Suppleness is #2 on the training scale, and as such will always be one of the earliest focuses when training a horse. Even when #1 rhythm (see my previous article) is maintained, a horse’s movement cannot be considered to be correct unless he is also working through his back without tension.
Like everything else in the training scales, no single scale can be worked on in isolation from the others, and you will find that as you work on suppleness, your horse’s rhythm (#1) will continue to improve, and a reasonable contact (#3) becomes more possible.
Suppleness is a central theme throughout schooling which must never be neglected or taken for granted, but constantly checked and reinforced at all stages of training.
So what exactly is suppleness?
There are 3 aspects to suppleness:
- Longitudinal (flexibility of the top line)
- Lateral (ability to bend equally on both sides, and to conform to the arc of circles and turns)
- Mental (willing acceptance; relaxation with concentration)
In practice, all 3 are linked: as you work on one, each of the others is improved.
Supple bend, supple joints
Definition of suppleness from the BD rule book:
“The aim is that the horse’s muscles have tone and are free from resistance, his joints are loose and he does not tighten against the rider’s aids. The muscles that are really important are those over the top line from the hind legs over the quarters, loins, in front of the wither and up to the poll.
The test of whether a horse is supple and working ‘through’ the back and neck is that when the rein contact is eased (as in a free walk) the horse wants to stretch forward and down and not try to hollow and lift his head.”
This, as you can see, focuses largely on longitudinal and mental suppleness, whereas riders often think solely in terms of lateral suppleness: the ability to bend equally on both sides and to conform to the arc of circles and turns.
In practice, the two things are linked: as you work on lateral suppleness, it will improve your horse’s longitudinal suppleness, and vice versa.
The FEI definition is perhaps more inclusive:
“Pliability; ability to smoothly adjust the carriage (longitudinally) and the position (laterally) without impairment of the flow of movement and balance.”
Suppleness must be a central theme throughout schooling, and should be constantly checked and reinforced at all stages. Only if a horse is physically and mentally free from tension or constraint can it work with true suppleness and use itself fully. This mental aspect of suppleness should never be ignored.
Why is suppleness so important?
Only a supple horse can carry a rider without losing his natural movement. His back muscles and ligaments must have tone, but not tension – if they tighten against the rider’s weight, or they are stiff or weak, they will not be able to move freely. This means any power created by the hind legs will not be able to flow ‘through’ the horse’s body, limiting suspension (#1 rhythm), denying the ability to connect (#3 contact) or work with (#4) impulsion or (#5) straightness.
This shows clearly why suppleness is near to the base of the Training Scales pyramid.
Other important benefits are:
- soundness (supple joints suffer less wear and tear)
- Fitness (horse uses all muscles and body parts instead of only selected parts)
- Resulting from the above, longevity of a comfortable working life
- Comfort for the rider – a supple horse is far easier to sit on, and causes less damage to the rider’s body as there is less jarring to absorb
- Comfort for the horse – if he is supple, all parts of his movements move with ease, like a well oiled machine
Indications of suppleness:
- a relaxed and happy expression
- elasticity in the steps
- a quiet mouth gently chewing the bit to form an elastic contact
- a swinging back and gently raised and swinging tail
- soft and rhythmical breathing, showing that the horse is physically and mentally relaxed
- when the reins are given, the horse stretches smoothly forward and down to the bit without losing rhythm or balance
Lack of suppleness may be displayed as:
- tightness/stiffness of the back
- tightening and shortening of the neck
- Upside down neck
- hollowing of the back
- leg moving without body moving
- clamped or tightly swishing tail
- tight, short steps
- flat steps in trot and canter
- glitches in the rhythm
- lack of activity in the hind legs
- tense and/or dry mouth
- more bend to one side than the other
- lack of ability to conform to the arc of a curve on one or both sides
- uneven bending of hind leg joints on the two sides
End goal of suppleness
A truly supple horse will be relaxed both physically and mentally, and the image to aspire to is that of a horse moving through his whole body, and not just with his legs: what judges call a ‘body mover’ as opposed to a ‘leg mover‘. This is easiest to see in a free or extended walk, when the horse should move with all the slink and purpose of a panther.
As your horse’s strength improves with the systematic development of his body, he will become ever more supple, enhancing the quality of his natural gaits, endowing them with elasticity, cadence (spring) and ground cover.