To be successful in dressage, your horse must be supple longitudinally and laterally. But both the horse and rider must be mentally supple too.
So, what is mental suppleness, and how can you improve it?
Read this guide to find out!
What is mental suppleness?
Mental suppleness is all about harmony, confidence, and compliance of the horse to his rider’s aids.
The horse should be flexible and accommodating in his approach to new exercises or new situations. If your horse is nervous, tense, and afraid, he will tighten and hollow through his back. He may also stiffen against your aids to bend. So, you can see that mental suppleness relates directly to longitudinal and lateral suppleness.
As for the rider, you also need to develop mental suppleness so that you are more creative in your work, more resilient to change, and more flexible in your thinking.
What’s the judge looking for?
A harmonious partnership is what the judge is looking for when assessing the mental suppleness of horse and rider.
The horse must be relaxed and confident, accepting the rider’s aids obediently and cooperatively without showing any signs of tension or resistance. The rider should appear confident, too, and the whole picture should be of happy cooperation.
If things don’t go to plan, the rider should adapt immediately to make any necessary adjustments, and the horse should be able to respond confidently and without hesitation.
What does mental suppleness look and feel like in the horse?
So, how do you know when your horse is mentally supple?
Let’s start by looking at signs of a horse that is not mentally supple:
- The horse appears not to understand your aids for a dressage movement that he is familiar with when you ask for it in a different location, a new context, or in a different exercise.
- The horse is surprised when you ask for a transition in a new context or location.
- The horse is surprised when you ask for a turn or circle in a new context or location.
For example, in the home arena, you ask the horse for shoulder-in on a circle when he’s accustomed to performing it on a straight line only. The horse is immediately confused and hesitant because he lacks the mental flexibility to adapt to the change in request from the rider.
A horse that is mentally supple is able to:
- Respond to the rider’s forward aids
- Respond to the half-halt
- Make turns left or right immediately when asked
- Bend uniformly left or right at any time
- Make a transition from one pace to another at any time
- Move laterally when asked to
- Respond instantly to his rider’s aids
What does mental suppleness look like in the rider?
A rider who is not mentally supple will be rigid in their way of thinking.
The mentally rigid rider sticks to a particular method of training her horse, even though the horse is trying to tell them that the approach is not working.
Similarly, the rider cannot see that there may be a different solution to the problem that they are working on. Instead, they persist in trying to make the horse fit the method rather than adjusting the method to suit the horse.
A rider who lacks mental flexibility and suppleness always rides the same exercises in the same place in the arena and in the same order. Also, the rider sticks with work that’s “safe” and easy to both them and their horse, never challenging the partnership with something more difficult.
Instead, the rider should become more mentally supple by:
- Finding multiple solutions to every schooling problem
- Working to identify the root cause of a schooling problem
- Making the horse’s daily schooling regimen interesting and varied
- Being ready and able to change their approach when something isn’t working
How to improve mental suppleness in both rider and horse
Generally, if the rider is mentally supple, it follows that the horse will be too.
A confident, happy rider will provide their horse with work that’s interesting, fun, and presents a challenge that the horse can rise to but which is still well within his capability.
You can become more supple mentally by improving your knowledge and understanding of basic dressage principles, such as the Scales of Training. That knowledge provides you with a reliable framework that you can use to devise schooling exercises and a basic training program for your horse.
The more knowledge you have, the easier it will be for you to step away from a particular line of thought that’s not working. Often, taking a different slant on an aspect of your horse’s training will provide the result you’ve been struggling to achieve.
Be prepared to accept that your previous way of thinking might be flawed and try something different.
Flexibility is key to developing and improving your mental suppleness. Horses are not mechanical creatures; they can change in a moment, and you must be able to do the same.
Although you might begin with a clear schooling plan in your head for the day’s session, you must be prepared to “go with the flow” and change-up what you’re doing to fit your horse’s reaction “in the moment.”
The more supple you are mentally, the easier it will be for you to “think outside the box.” By doing so, you can consider an approach or solution to a particular problem that doesn’t necessarily follow a traditional path but works for you and your horse.
