When we talk about suppleness it means that your horse is able to turn their head, neck and haunches in either direction with equal freedom and range of motion. This suppleness is the second rung on the Scales of Training – the six key steps that should form the basis of training for every horse. But how can you encourage your horse to stay supple, relaxed and rounded? Top coaches Ian and Heidi Woodhead share their thoughts.

Just like people, horses naturally favour one side of their body more than the other. If you turn your head to look over your left shoulder and then do the same over your right should you will probably find that it’s easier to do this on one side than the other.

The Scales of Training

As riders we are often stiff in places we don’t even know about and many of us have unconsciously been compensating for years. Horses are just the same, yet we often expect them to be able to work on a 20m circle on either rein and stay balanced and relaxed throughout.

Interestingly, suppleness is closely linked with straightness. A horse who is stiff on one side will struggle to walk in a totally straight line – possibly hollowing one area of their body or leaning slightly on the hand or leg. Even if this lack of straightness is very subtle, it will, in time, affect the horse’s muscle development and their way of going.

Suppleness and having equal range of motion down both sides of the body will therefore enable your horse to move with freedom, both in a straight line and in the more complicated school movements. For this reason, achieving a relaxed and supple horse should be a priority for riders in all disciplines.

What are the signs of a lack of suppleness?

  • A reluctance to bend and soften on one rein, becoming hollow at any pace faster than a walk.
  • Resistance to school work in general, running through the contact or resisting the rider’s aids.
  • ‘Motorbiking’ around the circle on one rein when being lunged.
  • Finding an exercise (even one as simple as a raised trotting pole) much easier on one rein than the other.

Exercise 1: Leg yielding on a circle

  1. Once you have warmed up, begin by working on a 20m circle in either walk or trot.
  2. When you have settled into a rhythm, decrease the circle to 10m, then increase the size to 20m again by riding leg yield.
  3. While doing this it’s important to ensure that your horse is travelling forwards and sideways, with a soft bend away from the direction they’re travelling in.
  4. Don’t forget to work on both reins. You’ll probably notice that your horse struggles more on one side, but it’s important to practise on both reins equally.

The next step: If you’re working in an arena, you can also make good use of the corners by asking for a 10m circle in each one. This is a great test of suppleness as well as the bend through the corner.

Exercise 2: Leg yielding along the straight

When training, it’s better to ride leg yield with your horse’s body completely straight and parallel with the side of your training space, rather than with a slight flexion (which would be required for a dressage test). This is because it’s very easy to use too much inside rein, and forget that your outside rein is the one that controls your horse’s outline.

  1. Go large around the outside of the arena.
  2. Come down the three-quarter line and leg yield to the outside track.
  3. Next time, come down the centre line and leg yield to the outside track.

The next step: Develop the exercise further by leg yielding from the outside track all the way across the arena to the opposite corner. You can also incorporate 10m circles at the beginning, middle and end of any exercise to test the consistency of the roundness and suppleness of your horse throughout.

Meet the experts: Ian Woodhead was the National Under 21 dressage trainer for 18 years, during which the dressage pony team won 10 European Championship medals. He now trains top international event riders, and many other British and Irish senior squad members. Heidi Woodhead (née Simmons) is well known on the eventing circuit as an international rider, a producer of young horses, and a BHSI and British Eventing accredited coach. 

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