Suppleness is one of those things where i think we all struggle with how much we should be aiming for? How supple should your horse be, can a horse be too round; can they be too supple; and if they are too round or too supple, can that cause problems for you in your training and competing? Were going to cover all of this on todays podcast.
Before we get started i want to talk about what suppleness actually is. The definition of suppleness is that the horses muscles are toned but free from resistance, tightness or tension. So when a rider puts an aid on, the horse shouldn't tighten, tense up or resist against the riders aids. The muscles that we focus on most in dressage are the horses topline muscles, these run from the horses hindlegs, over the hindquarters, over their back, up their wither, over their neck up to their poll. Suppleness can be divided into two types, longitudinal suppleness which is the horses ability to extend and compress their backs and work correctly over their topline; and lateral suppleness is the horses ability to bend and flex left and right; both of these should be done, obviously, without tension, tightness or resistance. Today, were going to be focusing more on the horses longitudinal suppleness, which is focused more around the frame the horse makes, and how they use their back to move.
So, if we are talking about the possibility of a horse being too supple; a horse cannot work too much over their back, they cannot be too supple because at no point do we come across an issue because our horse's muscles are free from resistance or tightness, the more correctly our horse uses the muscles and the more athletic, supple and free from tightness those muscles are, the better. So there is no such thing as a horse being too supple. Problems that riders may come across is that a horse may be too free in their movement, they may need to carry more weight on their hindlegs or be more balanced or work into a more consistent contact;; but these are issues with those other scales of training and not with suppleness itself. So ultimately the more supple you get your horse, the more athletic they will be, the more free they will be and the easier it will be for them to move correctly and get that throughness where the hindlegs are stepping through into an even, elastic contact which is what we are all trying to achieve in one way or another.
How do we know when we have the right amount of suppleness?
So, if we know that we cannot have a horse that is too supple, how do we know when we have enough suppleness. How do we know when we've reached that point where our horse is working over their back - the answer is really simple.
When we have a horse working correctly, we've said already they work from the hindleg, over the supple back and into an even elastic contact. When we have a horse like this, if we allow the rein out a little the horse should be supple enough to stretch their body a little to follow the bit down and work into this new slightly longer frame. And when they do this in a smooth relaxed way, we know we have a horse that is working over his back correctly. And its the reason why we have the circles of trot stretches or the free walk even from the lowest levels, its to check that the horse is working correctly over his or her backs and when they are that horse should follow the bit, stretching out their neck and body to accommodate for this new rein length and similarly, when the rein then gets shortened again they should be able to compress their body together more to accommodate for the slightly shorter rein length. And all this should happen without the horse getting stronger or lighter in the contact, the weight you have in your hand should stay the same, elastic feeling.
So, if this is something you struggle with or you're not sure if your horse is supple enough; a really easy exercise is to sit yourself on a 20m circle in trot, and, if you get to the stage where you think your horse feels good and supple and working over their back, just allow the rein out about an inch, if your horse follows the rein down you know your horse is working correctly over his back and is supple, if however, you find your horse braces, tenses, tightens, comes away from the contact, comes behind the vertical, becomes unbalanced, goes onto the forehand, loses rhythm or leans against you; you know you're not quite there yet with the suppleness. And that's when you can bring in your spirals and serpentines and loops and lateral work to help improve your horses suppleness.
What about roundness and behind the contact?
A big thing for a lot of dressage riders is getting their horse round or on the bit. I much prefer the term on the bit because 'round' implies that we want the horse to look like a semicircle shape with the back as the highest point and the poll and hindquarters as the lowest point - and this is definitely not true. The aim is to achieve a frame where the horse works over their back and uses their core muscles yes, but with the poll as the highest point. (Well maybe go into this more as another episode as it is quite a complex topic)
And this is the only time we tend to come across a problem around the idea of too much suppleness is when we talk about a horse being too 'round'. Its a big topic in the dressage world when a horse comes behind the vertical (and this is when the horse brings their nose into their chest so you cannot draw a straight line from their forehead and poll to their nose), im not going to dwell too much on this because we have another episode coming up about that; the main one i wanted to talk about was when a horse comes behind the contact and this is when a horse will bring their nose into their chest whilst lightening the contact to evade taking the bit down and out. So there will be no contact and the horse will be fixing themselves in that position.
There are hundreds of reasons why horses go behind the bit. It may be they are weak, they aren't supple enough, they're tense, they aren't pushing correctly from their hindlegs or they are have been taught to go like that. With all of these though, the horse isn't working correctly over their topline muscles, and those muscles will be tight, braced and fixed rather than supple and free from resistance; it can also encourage the back to drop down and away from the rider rather than the horse using their core muscles to keep the back up and engaged.. If we did our test and allowed the rein out a little the horse would probably either stay in the same fixed position with its nose behind the vertical and wouldn't extend their back and neck out to follow the bit. A horse that is behind the behind the bit is a severe problem because it highlights that those first 3 scales of training arent there, theres no rhythm, no suppleness over those topline muscles and no contact.
Suppleness through the levels
Each time you progress up a level in dressage, we know that it requires the horse to do more movements that require them to be more strong, more supple and more athletic. The job we have as riders is to ensure that they are able to do these movements whilst maintaining that resistance free, tightness free muscles and keep that same throughness where the horse is working over their back but with their poll as the highest point. Add in more difficult moves and the horse is going to need more athleticism, more strength, more flexibility in those muscles without them getting more tight and tense, in other words, they're going to need to be more supple.
What happens if a horse loses suppleness?
But a horse losing suppleness or having those moments of resistance, tightness or tension is a fact of dressage. When we introduce a new movement or something the horse struggles with, if they're not quite strong enough in their topline muscles or their hindlegs or if they are naturally a more hot or tense horse, all this and more can lead to losses of suppleness and it happens to everyone. The main thing, and the most important thing, is that we keep striving for that swinging, free, toned muscles that are strong and used correctly but are free from resistance, tightness and tension. It will always be an ongoing process and you will always have times where things feel super supple and easy and times where its really hard! If suppleness is something you are working on we do have episodes that go a bit more in depth into what suppleness is, how to improve it and specific exercises that can help too. We do also have, for those of you that are DD members a whole area dedicated to suppleness exercises too.