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.

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