I wanted to write about suppleness because achieving this it not an easy thing to do.
Of course some horses will always come out with looser muscles than others, but one way or the other we need suppleness in order to have a happy healthy horse who can also achieve self carriage.
More often than not while working on more suppleness with my young horses I must focus on myself. As an advanced rider I can tell you not a day goes by I don’t continue to try and improve my position and balance on a horse. My Dad always said the horse can do all the movements but “we are the ones who can not communicate with the horse” these words are humbling but true. It was early on in my life that I learned it’s never the horses fault. As riders and trainers we must always ask ourselves how we can better communicate what we want and learn from our mistakes.
So first off when working on suppleness with a young or inexperienced horse some things must already have been established. The horse must already have a good concept and be able to execute rhythm and relaxation. They must have some beginning knowledge of the half halt. We teach horses the half halt through body language and transitions. Eventually we put the half halt into motion without the actual transition. Keep in mind transitions are always a necessary part of your ride in order to perform good half halts in motion. We here the words often put the horse on your back and seat. This is in the category of “body language”.
My young horses always learn the turn on forehand at a very young age. This can be done correctly or incorrectly. If you’re not sure about how to teach this seek someone who is good at it for help. Turn on the forehand is a movement where the horses hind quarters move around the front legs. The front legs should move up and down in the same spot while the inside hind leg travels forward and sideways and comes around the front end. A few common problems will be when doing this from your left leg often horses move their right shoulder too far to the right. This is fixed by simply making a half halt on the right rein and then teaching the horse to bring his left hind more forward and for a while not so sideways. From the right leg a common problem is for the left hind to step backwards creating the horses to fall behind the leg. This is fixed by simply moving the right hind over and then teaching the horse to take a few steps forward with the left hind.
The young horse should have a good acceptance of the outside rein and know the square exercise which teaches the horse about the outside rein and leg. Their are many variations to the square from elementary execution to very advanced which in the end becomes quarter pirouettes.
I mention a few things a horse should know before spending too much time on suppleness because these are good brain and body exercises that give your horse a good base to return to as you go on with your training. We all know rhythm and relaxation are the first things. Then go on and teach your square and turn on the forehand. I start the turn on the forehand from the ground when they are two and three years old. I work more on it from their backs when they are 4 and 5 years old. Keep in mind I’m using the horses age when talking about young horses as a reference. These methods will also be useful for any green horse or rider at any age.
The square should be worked at times their whole life but it can be started at any age once rhythm and relaxation and basic steering are established.
What is suppleness?
Suppleness is the ability to stretch in a balanced fashion both longitudinally and laterally. If you have ever stretched and are not naturally supple you know how hard stretching can be. If for example you tried to do the splits but had never done it before and someone forced you, ligaments would tear and you would resist as you would be in pain. Horses often feel the same way. Once my horse trusts me and excepts my aids I am then able to start asking them to stretch through bending exercises. When they begin to stretch they may hold their muscles tight at first. Just like your muscles theirs must also get warm to release. Short backed horses can not stretch as easily as a long backed horse. This is because their range of bending is much smaller. However horses with short backs are easier to collect. Therefore its important as a trainer to be sure and recognize your horses limitations and understand their confirmation. Do not ask them to stretch more than they are comfortable with. When my horses relax and really stretch properly you can feel them take a deep breath and the muscles release. It’s a great feeling and produces very comfortable gaits that are soft and easy to sit. We use the word gaits to describe how a horse moves. The dressage horse has three gaits. The walk a 4 beat gait, the trot a 2 beat gait, and the canter a 3 beat gait.
I’m going to give some basic exercises that teach stretching. These are just a few to work on with your horse.
A. start on a 20 meter circle. From there begin to make your circle smaller with an inside opening rein, and soft outside leg wrapped around your horse. You need a soft guarding leg on the outside because as you ask your horse to bend more to the inside you must slightly release the pressure on the outside rein. When you get to an 8-10 meter circle, keep the bending and leg yield the horse back out to the 20 meter circle. Leg yield means we push the horse forward with two legs and sideways with the inside leg. So the rider needs timing to know when to push with two legs forward and when to use more inside leg to go sideways. Make sure in this exercise you do not over bend the horses neck and they are straight at the withers.
