Suppleness (longitudinal) is the second item on the dressage Scales of Training and is crucial to the horse’s correct way of going. If your horse is not supple through his back, he can never be truly “through” and connected.
So, what is longitudinal suppleness, and what can you do to improve this quality in your horse?
What is longitudinal suppleness?
The term longitudinal suppleness refers to the horse’s suppleness over his top line, including back, neck, poll, and jaw.
Only when the horse is longitudinally supple will he be able to swing through his back, powered by his hindquarters and connected to an elastic contact.
The correct ligaments and muscles will be able to support the horse’s frame without compromise, and the horse can be described as a ‘body mover’ as opposed to a ‘leg mover’.
A longitudinally supple horse maintains a good rhythm at whatever pace you’re riding in and works forward without any signs of tension, tightness, or resistance.
How can you tell if your horse lacks longitudinal suppleness?
If your horse isn’t supple through his back, you’ll notice the following:
- the horse is hollow and above the bit
- the rhythm is not consistent
- when asked to extend, the horse loses balance, quickens his tempo, and hollows
- the horse’s hind legs are not engaged and underneath him
- transitions are unbalanced and rough
- when you ask your horse to move forward from your leg, he’s slow to react
- your horse is always on his forehand
As you can see, if your horse is not longitudinally supple, there’s a lot that can go wrong!
How does the dressage judge address longitudinal suppleness?
In dressage tests, the judge is looking to see that the horse is supple through his back and works correctly along the scales of training.
Signs that longitudinal suppleness is lacking include:
- the rhythm and tempo vary
- the horse is above the bit
- the horse appears tense and resistant to the rider’s hand and leg
- the outline appears forced as if the rider is holding the horse’s head in position
- the horse is unbalanced through transitions because he is blocking the rider’s half-halt aid through his back
- the horse’s hocks are not engaged and underneath him
- the horse works on his forehand
There are two exercises that are included in dressage tests at the lower levels, which are specifically designed to demonstrate whether the horse is supple and working through his back:
- free walk on a long rein
- allow the horse to take the rein and stretch on a circle in working trot or working canter
In both those exercises, the judge wants to see the horse taking the bit forward as the rider eases the hand. The horse should work through a loose back into a round frame.
The stride should lengthen, and in trot and canter, the horse’s back should lift underneath the rider, and the steps should become more elevated and elastic.
How can you improve longitudinal suppleness?
Before you can begin addressing your horse’s longitudinal suppleness, there are a few prerequisites you need to have in place first.
Your horse must be able to work in a correct, consistent rhythm in all three paces.
Comfortable and relaxed contact to the bit
A correct acceptance of the bit is integral. The horse must work with a relaxed jaw not held clamped around the bit by a tight noseband used to disguise an open mouth.
Of course, this requires that you have taken the time to find the correct bit for the shape of your horse’s mouth – not always easy to do.
A horse must be able to softly chew the bit, which is integral to flexibility at the poll.
- The Scales of Training: Scale 3 – Contact
- How to Choose and Correctly Fit a Bit for Dressage (Single Bit/Bridle)
- How to Teach Your Horse to Accept The Bit & Bridle
- How to Stop Your Horse From Opening His Mouth (Without Using a Flash)
Once the rhythm is established, you need to work on your horse’s energy level. If your horse isn’t working forward through his back into the contact, he cannot be engaged or longitudinally supple.
You must maintain your horse’s energy consistently throughout your schooling. Some horses lose energy in lateral work, on small circles, or when making transitions.
- How to Create Energy in the Dressage Horse
- The Scales of Training: Scale 4 – Impulsion
- How Your Horse Should Use His Hindquarters
- How to Encourage Your Horse to Work More Forwards, But Not Faster
Provided the above components are in place, you can encourage your horse to work over the back into an elastic contact using the exercises below.
To do that, use half-halts, follow the horse’s movement and keep your seat light so that you don’t accidentally block the energy flowing through the horse’s back.
Exercises to improve longitudinal suppleness
Here are two ways in which you can develop and improve your horse’s longitudinal suppleness:
Exercise 1 – Transitions
In dressage, it’s often said that transitions can improve everything! To some extent, that’s true. And you can use transitions to help connect your horse through his back and improve his longitudinal suppleness.
Ride a 20-meter circle in working trot, making sure that you keep your outside rein contact.
Put your horse in a slight shoulder-fore position, and keep the horse’s nose following his line of travel around the circle.
Three-quarters of the way around the circle, make a transition to medium walk.
Keep your hands quiet while offering a slight resistance. The horse should keep following the hand, closing his frame slightly from behind but keeping his neck long.
Repeat the exercise on the other rein.
Now ride the same exercise with canter-trot transitions.
Keep the shoulder-fore position and have the horse securely into your outside rein to maintain the connection through his back.
Repeat the exercise on the other rein.
If the connection is intermittent, try the following fixes:
- If the horse lacks connection, it’s probably because he’s not working forward to the contact. So, encourage the horse to go forward by using your inside leg. That helps to put the horse’s inside hind leg under his center of gravity and pushes him more into your outside rein.
- If the horse isn’t taking the contact, ride upward transitions to push the horse more forward to the hand.
- If the horse is too forward, he may lose balance and connection. Use downward transitions and half-halts to stabilize the balance.
Exercise 2 – Forward, round, and down
Forward, round, and down is perhaps the most useful exercise you can use to encourage the horse to work through his back and become more longitudinally supple.
As previously mentioned, this exercise features in some lower-level dressage tests and is designed to show the judge how genuinely through, or not, the horse really is.
You can ride the exercise in a rising trot or in canter. Sometimes, riding the exercise in canter in light-seat helps to encourage the horse to release and relax his back.
Ride a 20-meter circle in a working trot or canter.
The horse must be working forward with plenty of energy.
Keep the horse into your outside rein, and make sure that your contact is elastic.
Gradually, allow the horse to take the reins from you so that he follows the bit.
Keep riding forward.
Keeping your leg on, gradually shorten your reins again.
As you return to working trot or canter, you should feel the horse’s back swinging along underneath you. The steps should be bigger, rounder, more elevated, and uphill.
Repeat the exercise on the other rein.
Within the stretched frame, you can do exercises such as leg yield, and smaller circles to further elasticize the top line.
The main problem that riders encounter when riding this exercise is that the horse sticks his head and neck out in front of him, hollowing his back, rather than stretching round and down.
If that happens, keep the outside rein contact, ask for a little more inside bend, taking care that you don’t allow the horse to drift out through his shoulder. Ride forward into the contact until the horse feels more secure in your hand, and then try again.
This exercise should be an enjoyable stretch for the horse, so if you’re still having problems ride through Exercise 1 a few times on both reins to help connect the horse through the use of transitions, and then return to this exercise.
Longitudinal suppleness is crucial in dressage. Your horse’s education cannot progress if your horse is tight and hollow through his back, so spending time on improving longitudinal suppleness is time very well-spent.
Provided the above components are in place, improving the suppleness over the back is then a matter of connecting the horse through transitions along with frequent variations of the outline; putting the horse up into a shorter, taller frame for a short period, followed by stretching down and round.