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How to Improve Your Horse’s Lateral Suppleness

how to improve your horse's lateral suppleness dressage bend

Just as people are right or left-handed, most horses are naturally more supple to one side than the other.

That means your horse bends more easily around a circle on one rein than he does on the other, or shows a more clear crossing of the legs in leg-yield to the left than to the right.

So, how can you improve your horse’s lateral suppleness?

What is lateral suppleness?

Lateral suppleness refers to the horse’s side-to-side dexterity.

In other words, the ability of the horse to bend and keep his balance around circles, through corners, and when making turns.

Uniform bend

First of all, it’s important to understand that the horse’s bend should be uniform.

That means the horse bends through his body and neck equally.

Some horses bend through the neck but not through the body, which generally causes the horse to drift out through his shoulder.

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How can you tell if your horse lacks lateral suppleness?

If you’re not sure if your horse lacks suppleness to the bend, there are a few telltale signs:

  • the horse is resistant and tense when schooling in lateral work or around small circles
  • the horse finds an exercise easy on one rein but difficult on the other
  • when you’re riding lateral exercises or negotiating turns, the horse falls in or out through the shoulder
  • the horse swings his quarters out around circles and through corners

If any of the above apply to your horse, he most likely lacks lateral suppleness.

How the dressage judge recognizes lateral suppleness

In dressage tests, there are several ways in which lateral suppleness is identified and judged.

  • The horse falls in or out through the shoulder on circles, through corners, and turns.
  • As the horse moves around a circle or through a corner, his hind feet cross over rather than staying on one track.
  • In the lateral exercises, the horse doesn’t bend uniformly through his body or at all.
  • Often, the positioning in the lateral exercises is not maintained.
  • There is insufficient crossing of the legs in the lateral exercises.

Some horses become very resistant and tense when the rider tries to ride the lateral work or insist on bend around a small circle, which is also an indicator of lateral stiffness.

How can you improve lateral suppleness?

To improve your horse’s lateral suppleness, you need to work him equally on both reins.

Although it may be tempting to focus on your horse’s stiffest side, that can present problems in that the horse’s muscles and joints on that side will become sore if you persist without giving him a break. In contrast, if you stick to working more on the easy side, the stiffer side will never improve.

Lateral work is perhaps the best tool for developing and improving lateral suppleness in the horse, especially exercises such as:

If your horse finds it difficult to keep the angle in shoulder-fore, shoulder-in, and travers, it can be helpful to ride the exercise on the three-quarter line rather than the track. That tactic helps to keep the horse attentive to your aids and stops him from relying on the side of the arena.

Here are a few exercises to help improve lateral suppleness. Remember to ride the exercises equally on both reins.

Exercise 1 – Shoulder-fore or shoulder-in on a 20-meter circle

Riding shoulder-fore on a circle is a great suppling exercise.

Because the horse has to turn while you’re riding him in shoulder-fore, he has to really bend around your inside leg. Although the horse will find this exercise difficult initially, you’ll find him much more supple when you go back to riding a straight line.

As your horse becomes more supple, you can make the exercise more difficult by riding shoulder-in rather than shoulder-fore.

Step 1

Establish an active working trot around the arena.

Step 2

Put the horse in shoulder-fore down the long side.

Step 3

At B or E, ride a 20-meter circle, maintaining the shoulder-fore position, and then go large.

As the horse becomes more confident, you can ride several circles before going large.

You should find that the horse feels much more supple through the turns.

Exercise 2 – Leg-yield

Leg-yield is excellent for encouraging the horse to swing his hindleg across underneath his body.

That fluent crossing is great for suppling the horse laterally, simply because, when negotiating circles and corners the horse must step underneath with his inside hind leg, otherwise he won’t take more weight on his hindquarters and stay in a uniform bend while remaining balanced.

Step 1

Establish a rhythmic, active working trot around the arena.

Step 2

Ride your horse in leg-yield across the diagonal line.

Make the angle shallow at first, then gradually increase the angle for a few strides to encourage the horse to really step through and across.

Step 3

Decrease the angle, riding forward all the time.

Change the rein and repeat the exercise.

Exercise 3 – Leg-yield in canter

This exercise is extremely effective for a horse that’s stiff and tight through his ribcage, as it helps to soften the horse around your inside leg.

Step 1

Establish an energetic, balanced working canter.

Step 2

Turn down the centerline.

Leg-yield back to the track, pushing the horse away from the leading leg. For example, if you’re cantering on the left canter lead, leg-yield to the right.

Exercise 4 – Ride travers on a 20-meter circle

Riding travers around a circle is a brilliant way of developing more lateral suppleness in the canter.

It’s easier to ride travers around a circle than it is on a straight line, and you’ll have more control, too.

Step 1

Establish an energetic, balanced working canter around the arena.

Step 2

Ride travers down the long side of the arena.

Step 3

As you get to E or B, ride a 20-meter circle, keeping the horse in travers.

As the horse becomes more confident, you can ride several circles before going large.

Exercise 5 – 10-meter circles and counter-canter

Counter-canter is an excellent exercise for improving lateral suppleness.

This is a good suppling exercise that won’t be too difficult for horses in the early stages of their training but still brings plenty of benefits.

Step 1

Pick up a balanced true working canter with the right leg leading.

Step 2

Ride a half 10-meter circle at A on the right rein.

(To prevent the horse from becoming tense, make the circle a little larger if the horse struggles with a 10-meter circle.)

Step 3

When you’ve completed the half 10-meter circle, ride a half 20-meter circle to the left in counter-canter, touching the track on the long side.

The inside rein can ask for a little flexion to the leading leg, but no more than would be asked for in true canter.

Step 4

As you complete the half 20-meter circle, ride one final half 10-meter circle to the right to finish the exercise at C before going large.

Step 5

Now, ride the exercise on the left rein.

The proof of the pudding …

After you’ve spent time riding through these exercises, try riding a few serpentines and small circles. You should immediately notice how much more supple your horse feels.

In conclusion

Lateral suppleness refers to the horse’s ability to bend uniformly through his body on both reins.

Also, the more laterally supple your horse is the more he will be able to cross his leg in lateral work.

Devoting time to working on lateral suppleness is well worth the effort. The more supple your horse is, the easier and more comfortable he will be to ride, and your dressage marks should improve, too.

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