. a lack of elevation in the front end combined with the desire to turn to soon

In general the term is used when the horse wants to cut to the inside of the path of travel. This happens more often when a horse is ridden in a riding arena. It doesn’t take a horse too long to figure out that if you are traveling counter-clockwise around an arena that the pattern is; go straight, turn left, go straight, turn left, go straight, turn left, go straight, turn left, go straight, turn left, go straight, turn left…..you get the point.

Soon the horse thinks, “A left turn is coming….lets do it now.” and the ‘dropped’ shoulder has begun. Keep in mind that the shoulder can’t be ‘dropped’ unless at some point it is being held. Stop ‘holding the shoulder up’ and what happens?

I would argue that most of the time a ‘dropped shoulder’ is nothing more than cutting a corner. Ever been at a 4 way stop in your car? Ever had someone turn and almost hit the front corner of your car? They were ‘dropping their shoulder’….but clearly the car wasn’t leaning. People tend to mean ‘dropping the shoulder’ when the horse is simply ‘turning too early’.

Is it fixable? Yes, but the rider has to be willing to stop ‘holding him up’ and let him make the mistake. When he leaves the path of travel the rider needs to correct it…and then let him go and probably make the mistake again. Ultimately the horse must become responsible for ‘holding’ his own shoulder up because he knows you will correct him and then let go again. There is a huge difference between correcting the issue vs becoming part of the problem.

This is how I define a dropped shoulder…but is that what your riding instructor means?

P.S.-this post triggered a follow up post ‘3 Things to Remember with Horses that ‘drop their shoulders’


  1. Jennifer Wintjes on April 28, 2015 at 7:01 pm

    “he knows you will correct him and then let go again” on Dropping Shoulders… can you tell us some exercises in how to fix it? re: barrel racing and pole bending. Thanks for the explanations… very helpful:)

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  3. thebunch1 on April 27, 2015 at 6:48 pm

    The rider will always affect the horse. If the horse is doing this, it’s because the person is telling them to. If the person is riding unevenly-so will the horse. It’s Biomechanics 101. Many times as well, There can be physical reasons as well with the horse, so best to check with a good CESMT or chiro before blaming the horse for being ‘bad’ or sending them to a triainer.

  4. Kayla on April 27, 2015 at 6:40 pm

    My barrel mare drops her shoulder on every barrel. I’ve watched youtube videos and found ways to correct. Fallon Taylor has a great video on it, as does Heather Smith.

  5. Kathy on April 27, 2015 at 3:58 pm

    Thanks for the explanation. i have often wondered exactly what is meant by “dropped shoulder”. Your article was very helpful.

    If my horse was dropping his shoulder I would immediately turn him the other way, to get him to stand up his shoulder again. Is this a methode you would find effective? Do you have any other advice to getting him to straighten up?

  6. Elizabeth Braid on April 27, 2015 at 3:12 pm

    I am slightly confused as well: If horse is dropping left shoulder before the left turn I assume it would be the inside leg and outside rein?? But that’s not what the blog states (inside leg and inside rein)? Please clarify..

  7. Laura on April 27, 2015 at 12:00 pm

    Thank you Stacy ! Me horse does this on a loose rein and I’m guessing because he’s a bit lazy and under conditioned. So to be clear. If he’s dropping the left shoulder in a left turn use inside leg and rein? I’ve been using inside leg outside rein.

  8. Pam Hunt on April 27, 2015 at 11:56 am

    I can best describe [my interpretation of] a dropped shoulder as the horse’s weight is shifted to the forehand, and usually to the inside foot. This subsequently causes the horse to go where his weight is- a turn in the direction of the weight. Most will do this while working at a lope and results in a downward transition to a jog or walk. Some will also “drop their shoulder” when you ask for a downward transition- this feels (and looks like) a horse “falling” into the slower gait as he’s stopping with the forehand and not his haunches. A horse physically cannot “drop his shoulder” when he’s truly working off his hindquarters.

  9. Terry Thomas on April 27, 2015 at 11:48 am

    Not to mention the fact that our horses shadow our bodies and some people tend to lean in at or before a turn (especially people who ride motorcycles as well as horses, lol) almost forcing the horse to “drop his shoulder”.

  10. Gayle Carline on April 27, 2015 at 11:40 am

    Yes, Stacy, that’s what my trainer is talking about. It tends to happen when we are turning. I show AQHA trail, so we work with my horse to keep his shoulder up, his body round, and his back end pushing forward over the poles. Sometimes when we are loping a wheel of poles, he will drop his inside shoulder and basically spiral toward the inside, instead of holding his body up and out to maintain the circle. So, if you told me Snoopy was dropping his shoulder, I think we’d be on the same page.

  11. Sarah Bernier on April 27, 2015 at 11:11 am

    Interesting! So, to play a bit of devil’s advocate, I have to ask: WHY is the horse “cutting corners”? And, most often the horse only does it to one side…for example, my horse has taken to “dropping” his right shoulder. When I got him he was VERY heavy (dropping) on his LEFT. So I spent quite a deal of time strengthening his left HIND so he’d use it (he’s VERY lazy with his back end, won’t get it under himself)…

    …and now of course I focused too heavily on the left hind and now the right hind has gotten weak, ergo he’s “dropping” his right shoulder. But to the left he’s great.

    So, my guess would be *most* people use “dropping the shoulder” to refer to being heavy on the front and “traveling downhill,” or basically pulling themselves along with their front end, rather than using their proper motor — the hind end.

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