Don’t wait for “perfect” riding conditions
Many riders always ride in the safety of their home arena, ideally on a nice day when they have the arena all to themselves, and the horse becomes accustomed to that approach.
But how often do you arrive at a competition to find less than “perfect” conditions?
Your horse is going to have to face adverse weather, other horses and riders whizzing around the warm-up ring, along with numerous other distractions, all whilst being asked to concentrate on his own work.
So, practice riding your horse outside in windy, rainy weather, especially if you usually have an indoor school at your disposal. Ride with other horses and make a point of riding away from home sometimes, too. All these small things help to develop your horse’s mental flexibility so that he can cope with the “extraordinary” without losing the plot!
Challenge your horse’s mental suppleness
Your horse’s mental suppleness will develop more quickly if you challenge him every day with work that stresses him a little bit.
Work out what type, level, and duration of stress works best for your horse.
Some horses get very tense and upset when challenged with something new. If that happens, you’ll need to return to your old routine for a few moments until the horse settles. If you introduce stress in very small increments, your horse will happily learn to accept that because he learns that each of those small doses of stress becomes part of his routine and are always followed by resolution and relief.
On the flip side, horses that are quick to learn and get bored easily usually thrive when you challenge them with something new.
You should still work your horse with the Scale of Training in mind as it shows you when you’ve gone too far and things start to go wrong. If that happens, you need to take a step back in your training.
When it comes to deciding how long to labor a particular point, the best tactic is to train for long enough that the horse recognizes and partially meets the new challenge. However, don’t keep pushing on so that the horse can’t recover his equilibrium quickly. Provided that the horse learns that he can attempt to meet the challenge with which he’s presented, and he will quickly be rewarded for his efforts, all should proceed positively, and the horse won’t fear the stress.
The idea of presenting your horse with new challenges and small degrees of stress is to teach him to become more mentally flexible and accept the idea of new work without resistance.
Exercises to improve mental suppleness
Here are a few simple things you can do to improve your mental suppleness and that of your horse.
Exercise 1 – Back to basics
Set aside an hour or two every week to read through books on basic dressage principles and training.
Think about a problem you’re currently having in your schooling sessions. Work out ways of applying the basic Scales of Training to the problem and devise exercises to try that are different from your usual regime.
Try out your new schooling ideas, being prepared to change the game plan at any time if you feel that things aren’t working.
Exercise 2 – Change trainers
Many riders stick with the same trainer or instructor for years. Although it’s a good idea to have an instructor that knows you and your horse and who can work with your over the long term, don’t be afraid of booking lessons with other trainers.
Often, a different pair of eyes can be a massive help in breaking old habits and encouraging you to be more mentally supple. They may pick up on small details that were previously missed, and be able to give you new tips and exercises to help you in your schooling.
So, look at successful dressage riders in your area. Find out who they train with and book a training session with that person.
Related Read: What to Look for When Selecting a Dressage Trainer
Exercise 3 – Look further afield for inspiration
Google the problem you’re having with your horse, and you’re bound to find instructional videos on that very subject!
Check out YouTube videos and Podcasts made by foreign trainers and successful dressage riders in different parts of the world to see what approaches they take and apply their thinking and methods to your own horse.
Exercise 4 – Change it up!
Now, it’s time to encourage your horse to be more mentally flexible and supple.
Start by including lots and lots of transitions and changes of direction in your schooling sessions. Make it a rule that you do not complete one circuit of the arena without making at least six transitions and making at least three changes of direction.
Make a point of never riding transitions or changes of directions in the same place twice.
That approach helps to keep your horse thinking and makes schooling sessions more fun and less repetitive. Once the horse’s mind is tuned in to your aids, he will quickly become more flexible and more able to think on his feet.
Mental suppleness is just as essential to your success as longitudinal and lateral suppleness.
It’s very easy to get stuck in our comfort zone doing the same things over and over again and not flexing our mental muscles.
Work together with your horse and introduce new challenging exercises to help keep the work varied and interesting.