Suppleness is important for every horse in every discipline. It helps your horse to be healthier, more comfortable and less resistant to ride. Just like humans, horses are generally more supple on one side than the other. So while you need to work both sides, it’s important not to neglect the stiffer side.
You don’t to need limit suppling exercises to the arena. As long as it’s safe, you can practise them while you’re out hacking. For example, leg yield to ride your horse past scary objects, or serpentine up and down hills.
Lateral exercises help both types of suppleness. Bending around the leg increases lateral flexion, and the action of bending while moving forward encourages the horse to place the inside leg farther under the body, increasing longitudinal suppleness.
- Walking or trotting over ground poles in a straight line or on a circle for longitudinal suppleness
- Circles, serpentines, loops and half circles, using the inside leg with the natural swing of the barrel and outside leg guiding for lateral suppleness
- Lateral movements such as leg yield and shoulder-in on a circle or in a straight line
Always take at least 5 to 10 minutes to warm up your horse by walking on a loose rein, giving him as much time as he needs to relax physically and mentally before starting the working part of your ride.
Both of the following simple exercises can be performed at walk, trot or canter, and with or without poles. Increase the difficulty of the exercise only as quickly as your horse can physically and mentally manage.
In each of the exercises be sure to establish and maintain:
- Straightness by keeping the nose lined up with the centre of the chest
- Forward, relaxed movement with the hindquarters engaged (feet stepping well underneath the body)
- Elastic, consistent contact with the nose slight in front of the vertical
Use your leg aids to encourage bend through your horse’s body rather than pulling his head into a bend with the inside rein.
A. Spiraling Circles
Place a marker (i.e. cone, pole or bucket) in an area where there is enough room to ride a 20-metre circle around it. Begin with walk and only move onto trot or canter once your horse is able to remain balanced and relaxed at the slower gait.
Once you’ve established a balanced, relaxed walk with a consistent rhythm, gradually spiral in towards the cone until the circle is as small as he can comfortably execute while remaining balanced. After a couple of rounds, gradually spiral back out again.
Use light pressure from your inside leg working with the swing of his barrel to move him out while supporting with your outside aids to limit how quickly he moves out. Repeat this exercise in trot and canter on both reins once you’re happy doing it in walk.
B. Stretching Circles
On a large circle (minimum 20 metres), establish a forward gait with your horse’s hindquarters engaged (stepping well underneath his body). Keep his nose lined up with the centre of his chest by softening your inside rein and supporting with your outside rein.
Good, elastic contact is imperative before attempting the stretching circle. Softening your hands encourages your horse to soften his jaw and poll. Carry your hands so that your elbows are slightly in front of your midline with your hands in front of your saddle at a height that creates a straight line from bit to elbow. Allow your horse to take enough rein to go comfortably into the contact and poke his nose slightly in front of the vertical.
Once you have established a forward and balanced gait, open your hand slightly and relax your thumb pressure on the rein to encourage your horse to stretch. Start with a small release so your horse keeps working off his hindquarters. Be careful not to cause your horse to fall on the forehand by dropping the contact completely or releasing too quickly. As your horse stretches, follow the motion by giving through your elbows and moving your hands forwards.
Your horse is stretching correctly when he is able to stretch his head and neck forward (nose poked out slightly, not tucked in) and down while maintaining his balance and rhythm – neither getting faster nor slower. His strides feel longer and more fluid. His back and shoulders remain lifted, and his hind legs step actively underneath his body. The further under his hind legs reach, the further he can stretch and the more rein you will release to him.
Without straightness or engagement, the horse will become unbalanced and fall on his forehand. Use half-halts whenever necessary to help your horse shift his balance to his hindquarters.
Read ‘Improving Suppleness in Your Horse – Part 1” here.