All riding disciplines value a horse that demonstrates suppleness while elegantly transitioning through his paces, floating weightlessly with pleasant engagement and enthusiasm. But many of us find that our horses feel more like rigid cardboard. Instead of bending seamlessly left then right, we find ourselves in a never ending tug-of-war against a braced jaw, poll, neck, back and hind end.
So precisely because we do not want to hurt the horse, we do nothing.
Instead, we become passive riders, not interfering with the horse but also not helping him achieve a healthier weight carriage. He travels with a stiff gait, crooked and hollow and eventually works his way into lameness - not because of what we did, but because of what we did not do.
We eventually learn that just hanging on and letting the horse travel incorrectly is not the solution.
On the other hand, we don't want to push, pull and pretzel the horse into a fake shape that falls apart at a moment's notice anyway.
How can we find the happy medium?
Recently, I learned all over again about suppleness not through riding but through yoga and "listening" to the responses of my own body. Sometimes, there is no bigger lesson learned than through a personal first-hand experience.
To find suppleness in your own body, try practicing yoga. Or any martial arts, or dance or gymnastics.
Or choose another physical activity that you enjoy.
Then take notes.
Learn about how you can become more supple in your body.
As you move through the stretching and bending routines, you will soon realize that you won't be able to force your body into looseness! In fact, the harder you try, the more tense your body will become. Instead, you will have to just go through the movements until your body can release through the muscles, tendons and ligaments. But this will take time.
The next time you go to yoga (or your activity of choice), your body will be more supple just on its own. You won't have to force or crunch - the muscles, tendons and ligaments will simply be more giving and "loose."
The same can be said for the horse.
The quickest way to suppleness in the horse is through regular practice and steadfast patience. (Click here to tweet this if you agree.)
Practice is the first step toward suppleness. In riding, this translates to working on specific exercises that encourage the horse to move with more fluidity and grace. This means that rather than doing nothing, or just hanging on during the ride, we need to set up situations that promote release of the muscles.
Even if your horse feels like he simply can't soften or supple, work on getting him to release his topline. Ask for more impulsion. Try some stretches, work on bends. See if you can "accordion" the horse a few times, at the walk, trot and maybe even at the canter.
If your horse feels too tight to really respond, ease up on your aids a bit. But still ask and continue setting up the situations. Bend left, turn left. Bend right, turn right. Keep the turns soft and large but still try to get a mild bend from the horse.
Remember that the idea isn't to crank him into position. Rather, you want to invite him into softness through the body. This is something that cannot be forced.
If you don't see instant results, don't get too disappointed. Understand that the stiffness you feel is deep within the horse's body and it might take several rides before he can loosen enough to respond to your expectations.
Patiently use your aids but don't rush him. Wait for him especially if you notice increased tension in response to your aids. Don't get stronger. Don't become frantic. Just ask and wait.
If the tension persists, finish the ride on a calm note and call it a day.
Try again the next ride. Work toward small improvements each day. You might be surprised to feel a more supple horse just like that!
How do you work on suppleness? Let us know in the comments below.
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