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How to Improve Your Horse’s Suppleness (Including Exercises)

improve horse's suppleness

Suppleness, also described as looseness, is the full flexibility of your horse’s body and mind. It must be a central theme throughout your schooling and should be constantly checked and reinforced at all stages of training. 

As you progress through the dressage levels, your horse’s suppleness should also advance, which is demonstrated by an increased flexion of the joints, fluid lengthening and shortening of the frame, equal and effortless bending from side to side, and a relaxed and confident demeanor. 

So, in this article, we will give you an overview of full-body suppleness and some detailed exercises to help you improve this quality in your horse.

Why is suppleness necessary?

The importance of suppleness is reflected by its place in the dressage scales of training – second, only after rhythm. And as such, suppleness will always be one of the earliest focuses when you are training a young and novice horse.

Only when your horse is mentally and physically supple will his back swing and the correct ligaments and muscles support your horse’s frame, allowing him to use himself fully without compromise.

How to tell if your horse is supple

If your horse is tense, tight, and stiff, he will display one or more of the following negatives:

  • Tightness through his back.
  • A clamped or tightly swishing tail.
  • Glitches in the rhythm.
  • Lack of activity in the hind legs.
  • Tense and dry mouth.
  • Lack of ability to shorten and lengthen his frame.
  • Crookedness.
  • 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 your 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 a gently raised and swinging tail.
  • Soft and rhythmical breathing, showing that your horse is physically and mentally relaxed.
  • When you allow the reins to slip through your fingers, your horse will stretch 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.

Before you try to improve your horse’s suppleness

As mentioned, suppleness is second in the scales of training. Therefore, before attempting to improve your horse’s suppleness, you must have achieved the first training scale of rhythm, and your horse must be relaxed. 

If your horse is tense and working in an irregular rhythm, any suppleness exercises you ride will be futile. Instead, it would first be wise to establish relaxation (both physical and mental) along with a correct and regular rhythm.  

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The four areas of suppleness and how to improve them

Suppleness can be broken down into four areas. 

  1. Lateral suppleness
  2. Longitudinal suppleness
  3. Suppleness of the joints
  4. Mental suppleness

We will briefly examine each area individually and what exercises benefit each one. But remember that you can’t work on a single area exclusively; all the areas are interlinked, and you will find that as one improves, others will do too.

1 – Lateral suppleness

Lateral suppleness refers to your horse’s side-to-side dexterity. In other words, your horse’s ability to bend and keep his balance around circles, through corners, and when making turns.

If your 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.

Improving lateral suppleness

Exercises to improve your horse’s lateral suppleness include:

  • Circles
  • Loops
  • Serpentines
  • Figures of eight
  • Lateral movements (shoulder-in, travers, renvers, half-pass)

The above exercises and movements need to be ridden equally on both reins, with the correct bend through your horse’s whole body and the correct alignment of your horse to the figure. 

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2 – Longitudinal suppleness

Longitudinal suppleness refers to the suppleness over your horse’s top line, including his back, neck, poll, and jaw.

Only when your horse is longitudinally supple will he swing through his back, powered by his hindquarters, and connect to an elastic contact.

Longitudinal suppleness is what enables your 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.

Improving longitudinal suppleness

Exercises to improve your horse’s longitudinal suppleness include:

  • Frequent variations of the outline. Put your horse into a shorter, taller frame for a short period, then stretch forwards and down into a more extended and lower frame. 
  • Working over poles and cavaletti. As your horse looks down at the poles to gauge his footing, this encourages him to lift and raise his back.

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3 – Suppleness of the joints

Suppleness of the joints refers to the range of motion that your horse can achieve. 

When your horse is supple in his joints, he can show more expression in his paces with a greater cadence. In addition, he is able to concertina his hind legs, making it easier for him to engage and weight-carry, along with helping to create an active hind leg.

Overall, supple joints enable your horse to display greater gymnastic ability. 

Improving suppleness of the joints

To improve this area of suppleness, we are looking to elasticize the tissues around the joints. 

(Please note that we are not looking to improve the bony joint from issues such as arthritis or a previous injury. In this instance, you need to be working with your vet.) 

Exercises to improve the suppleness of your horse’s joints include:

  • Transitions. 
  • Lateral movements (shoulder-in, travers, renvers, half-pass, walk pirouette)
  • Pole work and cavaletti
  • Higher level collected work that requires your horse to “sit,” such as canter pirouettes and the piaffe. 

Related Read: How to Improve ‘Suppleness of the Joints’ for Dressage

4 – Mental suppleness

Mental suppleness is all about harmony, relaxation, confidence, and compliance of your horse to your aids.

Your horse should be flexible and accommodating to new exercises and situations. If your horse is nervous, tense, and afraid, he will tighten, hollow through his back, and stiffen against your aids to bend. (This then affects your horse’s ability to be laterally and longitudinally supple.) 

Basically, if your horse is not mentally supple and free from mental tension, then he will not be physically supple and free from physical tension.

