Suppleness – it’s not all about the neck

Once again we return to a subject that we touched briefly on before.  Suppleness is a theme which most people find is commented upon on their dressage score sheets at some point, but what does it mean?  What makes the difference between a horse showing good suppleness through his movements and one that doesn’t?  We all like to think that our horse is supple, after all, you school him, you try to have him going in a correct outline, during your sessions you do circles and changes of rein encouraging him to bend correctly around the corners and circles, and you try to do things equally in each direction.  But suppleness means so much more than the ability to bend accordingly on curved lines. So how can we test and help to improve our horse’s suppleness?

One very basic test of suppleness, and a good place to start is to find out how easy it is for your horse to change bend from one side to the other without lifting his head or changing his outline while he does it.  This can be performed on a figure of eight, or if your horse is a little more established, you can try it on a straight line without deviating from it, and then on a circle without changing the rein. A horse with a basic level of suppleness and understanding should be able to change bend fluidly, so you see it’s not just the ability to bend, but the ability to move within the bend that counts.  So if you find out that your horse cannot do this easily, how do you fix it?  You could try quietly changing the neck bend whilst standing still, to eliminate the extra balance issues involved when moving, and then move into walk when it gets easier. Also, think about how you are asking for the change of bend, try asking for bend to the right, and then changing it to the left, not by letting go of the right rein but by using the left rein to guide the horse’s head.  In this way, the horse is not simply allowed to flip his head back to straight before being asked to bend the other way, but he is asked to go directly from one bend to the other, albeit slowly, without a loss of contact on either rein.  This means that to achieve it, the horse has to accommodate the change with his muscles and joints in a far more supple way.  You may find that the horse jerks his head up whilst passing from one side to the other, solve this by making the change as slow as possible until the horse is more supple.

A horse showing a soft supple frame as he enters a circle Photo:

A horse showing a soft supple frame as he enters a circle


A greater degree of bend and suppleness when entering a smaller circle Photo: Craig Payne Photography

A greater degree of bend and suppleness when entering a smaller circle
Photo: Craig Payne Photography


And when entering shoulder in Photo: Craig Payne Photography

And when entering shoulder in
Photo: Craig Payne Photography

Another way that simply focusing on neck bend can fool you into believing you have suppleness is that sometimes, to avoid bending correctly, a horse will bend his neck in the required direction, but at the same time avoid curving his body properly by swinging his hindquarters out.  So the appearance of the neck looks like correct bend, but the horse’s body has not bent correctly, meaning that as the quarters swing out, the hind leg steps shorten, the shoulders drop, and engagement is lost.  Judges look for the horses feet to all be following the same track around the movements (except in lateral work).  To help avoid this problem, avoid over using the inside leg to achieve more bend, and certainly avoid using the inside leg too far back, which only serves to push the horse’s bottom out.  Keeping the outside leg softly in place on a curved line can help to control the quarters, and making sure that we maintain the ability to briefly release the inside rein can help to avoid the horse stiffening against the bend in this way.

 Of course lateral work is a subject that has to be mentioned when we talk about suppleness.  The horse’s ability to move sideways, whilst maintaining a correct bend throughout his body, requires suppleness and balance.  A horse can go sideways without being supple, but problems will tend to arise, for example, leading with the quarters, or having the quarters trailing a long way behind.  I find with lateral work, that there really is no substitute for an experienced pair of eyes on the ground, so be sure to ask your instructor to help you place the horse’s body correctly, because there are some things that you just can’t see from on top of the horse, and it doesn’t always look the same as it feels!

Cheryl Hammerson BHSAI Regd Bsc Hons Freelance Dressage Trainer 07879 424330

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