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.

Two Types of Suppleness

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.

Basic Suppling Exercises

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).

Stretching: Under saddle, replicate the idea of long and low that the horse has learnt on the longe (See Long and Low). You will have the liberty of changing the rein more frequently than on the longe. Ride plenty of figures of eight, alternating with occasional diagonals to straighten the horse. Make sure the horse is carrying himself forward, and not dragging his feet or leaning on your hand.

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.

Transitions: These work like a charm. After a warm-up of forward and stretching, incorporate walk-trot transitions (2 steps walk, few meters of trot) and trot-canter transitions into the session. Provided that you are consistent with your aids, the horse would soon relax, allowing energy to travel back and forth through him as he moves from one gait to the next. Transitions are good for longitudinal suppleness while also teaching the horse to engage and come off the forehand.

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.

Circles: Curved lines have several benefits: first, they strengthen the inside hind, second, they help the horse engage and find his balance, and third, they stretch the outside of the horse. Ideally, you would not want to bring the horse’s nose any more inside than his inside shoulder. Occasionally, to teach the horse to become elastic and loose, you can bend him a little bit extra for just a few strides, then align him again. Tip: you can also bend the horse’s neck a little inside and then outside as you travel on straight lines.

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.

Lateral Exercises: In early training, the only lateral exercise you can regularly work on is the leg-yield. Practice that at the work and rising trot, being careful not to over-flex to the inside. If the horse has a habit of falling against your inside leg on one rein, you can then revert to slight over-flexion as you ask him to move promptly away from your inside leg.

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!

Counter-canter: As soon as the horse is cantering quietly and accepting the bit on straight and curved lines, you may introduce a little counter-canter. At first, simply canter a 5-meter loop in from the track. When the horse maintains his rhythm through this simple exercise, practice counter-canter on the long side of the arena. Eventually, your goal is to ride around the entire arena in counter-canter without loosing rhythm or balance. As your horse progresses, you may even ride counter-canter on a 20 or 15 meter circle. These exercises not only work wonders on lateral suppleness, but they also straighten, strengthen, and balance the horse.

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