Improving mental suppleness

Mental suppleness doesn’t have an exercise as such. However, all exercises can help to improve your horse’s mental suppleness as long as they are introduced logically and progressively, making learning easy and enjoyable, which results in a willing and cooperative horse. 

You cannot improve mental suppleness by riding the same exercises in the same order every time you work your horse. Instead, your horse needs a variety of exercises and activities that can mentally challenge him while still being within his current level of capabilities. 

Related Read: How to Improve Mental Suppleness in Both Horse & Rider

Exercises to improve your horse’s full-body suppleness

Here are six exercises you can ride to help improve your horse’s full-body suppleness. 

Exercise 1 – Transitions on a circle

Here are some examples of transitions that you can ride on a circle. 

  • Transitions between the paces. For example, halt – walk – halt, walk – trot – walk, and trot – canter – trot.
  • Transitions within a pace. For example, medium walk – free walk – medium walk. Or working trot – medium trot – collected trot. 
  • Transitions that skip a pace. For example, halt – trot – halt, walk –canter – walk, halt – rein back – trot. 

The more direct the transitions, the more value they will have.

Here’s an example exercise of combining transitions and circles. 

  1. Start on a 20-meter circle and establish a forward and rhythmical working trot. 
  2. Transition to medium trot for one circle revolution. 
  3. Gradually transition to a collect trot while spiraling inwards onto a 10-meter circle. 
  4. While on the 10-meter circle, ride a transition to collected walk. 
  5. After one circle revolution, transition to collected canter. 
  6. Gradually transition to medium canter while spiraling back outward onto a 20-meter circle. 

How this exercise helps to improve suppleness

The circles help to improve your horse’s lateral suppleness and the suppleness of his joints as they require him to bend uniformly through his body and actively step under and take weight with his inside hind leg. 

The transitions help to improve the suppleness of his joints. This is because, during the downward transitions, your horse is required to step under and “sit,” and during the upward transitions, your horse is required to step under and push. 

Your horse’s longitudinal suppleness is improved during the circles and the transitions. The circles require your horse to stretch through the outside of his body and topline while stepping under with his inside hind leg. And the transitions require your horse to lengthen and shorten his frame, as well as lift his back and engage his stomach muscles. 

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Exercise 2 – Circles and lateral movements

All lateral movements, when ridden correctly, are excellent for developing suppleness in your horse. 

Here are three example exercises of combining circles and lateral movements. 

Example A

circles shoulder-in and travers suppleness exercise
  1. In a corner before the long side of the arena, ride a 10-meter circle in trot. 
  2. Ride shoulder-in down the long side of the arena until you reach the half-school line at E or B. 
  3. Ride another 10-meter circle. 
  4. Ride travers down the long side of the arena until you reach the next corner. 
  5. Ride another 10-meter circle. 

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Example B

shoulder-in and travers on a circle suppleness exercise
  1. In a corner before the long side of the arena, ride a 10-meter circle in trot or canter. 
  2. Ride shoulder-in down the long side of the arena until you reach the half-school line at E or B. 
  3. Ride a 20-meter circle while keeping your horse in shoulder-in positioning. 
  4. Continue to ride shoulder-in down the long side of the arena until you reach the next corner. 

NOTE: You can also ride the above exercise in travers instead of shoulder-in. 

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Example C

circle and half-pass suppleness exercise
  1. In a corner before the long side of the arena, ride a 10-meter circle in canter. 
  2. Ride canter half-pass across the long diagonal of the arena. 
  3. When you reach X, ride a 10-meter circle. 
  4. Continue to ride canter half-pass across the long diagonal until you reach the outside track. 

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How these exercises help to improve suppleness

The circles and lateral movements require your horse to be bent uniformly through his body, improving his lateral suppleness. 

The lateral movements also require your horse to actively step under and engage with his inside hind leg, therefore helping to improve his longitudinal suppleness and the suppleness of his joints. 

Exercise 3 – Leg-yield and transitions

leg-yield and transitions suppleness exercise
  1. Establish a rhythmic, active working trot and turn onto the three-quarter line. 
  2. Leg-yield towards the centerline. 
  3. Once your reach the centerline, ride your horse straight and forwards into a medium trot. 
  4. After a few good strides, return your horse to a working trot and leg-yield to the outside track. (You can leg-yield in the same direction as what you started, indicated by the red lines, or you can go in the opposite direction, indicated by the blue lines.) 

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How this exercise helps to improve suppleness

The leg-yield helps to supple your horse laterally, encouraging him to swing his inside hind leg underneath his body. 

The transitions to medium trot and back to working trot help to improve your horse’s longitudinal suppleness, as it requires him to stretch over his topline and lengthen his whole frame as he lengthens his strides before shortening his frame again for the working trot. They also encourage suppleness of the joints as your horse needs to develop a more active hind leg that steps under and pushes into the medium trot and steps under to balance as he transitions back into working trot. 

