Suppleness can be an elusive concept for many people as well as horses. On the one hand, "finding" suppleness can be a rather long term and difficult undertaking, especially for novice horses or riders. On the other, suppleness is the key to all good movement. Without suppleness, you and your horse are left to always ride in tension and with a counterproductive posture.
Each component listed below takes time to learn and develop. In fact, you will likely need to go through these steps every time you learn something new with your horse. Every new skill will cause a certain amount of tension until both you and your horse figure out how to do the movement with better balance and impulsion.
I use these steps to help me stay focused on what needs to be done when. In other words, you can't go to increase the energy if you haven't found a clear rhythm yet. Do this for every single movement - a simple trot circle, or a walk pirouette, a lengthen or a half pass. It doesn't really matter what you're doing. Just work on each component of the movement in this order, and work towards reducing tension and improving suppleness.
First off, find rhythm. Pay attention to your horse's footfalls. Is he doing a clear 2-beat in the trot? Can you hear an even 1,2,3 - suspension in the canter? Listen closely, feel for the footfalls, and make sure the rhythm is crystal clear.
If you hear muddled footsteps, take note of your aids. Maybe you need to strengthen your seat aids, or use more leg for better impulsion. Maybe you need to actually slow down a bit to allow your horse enough time for each footfall.
In each case, focus on finding a good rhythm for your horse. He should be able to maintain it, regularly, for several strides. Don't go on to Step 2 until you have a clear, strong rhythm.
Next, work on energy level. There are times when almost all horses need to increase energy. It might happen as you come into a corner, or when you are turning on a small circle. Your horse might "suck back" in a lateral movement like a shoulder-in or leg yield. The idea is to get the rhythm first, then recognize when your horse is letting the energy "out the back end."
Use your legs and follow with your seat. Ask your horse for more energy, which should translate into bigger strides and a rounder back. If your horse flattens and just rushes along, use half-halts to rebalance. Make sure you have rhythm, then ask for energy all over again.
3. Longitudinal Flexion
Once you have rhythm and energy, you can focus on getting your horse to move "over the back." The energy you now have can be transferred over the back to allow your horse to round better. Half-halts help a lot, but equally important is your seat and upper body balance. Try to stay with the horse's movement (don't get left behind) and then lighten your seat (tighten your buttocks) so that you don't inadvertently stop the energy in the saddle area.
Ride the energy, go with the forward motion, and then use your half-halts to keep your horse's balance from falling to the forehand.
4. Lateral Flexion
After you have the horse moving over the back, you can focus on side-to-side flexion and bend. I find that once the horse finds longitudinal flexion, he'll flex laterally much more easily than if he was tight over the back. So first, you must have rhythm, energy and roundness.
Then work on the sides. You can ask for a mild flex to the inside (or outside too) using just your upper body position and light fingers. Or you can work on a true bend using your seat, leg aids and upper body and hands.
When bending, make sure you don't overbend - a 20-meter circle or turn has only a mild bend. Increase the amount of bend as your circle gets smaller. But make sure you bend through the body, not just the neck. Your leg, seat, upper body and hands should be also bent according to your circle.
Use the outside rein to prevent an overbend but use your inside leg and seat to create the bend in the first place. Be sure to have mini-releases on your inside rein (make the rein "flutter") so you don't take steady pressure and prevent the inside hind leg from coming under the body.
There are surely many other ways to improve your horse's suppleness but I find this method works well, especially if you are riding without an instructor. You can just go through each part in your mind.
As you get better at it, you'll go through each step fairly quickly. In fact, you might get through all four steps within 2-3 strides of your horse. Do you have rhythm? Great, then get some energy. Enough energy? Then let the energy come over the back. Enough roundness? Then let's work on bend.
Final note: I find that as you go through these steps with your horse, your own tension starts to dissipate as well. For some people, breaking down the steps helps a lot to focus their intention. Other people might want to keep things more cohesive, and try to get it all together at the same time.
In all cases, listen to your horse. Look for a rounder, swingier movement. Listen for snorts and deep breaths. Feel for lightness, better balance and maybe even floppy ears!
What do you do to improve suppleness? If you give this method a try, let us know how it worked out.
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Bend: How To Drift Out On Purpose: Letting the horse escape ever so slightly to the outside might be just what you need in certain moments.
6 Things You'll Learn While Riding On The Trails: Bend for a reason!
Two Secrets To Easing Your Horse Into Suppleness: Finding the medium between doing nothing and pushing your horse through tension.
The Dynamic Dependency of Horseback Riding: Why is it that riding can become so difficult at times? In riding, nothing can be done in isolation.
What Being On The Forehand Means to the Horse: The idea here isn’t to cause guilt and doom and gloom; instead, we should learn all we can and take steps to avoid known problems.