Suppleness is a quality that’s crucial for success in dressage and is the second of the dressage Scales of Training.
There are four areas of suppleness;
Supple joints are a byproduct of correct longitudinal and lateral suppleness training, and a horse that has supple joints will stay sounder and enjoy a longer career than one that’s stiff and tight.
In this article, we look at why suppleness of the joints is important in dressage and how you can improve this quality.
What is ‘suppleness of the joints’?
Suppleness of the joints refers to the horse’s ability to bend the joints without stiffness and the range of motion of the joints that the horse can achieve.
Those joints include:
When the horse stiffens in any of those joints, his whole body becomes stiff.
In contrast, when these joints are supple, the horse is able to show more expression in his paces with a greater cadence. The horse is able to concertina his hind legs, making it easier for the horse to engage and weight-carry, along with helping to create an active hind leg.
A horse with supple joints can display a greater range of movement and gymnastic ability.
Causes of stiff joints
Unless the horse has arthritis or a previous injury, it’s generally the tissues around the joints that are tight and stiff rather than the bony joint itself.
It then becomes the rider’s job to make these tissues more pliable through correct systematic training, thus improving the suppleness of the joints and the horse’s overall way of going.
How to improve ‘suppleness of the joints’
Before you can begin working on suppling the horse’s joints and increasing his range of motion, the horse must be able to work on one track and bend uniformly around circles and turns with an adequate degree of impulsion.
Once that is achieved, it’s then a matter of transitions, lateral exercises, and pole work to help elasticize the joints.
Here are a few basic exercises that you can use to develop your horse’s joint suppleness.
Exercise 1 – Transitions, transitions, and more transitions!
Transitions are an excellent way of developing suppleness of the horse’s leg joints and of sharpening up the horse’s reactions, and improving his balance.
Start in halt. Wait a moment for the horse to relax and soften.
Ride a transition to walk.
If the horse tends to be lazy, you want him to anticipate walking forward. So, ride lots of walk-halt-walk exercises. The idea is to activate the joints of the hind legs as the horse makes the transition.
Now, move on to riding walk-trot-walk transitions.
Each time the horse makes a transition, he has to flex his joints and step more underneath himself. That helps to stretch the soft tissues surrounding the joints, strengthening and improving the suppleness of the whole joint.
Next, ride trot-canter-trot transitions.
Over time, you can begin to work on more extreme variations of transitions, e.g. walk to canter, canter to walk, trot to halt, halt to trot, even canter to halt and halt to canter, and don’t forget to use rein back too.
The more direct your transitions, the more value they will have.
Exercise 2 – Variations on transitions
Transitions can be used in more advanced exercises to develop joint suppleness.
You can ride this exercise in walk and trot.
That exercise connects the horse from your inside leg to your outside rein, brings his inside hind leg more underneath him, and demands increased joint flexion.
Exercise 3 – Move sideways
All lateral work is valuable when it comes to improving the suppleness of the horse’s joints.
Here is an example exercise.
Ride down the long side of the arena in shoulder-fore.
Just after the corner, ride down a long side, and ask for leg-yield across the diagonal.
As you reach the quarter-line, change the bend and ride half-pass for a few steps.
Change the bend and ride back to the track in leg-yield.
Incorporating some polework into your schooling program is a great way of keeping your horse interested in his work and is extremely useful for encouraging the horse to flex his leg joints while in motion.
Working over poles increases the range of motion of the joints and limbs, improves balance, increases stride length, and helps to build core stability, all of which are crucial to the development of the dressage horse.
Pole exercise 1 – Raised poles
It’s helpful to recruit an assistant for this exercise, as you’ll need someone to adjust the poles for you.
Throughout the exercise, keep the horse balanced and straight. Let the horse find his own way without holding him together.
Arrange six poles in a line. Space the poles so that there’s one footfall between each pole.
First, walk through the poles.
That enables the horse to get the hang of the exercise at a slower pace while allowing you to make sure the distance between the poles is correct.
Now, trot through the poles, keeping the horse working forward into an elastic contact.
Next, raise alternate ends of the poles to about a foot high.
(If your horse is inexperienced, start with one pole and gradually increase the degree of difficulty by raising one pole at a time.)
The aim of this exercise is to increase the range of motion in the horse’s joints.
Pole exercise 2 – The fan
Arrange five poles in a fan shape, leaving a foot’s width between each pole at the narrowest end of the fan. The distance between the widest ends of the poles should be between five and six feet, depending on your horse’s natural stride length.
Walk through the poles, keeping the activity and energy. You can shorten and lengthen the horse’s stride according to the line you take through the poles.
To maximize the effectiveness of the exercise, make sure you have the horse bent in the direction of the fan.
The benefits of polework in developing joint suppleness
To get the maximum benefit from polework, it’s best to perform the exercises in the walk. That’s because the walk doesn’t have a moment of suspension. Therefore, muscular effort is required for all the movement that the horse makes, making the soft tissues around the joints work harder.
If you have the poles close together, the horse must use his hindquarters to push himself along from behind. The further apart you set the poles, the more the horse must lengthen his stride. Both scenarios require the joints of the legs to increase their range of motion, thus developing greater suppleness.
Essentially, the more supple your horse’s joints are, the longer he will stay sound, and the better his performance will be in the dressage arena.
To make the joints of the horse’s legs supple, you need to work on loosening up the tissues surrounding the joints. That can be achieved through systematic training and exercise on the lunge and under saddle, especially using poles, transitions, and lateral work.