B. flexion: flexion from the pole helps the horse release the muscles and ligaments surrounding the pole. A horse must learn flexion and then this can be used to soften them in their pole area. I explain two common exercises for this. The first one requires the rider to go onto the long diagonal and keep the horse slightly flexed to the inside. The flexion will be in the direction of your turn. For example if you turn right onto the diagonal line of your ring lets say from the letter M you would maintain right flexion all the way to K. At K you would then change your flexion to the left. Coming onto the next diagonal FXH you would maintain flexion left all the way to the marker H. At the letter H you would change the flexion back to the right.
C. Once your horse is warmed up, quiet and relaxed, you may also teach the horse to halt quietly and flex left until they release and then flex right until they release. Remember flexion from the pole is very small. Only look for your horses eye on the side you are flexing. Do not neck bend the horse. Make sure your horses ears stay level. When you look at your horses ears one should not be lower than the other. If this occurs straighten your horse and look for both eyes for a while until the ears become level again.
D. Leg Yield: The leg yield can be used to loosen the horses middle part of their body which is the rib cage and flank area. It is also a good warm up exercise to loosen the horses hips and croup area behind the saddle. How you begin to teach the leg yield and how the leg yield develops is very important. It is the start of what will come next laterally. After leg yield is the half pass, haunches in and haunches out. In light of that one must be thinking of those movements for the future. Done properly the leg yield is useful for so many reasons but here I will give some variations of the leg yield. Again this movement can be done at the elementary stage and then advance to a more supplying leg yield, but we can’t use the leg yield to supple the horse until the horse and rider understand how it works and how to ride it.
So lets begin to talk about leg yield using a few variations.
- simple version for your young horse: Start on the quarter line of the ring and leg yield to the wall. Because horses like to migrate to the railing by nature this is an easy way to give them the idea of moving forward and sideways. The biggest mistake I see in leg yield work is the rider asking the horse to move too sideways and not enough forward and sideways. Take your time, even if you never make it to the wall before you run out of space make sure your horse knows to stay on all four legs. This at first is done by making a few steps sideways and then taking both your legs and going straight toward the short side and then repeat a few steps sideways with a few steps swinging forward to the short side of the arena.
- After this has been accomplished with good understanding start to leg yield the horse away from the railing. So you will start on the wall and then move to the second track then the third track, and finally finishing on the quarter line. I talk about “tracks” because the horse must always be on a line. You can’t just instantly push over to the quarter line. If you do this your horse will most likely resist as he will feel you are literally pushing him over like a bike falls over if the wheels stop turning.
- Head to the wall leg yield: This may be the most misunderstood exercise. Head to the wall means you turn the horses shoulders to the wall and while they are facing the railing you ask the haunches to come in. This moment can be done by just bringing the tail to the inside of the track and leaving the shoulders a bit toward the track. You want to go toward the outside rein as if you were going to circle that direction. As if you would turn and magically go through the railing. So if you are traveling to the left, you would put the horse in direction right toward the railing. You would then step by step in rhythm and with timing bring the haunches to the inside while swinging forward toward the direction of bend. What do I mean by timing? This means you influence the outside hind leg to come toward the inside by using your outside leg in timing with the horses outside hind leg. In other words you can’t just keep pushing. My point I want to get across is when yielding the horse from your outside leg he must also have time to step up with his inside hind leg as well. The outside hind leg and haunches can only move over when his outside hind leg is in the air and then he is easily able to move it over and step slightly to the inside. For every step he moves away from your outside leg remember his next step must be to bring the inner hind forward toward the wall otherwise he will feel as if he could lose balance. If as riders we are able to help the horse feel as if their lateral work and circles keeps them on all four legs (whole horse following the reins) you will get less resistance and more willingness from your horse. Regardless of their talent all horses can learn these movements. A more advanced leg yield can be done with variations all the way across the ring, however this should be used only for the more advanced horse. We will talk more about that later.
This is such a broad and continuous part of our dressage riding that I will continue this writing in a series bringing you from these elementary stages onward toward more advanced work for suppleness. Look for the second part of this article to come next. Remember when your green horse does what you want the reward is to move on to a different subject or put him away for the day.