Like us, some horses are naturally more supple than others, but all horses can bend to a degree. When a horse lacks suppleness, he usually lacks bend around his rider’s leg, however, many riders think that the lack of suppleness stems from the neck. This is because they find it difficult to bend their horse’s neck when they’re riding, but often when they get off, their horse has no problem reaching round to scratch his side, so you can see that, in reality, the neck is rarely the cause of the problem.
When your horse is supple, he is able to bend easily, he’ll work through his back, and move fluidly without tension. If you feel your horse is lacking suppleness, the first thing I’d suggest is to make sure your horse is balanced, engaged and carrying himself. This will soften him around your leg and make him easier to ride, and often improves the situation greatly. If, once you’ve achieved that, suppleness still seems to be an issue, then there are some exercises you can do to help improve it.
One of the best things for creating suppleness in your horse is lateral work, and the most useful movements are shoulder-in, leg-yield and travers. If your horse is finding a movement difficult, keep the angle of the movement shallow and if you’re flexing his neck, exaggerate the neck positioning. This will make it easier for your horse. If he struggles to give you any angle in shoulder-in and travers, try riding the movement on the three-quarter line instead of the track. This will prevent him relying on the side of the school and he’ll have to start listening to your aids more.
Exercise 1 – Shoulder-in on a circle
Riding shoulder-in on a circle is a really useful exercise for suppling. The act of having to turn while riding shoulder-in brings your horse’s shoulder in round your inside leg. He’ll find it difficult initially, but when you go back to riding him straight, you’ll really feel the difference – he’ll be much more supple. In trot, ask for shoulder-in down the long side, then at E or B ride a 20-metre circle, maintaining the shoulder in. Ride a few circles, then trot out of the circle and go large around the arena. He’ll feel much more supple through turns.
For more of Dan’s suppling exercises, get your copy of December Horse&Rider, on sale 20 October.