Suppleness: The Key to Success
How to achieve this must-have component of your horse’s dressage training
Kathleen Raine breaks down how to achieve this must-have component of your horse’s dressage training.
S uppleness should be part of your horse’s training right from the beginning. To make your horse supple, he first needs to feel relaxed. He should have a soft mouth and be obedient to your aids. You also want to feel throughness, which to me means being able to easily bend the horse’s whole body left and right as well as ride forward and back. (See the definition of “throughness” below.) All these ingredients work together to create suppleness.
You know your horse is supple when he willingly accepts your aids with his soft mouth, his muscles are loose, he’s able to stretch forward and down and he feels balanced, using his joints actively. A supple horse has a relaxed look to his eyes, ears, mouth and tail. His back swings and he is focused on the rider’s aids. He can drop his neck and easily stretch to
the contact when asked because his hind legs maintain the balance. You will know when his back is swinging because you can feel it is soft, not stiff, and it gives you a comfortable place to sit.
As the horse becomes more advanced and more supple, he is able to use his body more actively, bending his joints and being able to carry more behind and with more engagement as he moves up the levels. Everything comes back to the basics and then it is just a matter of degrees of suppleness as you move up the levels.
Correct basic training includes suppleness right from the beginning because the horse needs to learn how to use his body, no matter what level he is doing. To be in tune with your aids, he must be mentally submissive. To accomplish this, think “relaxation” not “force” when you give an aid. You want his muscles working with you rather than against you.
Creating Basic Suppleness
These basic exercises are probably not new to you, but they are the backbone of dressage training at all levels and are the key to creating suppleness. On your next ride, look at them in a new light. Ask yourself if your horse is performing them easily and in relaxation. If your horse speeds up or slows down, for example, or he pulls when you use your rein aid, work toward a soft mouth and gentle bending throughout the body as he responds to your aids. Check your position and balance, too. Remember not to drill the horse or ride him to exhaustion. Always end on a positive note.
Leg yield. I do a lot of leg yielding with my younger horses to get them to step more under their bodies and listen to my aids. There are many places to do leg yield. This is just one.
1. Begin by walking straight down the long side, tracking right.
2. With the outside, in this case the left rein, ask the horse to flex to the outside, slightly away from his direction of travel.
3. Keep him moving forward with your right leg and with your left leg ask for a step sideways toward the center of the arena. Use a leading right rein. When he takes a step as asked, relax and let him go straight forward (parallel to the long side) again.
4. Repeat and then do the same in the opposite direction.
Circles. I ride circles left and right to get my horses to bend equally in both directions without changing the rhythm.
1. Circles at this level are about 20 meters in diameter. Mark off the four points of your circle to make sure you are riding a real circle and not a loop or egg shape.
2. Use your reins and legs to keep the horse on the correct arcing shape around the circle. Be careful not to overbend him.
3. Begin and end the circle at precisely the same place each time. Vary the places you perform circles.
4. Keep the tempo steady going into, during and out of each circle.
Change of bend. In my daily routine, I change the horse’s bend using serpentines and leg yields with horses at all levels to get that swinging looseness in the back. The feel for this takes time to learn, but when you get this feeling, it gives you a nice place to sit.
1. Ride multiple changes of rein through half circles—bending the horse’s body one way and then to the other for the new circle.
2. Ride a lot of serpentines. They teach the horse to bend around your inside leg and connect to your outside rein. You don’t want him to just bend through the neck. You want an even bend throughout his body. When
“Suppleness should be a part of your horse’s training right from the beginning,” says Kathleen Raine, shown here on Breanna, a 17-year-old Hanoverian mare.