I know, I quite often feel like I'm riding a plank of wood too. It's funny how one minute your horse is as stiff, tense and rigid as a lump of metal but the next minute he's 'passaging' his way to a Grand Prix test because there's a single sheep in the field next door. So maybe he's not that stiff, eh?
Suppleness can be really difficult to achieve and quite often if your stiff, your horse is too. So it's important to remember whilst attempting the exercises mentioned below you consciously think about how your sitting in the saddle and how supple you are as it can be an influencing factor!
According to British Dressage, under the scales of training, the aim is that the horse’s muscles have tone and are free from resistance, his joints are loose and he does not tighten against the your aids. The test of whether a horse is supple and working ‘through’ the back and neck is that when the rein contact is eased (as in a free walk) the horse wants to stretch forward and down and not try to hollow and lift his head.
So how do you know if your horse is lacking suppleness? Check out our handy guide below!
So what can you do to help your horse become more supple? Well.. lateral work is key, but that doesn't mean it has to be complicated! Keep things basic and refrain from doing them endlessly. Practice each one a couple of times during your training sessions, with breaks in between.
Exercise no. 1: Shoulder-in. This can be done on a circle or in a straight line. It is best to do this in walk to begin with so it's easier for your horse to understand. Keep your inside leg on the girth to create the impulsion and bend. Place your outside leg slightly behind the girth and remember it's your outside rein that controls the angle of the shoulder in. Keep it easy to begin with, as your horse becomes more supple you'll find you can increase the angle. If your horse loses the rhythm and impulsion it's a sign the angle is too steep, for now. Perhaps ask someone to video you whilst your doing the exercise (we aren't all fortunate enough to have mirrors!).
Exercise no. 2: Leg-yield. Many people always ride this movement from the centre of the school to the track, but this often causes horses to fall out through the shoulder. It's often more helpful to use the wall initially to help keep your horse straight and ask him to move away from the track onto the 3/4 line. After the corner flex your horses head to the outside and apply some pressure with your outside leg just behind the girth, use your inside rein and inside leg to maintain impulsion and straightness. Try to ask for three strides then take two or three strides to straighten out of it. You don't have to overdo it, a few strides is enough to supple him up!
Exercise no. 3: Spiral in and out on a circle. This sounds like an easy movement to perform, however it can be quite tricky to keep the circle even and controlled. It's important you don't take the circle too small, usually starting at 20 metres and reducing this down to 15 metres is enough. You want to feel your horse stepping under and the rhythm must not change. See... it's not that easy is it?
Remember it's important not to overdo the exercises and you must work your horse evenly on both reins. All horses are more supple on one side than the other so you might find you have to make the exercise on the more difficult rein easier to begin with. Not only do these exercises improve suppleness, they also help to improve balance and they keep your horse thinking. Always riding a 20 metre circle, because it's easy, gets you nowhere and becomes boring for your horse. By regularly testing your horses suppleness you will soon see the rewards!
*Remember it's essential that you warm your horse up correctly prior any training, read about how to do this >HERE<