Suppleness is vital to the performance of a dressage horse but is it possible to have too much of a good thing? Each horse I have ridden, when I try to recall it, felt quite different in regards to it’s degree of suppleness. If I put them into rough categories it would go something like this. There were the stiff horses, some badly trained, most in reality just untrained. They were the simple ones to work with. Get any physical issues sorted, find the right bit, set them up with a good saddle, then work correctly and wait. That is all there was to it in 99% of the cases.
There were the over supple horses, usually badly trained, almost always over trained. They wriggled and wiggled their way through life and were very tricky to stabilise. Riding this kind of horse is like eating a badly made sandwich where the filling falls out. The more complex the training they had been given, the harder it was to retrain them. Even world renowned authorities told me it wouldn’t always work & it didn’t always work. Riding what I call the Spaghetti necked horse is a subject for a whole article, or even a book, in it’s own right; so I’m going to save that for another day.
Then there were the sublime horses, the ones where you want to hug them and then hug who ever trained them. These horses are both very supple and perfectly stable; the two elements of flexibility and strength had been developed in tandem and kept in perfect balance. Taking on a horse like this is a wonderful experience and one that always fills me with gratitude.
Part of my personal understanding of the need to find the balance between strength and flexibility came from outside of the equestrian world. I studied ballet quite seriously for fifteen years and it is still a much loved part of my fitness regime. There are so many parallels that I could draw between the training of the ballet dancer and the dressage horse. The human body, like the equine, is taken to extremes and must be similarly respected if it is to last; and in ballet companies these days it is too often disrespected and broken whilst still young. Flexibility and strength are opposite ends of a spectrum; going to either extreme is inadvisable. The best dance teachers recognise that when a pupil is very flexible they must strengthen the body in order to protect it. When a dancer is very strong, as I was, they have to work at flexibility because it is vital to correct execution of movements and because without it the movements could damage the body.
When I think of the horses I have known who were overly supple and I analyse why I would regard them as badly trained it is because, in most cases, the focus has been placed heavily on suppling the neck. To be honest that is usually the part of the horse that least needs suppling and the one part that even a relative beginner can have a huge impact on. That is perhaps why it happens in so many cases, because it is easy. The neck of the horse is naturally flexible in it’s construction and sadly it is an easy toy to play with. The bad news is that flexing the neck this way and that doesn’t influence the poll in a positive way and nor does it influence the torso of the horse. It only creates a shoulder mass that it is harder to position reliably, hind legs that jump up and down without advancing and which tend to criss cross under you. The overall effect is one of destabilisation. It isn’t my favourite feeling to get from a horse.
Insufficiently supple horses aren’t always the same as stiff horses. It is a subtle distinction but important. There are highly trained horses which are very strong but lack the flexibility to perform well. Some time ago I bought a horse who had all of the movements for Grand Prix but who reared frequently. I knew about his issues when I took him on. It was really frightening at times and it was a long process. Understanding the link between mental and physical tension was a key factor. He had a brilliant Piaffe and Passage but he couldn’t bend very much at all. He was entire and nervous of everything from the other stallions to the sheep we met on trail rides. His strength had been developed but his suppleness needed a lot of work. I went back to the beginning and worked him like a young horse. Reworking all of the basics took the best part of a year but it was worth every day taken to make him a safer, happier horse.
Finding the middle ground and creating strong, stable suppleness.
With stiff, tense horses, I work with poll and jaw flexions but I virtually never flex the neck itself any more than the bend on a six metre volte requires. For me any more bend than that constitutes a laterally broken neck.
Good quality lateral work and correctly ridden school figures are all you will ever need to render a horse perfectly and beautifully supple.
Creating that ideal of stable suppleness is all about this. The poll must be free first and foremost. If it is not then progress will be very slow. Work on relaxation in the poll can be done in hand and from the saddle at halt and then carefully at the walk. Any kind of restrictive noseband will be very counter productive because a jaw which cannot move naturally will create tension in the poll and thus the neck. Provided that we have a good range of lateral poll flexion at our disposal it becomes a natural part of every suppling movement we ride.
