Following on from last month’s look at the beginnings of suppleness, this month we explore some more exercises to test and improve suppleness in the horse.
We have been discussing the idea that that simply bending the horses neck is not enough to ensure your horse is supple, nor enough to improve its level of suppleness. We must also pay attention to what the horse does within his body, so that we are aware if the horse is able to describe the same bend with its body as it does with the neck. We must also pay attention to whether the horse is able to move fluidly from one position to another. Here we have some exercises to help test these things and to help improve them too.
This most basic of lateral exercises is a good place to start. Depending on your horse’s level of training, he should be able to perform a leg yield with relative ease, and the more advanced he is, the less leading with the shoulder we should expect to see, until the horse is able to move across almost parallel to the wall he is moving towards. But even if your horse is not advanced, as long as he is established in the basic aiding and how to move away in the leg yield, then you can try moving him around in a zig zag. You can try it in walk first, and only do a few steps each way and only one change of direction to start with. The action of changing direction will firstly help you to understand which direction is easier for your horse. Secondly, it will help you to improve the horse’s ability to move his body equally away from your aids. Once the horse is able to make one change of direction per exercise, i.e. one leg yield left changing to one leg yield right, and vice versa, then you can try moving on to more than one change in walk, and doing the one change in trot.
Head to wall/quarters in
Moving on from the leg yield zig zag exercise, here we look at the slightly more complicated idea of changing the horse’s bend without changing the direction of travel. For this exercise, we start by making sure that the horse understands how to move along the school wall on a slight angle with his head and neck bending towards the wall, and his hind legs coming slightly in from the track. To do this you must position the leg closest to the wall at the girth and the other leg slightly back, quietly ask for the bend with the hand closest to the wall, and encourage forward/sideways movement with the leg closest to the wall. Once the horse is confident with this in both directions, you could try changing his bend. To do this, change the position of your legs so that the one away from the wall is now on the girth and the one closest to the wall is now back. Slowly change the bend with the rein so the horse now looks down the track instead of at the wall, but maintain the position of the horse’s quarters slightly off the track by activating with the leg closest to the wall, which is now further back to support the quarters. As you can see, this is a more complicated exercise, and it is worth making sure you understand it as a rider before confusing the horse with it! Remember, always confirm the horse understands in the walk before trying to go faster. If the horse is very supple, and understands the aids very well, he will be able to move between these positions with relative ease.
So far we have mainly talked about lateral suppleness, which involves the horse’s ability to bend its body, change bends, and move sideways with whichever bend is asked. We must also consider suppleness in terms of the horse’s ability to flex the joints of his legs, and the joints of his spine in an upwards direction not just laterally. One indicator of this kind of suppleness is the horse’s ability to change pace without disruption to his balance or outline. There are other factors involved in making good transitions, but a crucial factor is whether the horse is able to flex his leg joints sufficiently and whether he can lift his back to enable the hind legs to step through effectively. If one or both of these abilities is lacking, it will be difficult to make transitions without the disturbances to balance and outline we mentioned earlier. Again, start simple, with transitions from walk to halt and back again, and then walk to trot and back again. If there is significant change to the outline then practise is required to discover if it is possible to improve it. Try doing the transitions more slowly, as if you are asking the horse to stop over a series of steps, or in the upward transition, moving off at first as if in slow motion to allow time for the horse to move all his joints, and for the rider to maintain a good contact. If the horse is able to develop suppleness and confidence in his transitions, then gradually he can be expected to return to a more normal speed of transition, but not at the expense of suppleness. When thinking about canter transitions, get someone knowledgeable to watch how you perform these, and ask them to see if they can tell whether the horse starts the transition from behind or from in front. Many horses go very obediently into canter but do so by taking the first step of the new pace with the new leading leg. In theory, a horse should step into left canter by taking the first step with his right hind leg. To do this he must have the ability to flex the right hind, the strength to carry his whole weight on it for a split second, and the upwards flexion of his back to enable the left hind to come forwards with its diagonal pair for the next beat of the canter stride. If the horse starts from in front, he is much more likely to change outline than if he starts correctly from behind.
Hopefully you have some exercises to get you a little further on, but again, there is no substitute for the help of a good trainer, so make sure you ask for help!
Cheryl Hammerson BHSAI Regd Bsc Hons Freelance Dressage Trainer 07879 424330 www.cheryl-hammerson-dressage.co.uk