Have you ever ridden a horse and they feel so wonderfully loose and pliable underneath you? Perhaps you can remember how your horse was able to really and truly use his body and how the suppleness made it feel like he was performing movements in the best possible way that his body, fitness and confirmation allowed?
True suppleness allows your horse to bend without stiffness and work freely without excess tension or stiffness throughout his back and muscles. This enables him to perform smoother movements and transitions with greater balance which leads to building strength, development of muscles and growing confidence in both horse and rider.
As riders, we are seeking true flexibility or suppleness in our horses, and should always work towards trying to establish, and then allow, elasticity throughout the horse, particularly the jaw, poll, back shoulders, knees, hips and hocks.
However this is often difficult to understand due to the simple fact that we will not achieve suppleness by ‘fixing’, ‘forcing’ or ‘restricting’ our horses in any way. Rather than forcing your horse into unnatural frames or positions trying to promote this relaxation and flexibility, think of asking your horse to stretch himself in a natural way, little by little in slight increments, to grow the natural pliability of his muscles and joints.
Also, when he is flexing or bending, if you are ‘fixing’ him or holding him there, he is not truly supple himself. When riding , ask your horse for a small about of flexion or bend and then allow him to carry on with the movement himself for a period of strides or seconds.
As his strength grows, he will become more flexible and his ability to carry himself for longer periods will also increase.
Suppleness can be thought of in both a forward movement capacity and a sideways or lateral capacity. It is important to ride exercises that boost the development of both. Your horse will not achieve true suppleness if only using his body a certain way. In fact over-development of one will often result in stiffness in the other.
Another advantage of working to increase relaxation and suppleness is that it can have a positive effect on your horse mentally and emotionally as well. Often we try to ‘relax’ our horses by speaking to them in a soothing manner, however, if we think about life, feelings follow actions (it is rarely the other way around), so by relaxing the body, we can often dissipate anxiety and stress in the mind and put that energy to better use elsewhere.
In riding, we are thought to think from the back of the horse to the front of the horse. Energy created in the hind quarters and then sending it to the front of the horse. However, we should think of loosening or relaxing our horses the other way around, from front to back.
There are many horses that are flexible, pliable and supple through their backs and limbs, however they are ‘stuck’ at the poll or jaw which causes that flow of energy to also become stuck or blocked and makes true connection impossible.
When working on increasing your horses suppleness, I suggest starting with the poll and jaw. Place two poles parallel to each other across the center line about 1 meter apart. In walk, bring your horse between the poles and ask for halt. Try to keep him straight, using the poles for guidance and reference. Then, remembering to keep his neck straight, as him to flex his poll, first one way and then the other. Use your inside hand and turn your wrist slightly so as the underside is more on top and your thumb is about 45 past the vertical to the outside. Gently squeeze with your ring finger.
When asking for the movement, keep in mind it is very slight flexion in the poll, not bending though the neck. Ask to the right and then back to center, and then back to the left. You can repeat this quite a few times, all the while noticing any resistance or stiffness. If this shows up, rather invest more time over the coming weeks and months, slowly asking for the flexion and then working it out.
Don’t force it! Suppleness does not happen overnight, it takes time for your horse to soften, relax and become flexible
Once you have mastered this in halt and your horse understands, you can begin to incorporate it into walk, trot and eventually, canter. Use the center line, and if necessary, place some parallel ground poles to work between school to help keep you ‘straight’ and on target for where you want to go. Remember, you are only flexing your horses poll, not bending the neck. In walk, ride up the center line and begin asking you horse to flex left then back to straight and then left.
Pay attention that his shoulders are not ‘swinging’ where you are flexing to which will give your horse the appearance of being slightly inebriated! Also, focus on keeping him straight through his back, not allowing the hind quarters to fall in or out
As mentioned, it is important to work all parts of your horses body, so I recommend beginning to incorporating some large circles into your work. how well your horse can maintain the bend in their body on the circle, will depend on how supple your horse is. the smaller the circle, the more difficult it will be for your horse, so stick to large circles initially in walk or trot.
When riding the circle, Establish and maintain a consistent bend to the inside, all the way from neck to tail. The degree of the bend will depend on the size of the circle as you will follow the arc of the circle.
Notice if your horse is falling in or out through this shoulders. Often, when we ask for the horse to bend to the inside, he will begin to literally fall in towards the center of your circle, rather than maintaining the ‘line’ of the circle and his back replicating the arc of the circle. If this is the case, use your inside leg to encourage him to stay ‘out’ on the circle, however once he is there, he must learn to balance himself so you are not all the time supporting him on the circle or bend.
There is nothing more exhausting that riding a horse which you have to hold up with your legs
Again, start your circles in walk and once he understands and has a nice equal bend through his body, go forward to trot and later canter. Work on both directions and pay attention to any stiffness, tension or lack of balance on one side more than the other.
If you do notice any problems, see working in it as a long-term project that will be successful if you consistently work little by little at stretching and loosening up your horse
You can also begin to incorporate some serpentines into your schooling. Obviously work on your bend while riding the loops, but also focus on your straightness as you cross the center line. Transition in and out of the two by beginning to ask for some flexion through the poll for 2 to 3 strides before and after the center line. As you round your ‘loop’ again, straighten the body with just the poll flexed and as you cross the center line, straighten your horse, so you can then change the flexion in order to ride the next loop. Work the serpentines from both sides, again walk, trot and then canter if necessary.
You can also incorporate some halts into the serpentine, as you cross the center line, and spend the time in halt flexing the poll again in order to flex the poll and reinforce the principle, in both your head and your horses!
Finally, you can begin to add some counter bend to your circles. Ride a large 20 meter circle in walk and once you have established bend to the inside, see if you can ‘change’ the flexion to the outside, paying close attention that the shoulders do not come off the track of the circle.
The flexion to the outside will be very slight at first, and not held for long periods. Work on a quarter circle to the outside, then change to a half circle to the inside and then returning to a quarter circle to the outside. Slowly, your horse will begin to increase his suppleness and flexibility throughout his body and from there, you can begin to make the circle smaller or begin working in trot and, again, later canter
Suppleness is something that must be continuously and consistently worked on in order to maintain and improve with your horse
Just like us, if our horses become restricted and only use their body in a certain fixed movement, over time they will lose their ability to bend and be pliable..
It will take time to build true suppleness, and it will have to become an integral part of your training program to maintain it
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