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How to Improve Your Horse’s Suppleness

The importance of suppleness is reflected in its place in the scales of training – second, only after rhythm.

But when you consider that we are talking about whole body suppleness (and we should even include mental suppleness in there as well) you might begin to get an inkling of the size of the topic.

Here’s an overview of suppleness, together with some advice on how to improve this quality in your horse.

Areas of suppleness

To split suppleness down into smaller chunks, consider:

  • Longitudinal suppleness – top line, to include back, neck, poll, and jaw
  • Lateral suppleness – even and equal bend to the two sides
  • Suppleness of the joints – essential for activity and ability to engage (weight carry)
  • Mental suppleness – full acceptance of the aids, without any resistance

Improving longitudinal suppleness

It should go without saying that to carry a rider’s weight in a healthy, functional manner requires your horse to work in a round outline.

Only then will the back swing, the correct ligaments and muscles support the frame without compromise, and the horse be a ‘body mover’ as opposed to a ‘leg mover’.

A correct acceptance of the bit is integral to this, with a relaxed jaw not held clamped around the bit by a tight noseband used to disguise an open mouth.  And 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.

Provided the above components are in place, improving the suppleness over the back is then a matter of frequent variations of the outline; putting the horse up into a shorter, taller frame for a short period, followed by stretching down and round.

Within the stretched frame, you can do exercises such as leg yield, and smaller circles to further elasticize the top line.

Trotting over poles with a lower round frame is also valuable, but you should always ensure that someone is with you in case your horse trips over!

Lunging in low-positioned side reins, trotting up hills with a lower neck frame, and riding in jump (or light) seat can all be valuable too.

Improving lateral suppleness

Mostly this involves the obvious – circles, ridden equally on both reins and paying attention to the correct alignment of the horse to the figure.

Horses are all naturally crooked; they fall in one way, and out the other, depending on which shoulder their weight gravitates towards.  This is genuinely natural, not your horse trying to evade you!

Taking the most common example, where the horse falls towards the right shoulder, you need to:

On left-hand circles (where he falls out), keep a firm outside rein and ride with a straighter neck than your horse offers.  Ensure your own weight remains to the inside of the saddle, not allowing yourself to be pushed outward.

On right-hand circles (where he falls in), maintain a feeling of constantly leg yielding outward, to prevent the circle from deteriorating.  Don’t be tempted to hold him out with your outside rein – he must move away from your inside leg.

Still taking the above example, another good exercise is to ride spirals in and out on the right rein, encouraging him to step away from the right leg and connect into the left (outside) rein.

At a more advanced level, all the lateral work can be used to increase lateral suppleness, provided it is ridden correctly.  Always bear in mind that:

  • Going too fast will cause loss of balance and subsequent stiffening
  • Having the rein too short/too tight in your effort to make the correct bend, also stiffens the frame and steps

Improving suppleness of the joints

Here we are talking about a higher level of work, around elementary level in British Dressage, where the first real engagement is required.

Two main groups of exercises are used here:

  • Transitions
  • Lateral work

Transitions should be both between paces and also within the paces.

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

Therefore, as well as ensuring that the horse is prompt to your aids, also 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.

All lateral work is valuable too, but see above.

Mental suppleness

This is all about confidence and compliance.

A scared horse will be tense and stiff, so you need to ensure your horse always understands what you are asking and that you teach him new things in a logical, progressive manner that make learning easy and fun.

In conclusion

Suppleness is a very broad topic, and there are many aspects of your horse’s training to which the term can be applied.

The areas are all interlinked, and you will find that as one improves, others will do too.

Use the guidance above to help improve your horse’s suppleness and watch your dressage marks improve!

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