One easy exercise to begin with is to ride shallow loops on the long side of the arena. Be conscious of the controlled bending through the corner and how you allow it to change as you come onto the line for the loop. After a few attempts at this try riding a loop without changing the bend. Counter bend is a very valuable training tool. Make sure that you keep the degree of bend quite slight, particularly if you are riding the exercise in trot or canter. A progression exercise from this is to make a small circle at the halfway point of the shallow loop. This will be when you are meet the B – E line, which I call the middle line. If you approach it in true bend, with the bend through the horse’s body following that of the loop, then you will have a change of bend coming onto the circle. If you approach in counter, or false, bend then you will be changing the bend onto the line of the small circle. You have several opportunities to make careful and controlled changes of bend.
Working with school figures is all about the moment when the bend changes. Think carefully about how you help to shape the horse’s body through each and every change.
Change the poll flexion, your weight and then your leg – that is your order of aid delivery for every change of bend from a simple figure of eight, up to the day you ride one tempi changes. All you need, to build up from one to the other, is to retain the fluidity and build the speed at which you co-ordinate the three elements. Awareness of the this and practice is what makes it possible.
For the horse who knows a range of lateral movements we have a great range of possibilities. Even riding the movements down the long side of the school will help but the real value lies in changing the position of the horse’s body. This is an exercise with scope for progression and many elaborations.
Ride the Shoulder In along the second half of the long side and come onto a half 10 metre circle at the marker before the corner. That will take you out to D or G depending on which end of the school you were riding towards. Ride the half circle without any lateral displacement to start with.
Then take a line of return to the wall that you started from, make it a short return to the middle of the long side. On this line you could opt for riding Travers (which is good way to develop your Half Pass).
As you reach the marker at B or at E begin a 10 metre circle. As you feel at home with the exercise and want to intensify the effect it has you can ride Shoulder In, more Travers, a different gait, some counter bend, whatever will offer you a constructive challenge. If I have made a Travers return on the diagonal line it is enough to make the change of bend onto a plain circle. If I have ridden a straight line of return, or if I am on a more advanced horse, then I might take the Travers the other way on the circle. Be careful if you go from one Travers on the return line, to the opposite Travers on the circle that you are not pushing the back end across abruptly or too far.
As your circle is complete you can take Shoulder In position again down the second half of the long side and repeat the same pattern, with or without variation.
Bend and counter bend exercises are very constructive if carefully controlled and well ridden. The usual rules apply, keep the neck shoulder connection smooth and don’t forget to keep the outside hind engaged. Don’t drop your outside rein (we’ve all been there – it is a pet mistake of mine) otherwise that will often create the ‘break’ at the withers. Your inside hand may not have got stronger but if your outside rein contact is dropped then the inside one is suddenly heavier by default. The loss of outside rein contact will also deactivate the outside hind leg. The key to useful work on curved lines is not lots of bend but rather lots of changes of bend.
Introducing counter bend for the fist time is easy on the shallow loop exercise outlined above. A progression from this is to ride a figure of eight comprising fairly big circles. Change direction but keep the bend, hold it for a few steps and change it back. Gradually progress to riding the entire circle counter bend. Eventually you can ride counter bend on both circles, changing from one to the other should be gradual and support should be given to the shoulders of the horse throughout the change.
Serpentine loops are another golden opportunity to use counter bend. The central loop of three is the obvious choice for placing the counter bend. Ride, for example, on the left rein ride left (true) bend on the first loop, keep left (counter) bend on the second loop and then return to left (true) bend for the last loop. If you want to add a little more of a challenge you can ride some left Shoulder In steps on the straight sections which run across the school.
There are many more exercises I could have focused on and it always seems a shame to keep it to so few. Some of these I have collected from my coaches, some I have read about and adopted into my work, others are the product of careful experimentation with basic floor patterns. I often ask my pupils to invent exercises and talk me through them before we put them into practice. It is vital to learn to think for yourself in this way because it means you reach a better understanding of the underlying gymnastics. Pick a floor pattern and use it’s structure to create a more challenging exercise involving changes of bend and lateral exercises. Start with the easiest version and develop the level of complexity gradually. Listen to your horse’s feedback and scale the difficulty up and down accordingly. You will soon be well on the way to creating a stronger, more supple horse.