Suppleness is one of those more difficult concepts to explain. Because it relates to "feel", it's one of those things in horse riding that takes a long time to learn to identify and then produce regularly.
To recap, suppleness happens in two ways in the horse's body - longitudinally and laterally.
Longitudinal suppleness refers to how loose and round the horse is over his back. It also relates to how "through" his energy is. If he holds his muscles in tight tension, or he blocks forward energy as you ask for more from your legs, he is likely not "through" and soft over the back.
Lateral suppleness refers to the side-to-side dexterity of the horse. It is involved in achieving good balance around turns, and in the horse's ability to bend. I've written a detailed explanation of how to develop suppleness here.
Both types of suppleness are also involved in the establishment of "connection": that ever elusive goal of becoming "one", or riding in harmony, with the horse. No matter what discipline you ride, softness over the back and left and right are basic, fundamental qualities of good (and healthy) movement.
It All Comes Down To You
Here's the thing. Even when I'm explaining what the horse is (or isn't) doing, it's not really about the horse. It's really all about you. The rider has to learn how to achieve the suppleness that is required and desired. Developing suppleness comes from the seat, the legs, the hands, the torso (= core strength) and quick coordination of all those aids. In fact, one could say that the rider needs to be supple enough to develop the horse's suppleness!
Here is today's exercise. I like this one because it can help set you up to "find" suppleness just by virtue of riding through the pattern. You have to be sharp on this one - change your aids quickly to help the horse change the bend, go forward to an upward transition and then back to a downward transition.
Do this exercise after you and your horse have had a good chance to warm up. This can be the "lesson" part of your ride, and be sure to listen carefully to your horse in order to not overwork him too long.
It's a fun exercise because it keeps you hopping, and it really feels nice and flowing once you get a hang of it. The energy is forward but you can't let it go all out "the front end" because then you won't be able to navigate the lateral suppleness that is required to complete the pattern. There are several changes of direction and transitions involved. Click on each image to enlarge. I've divided the pattern into three parts just for ease of explanation. They all run concurrently.
1. Start on the rail to the left at trot.
2. Come off the rail before the end of the next corner and proceed to do a teardrop to the left. Make the turn fairly large (approx. 15 meters) so your horse has plenty of energy coming out of the turn and into the straight diagonal line. Prepare for change of bend for the corner that is coming up.
3. Bend right, turn right through the corner. You can slightly shorten your horse's strides just before the bend to help him control the forward energy coming off the diagonal line.
4. At C: transition to a canter circle, right lead. Make this a smaller circle if your horse is more advanced, otherwise keep it larger and work on maintaining good energy through the whole circle. Transition back to trot before reaching C again.
5. Navigate the next corner, preparing for the upcoming loop.
6. Do a loop coming out of the corner. Notice the diagram shows a fairly narrow loop, meaning that you don't have to go all the way to X at the middle. Gauge the depth of the loop based on your horse's riding level.
Start with a right bend, straighten for 2-3 strides over the middle of the loop, bend left to go back to the rail, and bend right again just before heading into the next corner. The loop can be tricky because it requires a bend to a bend to a bend! This is the end of the pattern because now you will be on the right rein, heading into the next corner.
Now you can start all over in the new direction. Your canter circle will be on A this time. The teardrop and the loop will end up being on the same side of the ring, regardless of the direction you're going in.
This exercise is designed to give you opportunity to focus on your aids - over and over again! As you get better at the pattern, see if you can sort of "dance" through the direction and gait changes. The idea is to subtly navigate the direction and gait changes while staying on the pattern. Keep up your horse's energy level but don't let him go too fast.
You're looking for keeping good balance as you negotiate each part of the pattern. You may find your horse softening over the back, left to right, and becoming bouncier. If he offers to slow his legs slightly but stay strong and forward in his gait, you know you're definitely on the right track! Make sure you do the same.
Let us know if you try this and how it goes for you and your horse in the comments below.
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