3 exercises to improve your horse’s suppleness
If you’ve been riding for a long period of time, you’ll have almost certainly heard of the term ‘suppleness’. While this word is thrown around a lot, especially in the dressage world, suppleness is regularly misunderstood, with many mistaking it for collection, rhythm, or engagement.
Suppleness actually refers to the ability to bend without stiffness. It goes hand in hand in straightness, with most exercises designed to increase suppleness also improving straightness. Your horse should be flexible through his joints, and soft at the poll and jaw. He should be able to move and bend throughout his body easily, and he shouldn’t feel like a plank of wood around corners!
Why is suppleness important?
It can be very easy to spot a horse that’s not supple, and these horses are unlikely to perform as well at competitions. Horses that aren’t supple may also be more susceptible to injuries further down the line, or lack strength in their back and core. Working on suppleness will also help your horse to stay straight, round his back and engage muscles, which will in turn boost core strength and condition.
A supple horse will have full range of motion through their joints, and this is important for both green and experienced horses. Improving suppleness will help your horse in every discipline, from dressage, to show jumping, to happy hacking!
Here’s a few of our favourite exercises to improve your horse’s suppleness.
Spirals on a Circle
Spiraling in and out of a circle has a range of benefits. It improves suppleness, straightness, engagement and rhythm, while also giving your horse something more to think about. It’s a great way to work towards more advanced movements such as half pass.
Start at walk, so you have time to feel what is going on underneath you. This exercise is far easier for both rider and horse if you place a cone in the middle of the circle. Walk a 20m circle, and make sure the circle is the same size the entire way round. Gradually spiral in to decrease the size of the circle.
If you have a more experienced horse you can think about leg yielding in, keeping the horse’s body straighter. Whether you are spiraling or leg yielding, make sure you’re not pulling the horse in with one rein. Instead, use your weight, legs and positioning to encourage the horse to move inwards without overbending. Keep the rhythm and impulsion. Once you have reached the size of a 10m circle, begin to slowly spiral out again, using your outside leg to stop the horse from falling out.
Once you are happy in walk, try the exercise in trot and even canter.
Leg yielding is another great way to improve suppleness, and it’s also hugely effective if your horse is fresh, excitable, and needs something else to concentrate on!
Turn down the three-quarter line and use your inside leg to ask your horse to step sideways back to the track. Again, try not to simply pull him over with your outside rein. Think of keeping your horse’s neck straight or flexed slightly to the inside, moving him across to the track with your legs and weight. Your horse’s body should remain parallel to the fence throughout the exercise.
This can be done in walk, trot and canter. If you find your horse wants to ‘fall’ to the track, try leg yielding in towards the centre line instead.
Counter bending is one of the easiest ways to improve suppleness and balance. This can be practiced during your warm up at a show, schooling session or even on a hack!
Start in walk on the right rein. Maintaining the rhythm and impulsion, open your left rein and keep your left leg on the girth. Ask the horse to bend around your left leg as he walks to the right. Position your shoulders and head in the direction of the turn so that your horse knows where he is going.
Practice bending and counterbending throughout your schooling sessions. Your horse should be able to do both without losing his rhythm or balance. Once you’re confident in walk, try it in trot. It can also be practiced on a circle and paired with the spiraling exercise.
It is well worth spending time during your schooling sessions or out on hacks to work on your horse’s suppleness. Anything that encourages bending and straightness can make your horse more supple, so get creative with your exercises to prevent you from getting bored!