Written by: Carlos Tabernaberri

Carlos Tabernaberri explains why developing a supple horse is crucial to achieving straightness and balance under saddle.

Thumbnail for Developing Suppleness, Straightness and Balance

Marty Schiel photo

All of the training fundamentals we have discussed so far – trust, obedience and respect; calmness and rhythm; and contact and impulsion – are essential to developing straightness and balance. A horse can’t be well-balanced if he lacks straightness. But even before we look at these elements, we need to consider the horse’s suppleness, both of mind and body, and of his mental, emotional and physical states. Without suppleness, there is no point in working on straightness.

Supple in Mind and Body

To supple your horse’s mental state, you must have his full confidence. That way, he can focus on you. Your requests must be clear so that he understands and can follow through obediently. Rough or unreasonable treatment will interfere with his ability to understand, particularly if he is shy or sensitive.

In my experience, whether or not a horse is emotionally supple is nearly always based on whether the horse is afraid of his rider or handler. A frightened horse cannot understand what you want and, therefore, cannot do what you ask. Instead, he will do what he thinks is the right thing to survive – something humans often misinterpret as disobedience. To develop emotional suppleness, we establish that calmness we looked at earlier (see the May/June issue).

From a physical standpoint, by “supple” I mean the horse has a full range of motion in his joints, allowing him to easily and calmly shift his balance in all directions – forward, backward and laterally – with softness and balance, like a ballroom dancer.

Thinking Time Tip
Don’t confuse suppleness with flexibility. Flexibility can be demonstrated when the horse is standing still. A flexible horse may be one who can bring his neck around at the standstill, but, when moving, lacks the full range of motion in his joints. A supple horse has full range of motion through the joints, especially those of the poll, hip, stifle and hock when he is moving. A lot of flexible horses are still very crooked – more so carrying a rider – while a supple horse can be asked to go forward with calmness and will be straighter.

Suppling Through Groundwork

A lack of physical suppleness can often present as a lack of forwardness (“dead to the leg”) or, as in the case of an older Quarter Horse I was recently working, a reluctance to lift his legs and to step over things. This horse had always been ridden with spurs, so he was in essence “dead to the rider” – in both mind and body. (A thorough examination had been performed on this horse to ensure there were no physical problems such as, for example, a bad back, feet in poor condition, or an ill-fitting saddle, and he was found to be sound.)

Before getting on any horse, I use groundwork to check out his frame of mind, to ensure the tack fits properly and to get him focused on me. Part of that groundwork includes lateral and vertical flexion – if he can’t give me lateral flexion, that shows lack of suppleness at the poll.

When I asked this particular horse for a hindquarter yield on the ground, he demonstrated his stiffness by dragging his hind legs to create a hexagonal pattern in the sand, rather than lifting them and giving me a nice, soft crossover.

When I asked him to move out on a circle, the lack of suppleness of his hind legs, in particular, became even more evident. In this case, the horse had never been worked to create suppleness, only to jog and lope. This lack of suppleness is often seen in horses that are trained for specific disciplines. Regardless of discipline, suppleness should be an integral part of any horse’s training program.

When a horse is physically supple, as we work on straightness, he will be better balanced on both sides of his body equally, and impulsion will come as a result of developing these prerequisites.

Using Poles for Suppleness and Straightness

The horse must be supple, calm and forward. This will improve his balance and will increase the propulsive power of his hindquarters and, as a result, he can be straightened. As an exercise to improve suppleness, get the horse trotting calmly and in rhythm. Then, set up three trot poles on the ground.

For an average size horse (about 15 hands), I space the poles at about 1.2 metres, but you will need to space them according to your horse’s stride length.

On a lead of at least 12 feet, circle the horse around and over the poles, in a straight line, in each direction to familiarize him with the exercise, starting at the walk and moving onto a trot/jog when the horse is comfortable. Look for good action of the joints and don’t worry if he trips or does not focus.

Repeat the exercise under saddle. You can start with the poles near an arena wall or a safe fence. When the horse is going nice and straight, move the poles away from the fence and repeat the exercise – trot over the poles, do a large circle, then straighten the horse and ride him back on a straight line over the poles in the other direction and repeat. As you continue the work on the circle over the poles, the horse will start to lift his legs, suppling his joints. The straightness he has developed will be evident when he does not have a fence to rely on and you have him nicely straight between your hands and reins.

To make sure the horse stays between the reins (or hands) and the leg, if he veers off to the left, for instance, use a leading right rein to the horse’s right, so his right front foot goes back to the track. I will also use my left leg behind the girth to ask for his left hind leg to step under his belly more. As a result, instead of leaning to one side (in this case to the left) this action will get the horse more upright and straight. If we were to use a leg yield instead, we would create bend, not straightness.

