The Young Horse
Unlike rhythm, which is almost instinctive, suppleness is not something a horse is born with. In simple terms, suppleness is the flexibility and looseness of the body. People would be naturally stiff if they do not maintain a regular exercise and stretching regime. Gymnasts are exceptionally flexible and limber, and they can bend in many directions. The horse is not only an athlete, but also a gymnast because he has to stretch and bend to execute the movements we ask. Since the horse is a gymnast but is not born supple, it is our job to help him stretch, flex, bend, and strengthen.
As trainers, we are aware of major muscle groups in the horse and how we would like those muscles developed. Our first concern should be the muscles than run along the top line of the horse. These muscles start at the haunches, run along the buttocks, croup, back, top of the neck, all the way to the poll. The degree to which these muscles can stretch has instant affect on the horse’s ability to swing freely forward towards the bit. Stiffness in those muscles causes the horse’s back and neck to contract, resulting in a horse that moves by dragging his hind legs, drops his back, raises his neck, and braces against the bit.
Next, we are concerned with the muscles that run along the sides of the horse’s body and the upper sides of his neck. The flexibility of those muscles dictate the degree of bend the horse is willing to offer. Tension or stiffness in those areas prevent proper bending, and cause falling in and out off the line of travel.
Therefore, we are looking at two types of suppleness. The first is called longitudinal suppleness, and measures the flexibility of the horse’s top line. The second is called lateral suppleness, and measures the flexibility of the horse’s sides.
Although longitudinal suppleness is our foremost concern, its progress is controlled to a fair extent by the progress of lateral suppleness. For example, a horse that is able to stretch and remain on the bit on a straight line will become stiff and crooked on curved lines if he is unable to bend. Also, a horse’s longitudinal suppleness improves as his lateral muscles relax and stretch. Our goal is a horse that is bendable, elastic, and completely free of tension both on straight and on curved lines. Ultimately, we work on improving both types of suppleness simultaneously.
Longeing: With a young or green horse, you would want to begin his training on the longe. Without the additional burden of a rider, that horse is free to find his own balance and rhythm while reaching for contact provided by side-reins. Instead of traditional side-reins, I highly recommend using Vienna reins. Also known as balancing reins, they resemble draw reins but are used for longeing. They can be fastened to various points on the surcingle or roller, allowing a multitude of neck positions. You can achieve a long and low position on the longe by attaching one end of the balancing reins to the girth or surcingle between the horse’s forelegs, and the other end to the girth strap. Longeing in this position may add pressure on the forehand, but by carefully activating the quarters, the horse stretches both longitudinally and laterally. Eventually, you may longe in solid side-reins attached to the saddle D-rings (or slightly lower) to teach a horse self-carriage and to yield to the bit (more about this in the next article).
To emphasize looseness of the back, you may briefly ask the horse to stretch round and deep, i.e. curling the neck slightly towards the chest. It is extremely important that the rider is skillful enough to continue riding the horse forward and engaging his quarters, else he will collapse on his forehand. The main objective of this exercise is to relax the horse and teach him submission. Relaxation and submission contribute to suppleness. Beware, however, not to drill the horse everyday in this manner. Ride him in this position only when you feel tension building up, or a couple of times a week in five-minute segments. It is also important that you are able to bring the horse neck up again until the poll is the highest point.
When the basics are more or less established, ride transitions within the gait, i.e. medium-working trot, or medium-working canter. These also help improve longitudinal suppleness.
Note that the trot is the gait that supples the horse most. Because of the diagonal trot steps, it works his muscles evenly. However, some horses relax better at the canter. With those, it would be better to canter often in the first half of the session until the horse is the mental and physical frame to accept trot work happily.
When the horse is comfortable on large circles, ride three, four, and five-loop serpentines. Always release a tad with your outside hand as you change direction to give the horse space to bend to the inside.
Ask for the leg-yield sparingly and not everyday. Although it supples the horse, some experts find it adds pressure on various points that may lead to injury.
With a little more advanced horse, practice lots of shoulder-in. You can ride the exercise in walk, trot, and even canter. As in leg-yield, be careful not to over-bend, otherwise you will end up with a neck-in rather than a shoulder-in!