Exercise 4 – Leg-yield, spirals, and stretching

  1. Establish a rhythmic, active working trot on a 20-meter circle. 
  2. Leg-yield your horse inwards onto a 10-meter circle. 
  3. After one circle revolution, leg-yield your horse back out onto a 20-meter circle while allowing your horse to chew the reins out of your hands and take the contact forward and down. 
  4. Once you reach the 20-meter circle, while maintaining the stretched frame, ride your horse forward into a more medium trot. 

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How this exercise helps to improve suppleness

As we saw in the previous exercise, leg-yield is excellent for encouraging your horse to swing his inside hind leg underneath his body, which is perfect for suppling your horse laterally, along with the circles. 

Stretching your horse forwards and down is arguably the most helpful exercise to encourage your horse to work through his back and become more longitudinally supple.

When the leg-yield, circles, and stretching is combined, it creates an exercise that is great for elasticizing your horse. 

Exercise 5 – Counter-canter

When you begin training counter-canter, you will ride it on straight lines and shallow loops until your horse progresses to being able to counter-canter on curved lines. 

Here is an example counter-canter exercise. 

counter canter suppleness exercise
  1. Pick up a balanced true working canter with the right leg leading.
  2. Ride a half 10-meter circle at A on the right rein. 
  3. Ride a half 20-meter circle to the left in counter-canter (blue line), touching the track on the long side.
  4. Ride one final half 10-meter circle to the right to finish the exercise at C. 

Related Read: How to Ride Counter Canter

How this exercise helps to improve suppleness

Counter-canter is known for its suppling effects; it improves your horse’s lateral and longitudinal suppleness by requiring your horse to canter on the right leading leg while performing a circle to the left, or vice versa.  

The extra engagement that is required from your horse to balance also helps to improve the suppleness of his joints. 

Exercise 6 – Cavaletti (raised poles)

This exercise requires you to walk, trot, and canter over raised ground poles. 

You can arrange the poles in a straight line, on a curve, or in one of the many pole exercise patterns you can find online. 

NOTE: If your horse has never done pole work before, start with just one pole on the ground and build up gradually rather than throwing him in at the deep end with a cavaletti obstacle course. 

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How this exercise helps to improve suppleness

As your horse assesses where to place his legs when going over the poles, he will naturally lower his head. This should be encouraged as it will have the knock-on effect of raising his back, engaging his abdominal muscles, stretching his topline muscles, and improving his longitudinal suppleness. 

Also, as he physically lifts each leg to clear the poles, this helps strengthen your horse’s back and core muscles and improve the flexibility and suppleness of his joints. 

This exercise is also a fun way to challenge your horse’s mental suppleness. 

Suppleness tips 

Here are four extra tips to help you when working on improving your horse’s suppleness. 

Tip 1 – Go rising (especially on young and novice horses)

When working on improving the elasticity and looseness of your horse’s trot, it can be helpful to ride in rising trot. This is especially true if you have a young or inexperienced horse that still needs to gain the muscles and strength to carry your weight while sitting. 

Sitting on your horse’s back in trot when he can’t yet keep his back raised can cause his back muscles to tighten and hollow away from you, preventing him from being loose and supple through his topline muscles. 

In contrast, the rising trot enables your horse to relax his back, allowing the big muscles of the topline to swing and lift as he stretches forward to seek the bit.

Tip 2 – Always be riding toward the bit

At all times, you want to feel your horse stretching forwards, through his back and the base of his neck, towards the contact. 

Riding with a backward hand or a restrictive rein contact will only create tension and tightness in your horse, thereby destroying any looseness and swing. 

Whereby riding correctly from back to front encourages your horse to step under with his hind legs, work through his back comfortably, and maintains his relaxation. 

Related Read: How to Ride Your Horse From “Back to Front”

Tip 3 – Ensure your horse is bending through his whole body uniformly

When working on suppleness, it’s common to see riders asking their horses for too much neck bend. 

Your horse’s neck is already very bendy; he can turn his head to scratch an itch on his side. Therefore, as long as your horse remains relaxed and loose, you do not need to worry about the bendability of this area. 

Remember that the bend needs to be equal through your horse’s body; imagine viewing your horse from above and keeping his spine aligned with the curved or straight track that you are following. 

Tip 4 – You cannot force suppleness

Mental and physical relaxation is essential if your horse is to achieve correct full-body suppleness. 

If you try to force your horse to be supple by, for example, asking for more bend than what he is currently capable of or riding circles that are too small for your horse’s current level of training, you can create tension and stiffness, thereby preventing looseness and elasticity. 

Suppleness comes in degrees and is improved gradually over time through correct and systematic training. 

In conclusion

Your horse’s suppleness can be broken down into four areas; lateral suppleness, longitudinal suppleness, suppleness of the joints, and mental suppleness. 

All areas are needed to create a horse that moves with elasticity and looseness while remaining relaxed, willing, and accepting of your aids. 

Before attempting to improve your horse’s suppleness, ensure he is free from tension and working in a regular rhythm. You can then use circles and transitions, along with other school movements and cavaletti, to encourage the stretching, strengthening, and flexibility of your horse’s body. 

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