I do NOT force the horse over the poles by driving him. I want him to work over them willingly, so I first ask him to walk over the poles, then to trot, once he is sure about them. If you cause him stress, he may stumble simply because you are not helping him relax.

If the horse frequently trips over or clips the poles, make sure they are not spaced wider than he can cope with for his stride length at the trot. Generally, 1.2 metres apart is good for most horses, but make sure you follow the horse and what is right for him, not a generalized rule for using the poles.

When starting out with this exercise, in order to help the horse move forward freely, I like to get my weight off his back by standing in the stirrups as he goes over each pole. He is already burdened with the weight of the rider, so he does not need me sitting on him at this stage. In time, when he becomes more supple, simply rising the trot over the poles is adequate.

Achieving Balance

Balance is when your horse is working straight and forward, distributing his weight equally on all four feet, and you are aware of how your body affects his movement. Ideally, your horse should move to both sides on all yields evenly. With practice, you can alleviate any favouritism of one side over the other. Some horses are gifted with natural balance, and good conformation can also be a plus when it comes to balance.

The rider’s balance is always crucial to enhance the horse’s balance as well. An unbalanced rider will affect the horse’s balance even more, so good riding is necessary to help a horse regardless of the training we are planning to do and the goals we want to achieve.

The best way to improve your balance is to work on a quiet horse that is not bothered by being lunged by someone on the ground. This allows you, the rider, to concentrate on being just a ‘passenger,’ while the horse is lunged on a wide circle on a long line. You should work on the rising trot without holding onto the reins for security. I like to teach riders bareback also, but starting at a walk. Until the rider achieves an ‘independent seat’ (a seat that is not dependant on gripping with the legs around the horse’s barrel or relying on the reins for balance), however, using a saddle may be the better approach.

Rhythmic, normal breathing as you ride is also crucial for good balance. Your breathing should not be forced or held for too long in the inhalation. Be sure to breathe in through your nose and exhale through your mouth.

Thinking Time Tip
Some bolting horses are simply ‘unbalanced runaways’ that must speed up to keep from falling. If a horse is speeding up, his centre of balance moves forward and he carries more weight on the forehand, his hind legs don’t engage well, he loses balance and traction. If the rider also tips forward, the horse hurries his tempo until he catches his balance (if he does). Bolting horses speed up to keep from a feeling of falling as they get too much on the forehand.

The Start of Self-Carriage

A horse’s ability to carry himself in balance, with forward and rhythmic movement while maintaining smooth gaits is true collection or ‘self-carriage,’ something we’ll look at more in the next issue.

A young Warmblood I recently worked with was already showing suppleness at the poll at just 4½ years of age. She carried herself nicely under saddle, even though I was not looking for collection. In this case, I won’t have to wait until later in her training to encourage her to be independent of the reins.

During one session, we worked on balance. She would only take three or four steps and then lose this self-carriage, but as she learns to balance, carry weight using her hindquarters and strengthen her back, this will come. If I were to push her too hard or fast, without developing solid foundations, she could easily develop both physical and emotional issues.

To get the horse using her hindquarters, I started by going backward (using a reinback), leaning forward slightly to get off her loins. At first, she was flexed at the poll, and her diagonals could have been better, but, during the session, she was lowering the croup and starting to get the idea of using her hindquarters. I rode her on a soft rein, and even though she was not being forced, she did express her opinion by swishing her tail. This was only because she was being asked to do something that was harder for her – carrying weight on her haunches.

Another thing to be aware of is that all horses are naturally crooked to one side or the other. This mare was naturally slightly crooked to the left. I look for straightness from nose to neck to back to tail. Riding a horse on a lose rein allows me to check to see if it can maintain straightness. In this case, when the mare began to get crooked, I was able to correct her with the right rein again and with my right leg to get her attention to the right. It’s a bit like a car that needs a wheel alignment – if it pulls to the left you steer to the right.

I used turns, 20-metre circles and wide serpentines, to supple this young mare. She was not ready for shoulder-in, but her hind legs were tracking the front legs, as they should, even on the turn.

Remember, while it may be tempting to push ahead and ask for self-carriage, without establishing the strong foundations of suppleness, straightness and balance, you risk creating long-term problems. We’ll look at how this all comes together in true self carriage in the next issue.

Take Home Message

What is often termed laziness, deadness, or stubbornness may simply be a misinterpretation on the part of the human, and not what is really going on with the horse in his mind and body. It goes back to what I say – always look at things ‘through the eyes of the horse’ if you truly want to understand how your horse is reacting or responding to your requests.