The tough issues
Suppleness is the ability for the horse to be able to bend its’ lateral and longitudinal muscles. If a horse is supple it is flexible and gymnastically strong, enabling him to swing in his back. This allows the horse to travel free of tension with cadence in the movement.
There are two muscle groups which need to be developed. The lateral muscles allow the horse to bend from side to side. These are responsible for the amount of bend a horse can give through the body and neck and flexion. If a horse is supple, it will travel on a circle line with correct flexion without falling in or out of the circle. Hence it will be in balance. When in balance it can hold a good rhythm
The longitudinal muscles run from the horse’s poll to the top of the tail along its top line. These muscles need to be developed to enable the horse to hold a frame (roundness). A good top line gives the horse strength to be able to collect which is necessary to be able to do the more difficult dressage moves.
Now horses need to be ridden correctly to make them supple. They need to develop muscles much the same as we do in the gym. “Use it or lose it”, sums it up. Horses need to be prepared and worked daily to keep flexible and athletically sound.
Tension plays a big part in the horse becoming “stiff”. Therefore mental soundness is also a contributing factor to a horse remaining supple. If the horse gets stressed during training it will start to hold its muscles tight and this stops the horse moving with looseness.
Looseness or being over the back is what gives the horse “cadence” in its movement. It moves with big even and open steps with “swing”. Appearing like it is dancing. That is what dressage is all about. It should look effortless and enjoyable for both horse and rider.
How do we develop suppleness?
I like to ask the horse to stretch its neck to my stirrup whilst standing at halt in both directions at the commencement of a session. Then it is important to ride lots of changes of direction meaning serpentines, circles ,figure of 8’s and loops. Making sure you ask for the same amount of bend in both directions. This can be done at all paces. I vary the amount of bend on each occasion. Sometimes asking for the required amount as is necessary in a dressage test and other times more than is expected. I want to be able to ask the horse to put its head and neck wherever I may want.
If submissive the horse will say “how much or far do you want”. A lot of that is achieved through my rein aids but also the application of my inside leg. The horse needs to understand the leg yield really well before being able to influence its bend, as if it falls against the riders legs it will just follow the rein and turn and not bend. When teaching a young horse to bend I ask for bend through my inside rein and then ask for leg yield off my inside leg. Meanwhile supporting it with my outside rein and catching it with my outside leg (catch meaning applying the outside leg if the horse starts to drift past the line asked for). The horse needs to learn to find its balance and if a horse falls in on a curve, I increase the bend. If the horse falls out of the circle I straighten it as that is often the result of too much bend.
I also ask the horse to be able to vary its roundness. Sometimes deep and round, long and low or in working position. Again we need to be able to influence where the horse puts its head. I change the head position regularly to test the obedience and submission of the horse. In long and low position the horse can relax more but if ridden like this too much it will tend to want to go on the forehand. In deep and round position you are stretching his top line and exercising his top line whilst testing his submission. As long as the rider can alter the head position it is not detrimental which position is used. Different moments and conformation require varying headsets. For example if tension is evident it is beneficial to put the horse long and low to relax its back again before returning to its normal outline. We must know where the outline is and ride with the poll the highest point daily as part of the workout as that is what is required in the ring. We must practice what is asked for in competition to prepare the horse for what is expected.
What is put in comes out in training! Horses need to be flexible and be adjusted during a training session. Using all muscles and building their strength. Both laterally and longitudinally. This ensures they are prepared to be supple and in turn produces a happy willing and relaxed horse. An athlete that can do his job.
The lack of Suppleness, contributes to Veterinary unsoundness under Saddle, which comes from ‘crookedness’ and a lack of ‘straightness’ Go to the Problems Index for help here.
The German Training Scale
comprised of the following six elements in that particular order:
Finally, here is a Video of a wonderful Horse and Rider Combination $125,000, but a good example of a lack of ‘suppleness’, restricting the potential.