Most often, when people talk about a horse’s suppleness, they’re referring to the horse’s ability to bend through its body for the purpose of circles, corners, and turns. Although this is important, it’s only one small part of suppleness.
Suppleness, also described as looseness, is the full flexibility of the horse’s body and mind.
In this article, we take a look at suppleness within the dressage scales of training, why suppleness is important for dressage, how to tell if your horse lacks suppleness, and the four areas of suppleness.
RECAP: The scales of training
The scales are designed to provide a systematic and logical framework for training the dressage horse.
They are usually depicted as a pyramid, as illustrated below.
The scales are meant to be approached in order, starting at the base of the pyramid.
Although there are occasions when one can be skipped over in order to work on improving another, there are no shortcuts! For your horse to achieve its maximum potential, it’s crucial that you work methodically through the scales, making steady progress.
The first three scales (rhythm, suppleness, and contact) are also variously called, the familiarisation phase, the training phase, and/or, the phase of understanding and confidence, i.e. when your horse is becoming familiar with carrying your weight on his back, is developing an understanding of your aids and how to work between them, and is learning to trust you.
- How to Use the Dressage Scales of Training Pyramid
- Why ALL Dressage Riders Need to Know The Scales of Training
Suppleness within the scales of training
Once you have achieved a fair degree of rhythm (the first scale) in all the horse’s paces, you can start to work on suppleness.
Suppleness is the second of the training scales and as such will always be one of the earliest focuses when training a young and/or novice horse.
Like everything else in the training scales, no single scale can be worked on in isolation from the others, and you will find that as you work on suppleness, your horse’s rhythm will continue to improve and a reasonable contact will become more possible.
Why is suppleness important in dressage?
In order for the horse to carry the foreign weight of a rider in a healthy and functional manner, it’s imperative that the horse works with a lifted and rounded back and engaged hindquarters.
Only when the horse is both mentally and physically supple, will the back swing and the correct ligaments and muscles support the horse’s frame without compromise.
A horse that is tense, tight, and stiff will display one or more of the following negatives:
- Tightness through the back.
- Clamped or tightly swishing tail.
- Glitches in the rhythm.
- Lack of activity in the hind legs.
- Tense and/or dry mouth.
- Lack of ability to collect and lengthen the frame.
- Uneven bending of hind leg joints on the two sides.
- Lack of ability to conform to the arc of a curve on one or both sides.
In contrast, if a horse is supple, it will be displayed by the following positive indicators:
- A relaxed and happy expression.
- Elasticity in the steps.
- A quiet mouth gently chewing the bit to form an elastic contact.
- A swinging back and gently raised and swinging tail.
- Soft and rhythmical breathing, showing that the horse is physically and mentally relaxed.
- When the reins are given, the horse stretches smoothly forward and down to the bit without losing rhythm or balance.
- The ability to bend comfortably to both sides equally.
- The ability to lengthen and collect the strides and frame with ease.
- The ability to maintain straightness and positioning.
As you can see, there’s more to suppleness than just your horse’s bendability.
The four areas of suppleness
Suppleness in the dressage horse can be broken down into the following four areas:
- Lateral suppleness
- Longituinal suppleness
- Suppleness of the joints
- Mental suppleness
Let’s take a look at each one individually.
1. Lateral suppleness
Lateral suppleness refers to the horse’s side-to-side dexterity. In other words, the horse’s ability to bend and keep his balance around circles, through corners, and when making turns.
Interestingly, a laterally supple horse also makes for a straight horse.
This is because a horse is said to be straight when his body is aligned to the path he is following. When moving on a curved line, such as a circle, the horse’s hind feet should still follow the tracks left by his front feet. Although the horse should bend uniformly to follow the arc of the circle (lateral suppleness), his body should still be in alignment, and therefore, straight.
If a horse is laterally supple, it’s easier for him to keep his longitudinal axis in line with the curved or straight track that he is following, therefore, making it easier for him to stay straight.
Related Read: How to Improve Your Horse’s Lateral Suppleness
2. Longitudinal suppleness
The term longitudinal suppleness refers to the horse’s suppleness over his top line, including his 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 connect to an elastic contact.
This is what enables the horse to work ‘through’ to the contact, to lift and raise his back, to step his hind legs further underneath his body, to lengthen and stretch as well as collect and compress his frame.
Related Read: How to Improve Your Horse’s Longitudinal Suppleness
3. 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 the horse’s hocks, hips, knees, shoulders, jaw, and poll. When the horse stiffens in any of those joints, his whole body becomes stiff.
In contrast, when those 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.
Related Read: How to Improve ‘Suppleness of the Joints’ for Dressage
4. Mental suppleness
Mental suppleness is all about harmony, confidence, and compliance of the horse to the 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 and he may also stiffen against your aids to bend. So, you can see that mental suppleness relates directly to longitudinal and lateral suppleness.
If your horse is not mentally supple and free from tension, then it’s highly unlikely that he will be physically supple and free from tension.
Related Read: How to Improve Mental Suppleness in Both Horse & Rider
All four areas of suppleness are interlinked and, like the training pyramid, you’ll find that as you work on one area of suppleness, the other areas of suppleness will improve too.
To help finish this article, here are the suppleness definitions from British Dressage and the FEI.
The British Dressage rule book defines suppleness as:
“The aim is that the horse’s muscles have tone and are free from resistance, his joints are loose and he does not tighten against the rider’s aids. The muscles that are really important are those over the top line from the hind legs over the quarters, loins, in front of the wither and up to the poll.
The test of whether a horse is supple and working ‘through’ the back and neck is that when the rein contact is eased (as in a free walk) the horse wants to stretch forward and down and not try to hollow and lift his head.”
This, as you can see, focuses largely on longitudinal and mental suppleness, whereas riders often think solely in terms of lateral suppleness, i.e. the ability to bend equally on both sides and to conform to the arc of circles and turns.
The FEI (the international governing body for equestrian sport) definition is perhaps more inclusive:
“Pliability, ability to smoothly adjust the carriage (longitudinally) and the position (laterally) without impairment of the flow of movement and balance.”
To be truly supple, your horse must be relaxed both physically and mentally, and the image you are seeking is of the horse moving through its whole body, not just with its legs – what we call ‘a body mover’ as opposed to ‘a leg mover’.
Suppleness must be a central theme throughout schooling and should be constantly checked and reinforced at all stages. Only if your horse is physically and mentally free from tension or constraint can he work with true suppleness and use himself fully.
The mental aspect of suppleness should never be ignored.