Achieving Suppleness for Horse and Rider

Developing suppleness in your horse is the result of systematic training which enhances the elasticity and power of the natural paces. All horses have the potential to move in a beautiful supple way when training correctly.

In our work with horses we have been more interested in the journey between A and B with any particular horse, than how much success we could achieve in terms of producing a result in competitions. This means that we are happy to work with any horse, whether difficult mentally or limited physically, spoiled or unspoiled. In this way we have learned the fundamentals which must be applied in every situation, as well as the fine-tuning necessary for each individual horse. This fine-tuning is very important because each horse is very much an individual, and adapting your training method is as important as sticking to the fundamentals. However the fundamentals really do exist and they produce results, as we have seen time and time again.

suppleness in different horses suppleness in different horses suppleness in different horses suppleness in different horses suppleness in different horses suppleness in different horses suppleness in different horses suppleness in different horses

These photos show how any kind of horse - from warmblood to arab, thoroughbred to native - can acquire suppleness through correct training.

What Does Enhancing Suppleness Mean?

When something has more suppleness it means it can move in a more flexible way. When we systematically stretch and move our joints in a particular way, over time the muscles strengthen for both the stretch phase and the flexion phase. Different muscle groups are employed for each phase of a movement because an individual muscle has only one way of acting, that is to contract. This means that we have extensor muscles to allow us to stretch out our limb, and then flexor muscles to allow us to bend it.

Not only do the muscles become stronger, the tendons which attach the muscles to the bone also become tougher and better attached. The intelligence of our body is responding to the physical demands we are making.

If we are habitually stretching particular ligaments (ligaments attach bones to other bones), they will also respond to a certain degree, and lengthen or shorten as required. This is how we can form a correct leg as a rider (see Rider Biomechanics. This is a process which takes many, many years of consistent practice.

A well as developing the musculoskeletal structure, we will also develop the central nervous system - what is often referred to as 'muscle memory'. This is the intelligence which operates the muscular activity. The nerves will memorize the physical postures and the movements you make when you ride, and allow you to become more efficient and quicker at finding the correct posture, and keeping it, and also responding to changing circumstance.

This process of profound bio-structural adaptation to your role as a rider will happen in phases, and although the different physical processes happen in parallel, they will not necessarily always be in perfect harmony. Sometimes you may feel more supple, but less strong. Other times you might feel powerful but clumsy.

Some parts of the rider's body will develop more quickly than others, and, during the process, some areas must be prioritized at the expense of others. For example, the rider must put the development of their abdominal muscles before that of their leg muscles. This is because there is an order which must be adhered to in putting the whole mechanism of you and your horse together in engagement.

rider on the lunge

If there is a secret to achieving this transformation towards suppleness, it is simply to stick with it. Don't give up, and in time parts of your body will stay in place for longer, your horse will balance better and become straighter. Problems will arise and be resolved. It is a project which will continue for the rest of your life and will gradually become more and more natural to you and your horse. The relationship that you form with your horse as a result will be priceless.

How Does Suppleness Manifest in You and Your Horse?

The reason that the fundamental training principles work is that when they are correctly carried out, you will make real physical changes to your horse and to yourself. Practice definitely makes perfect as long as you are practicing along the right lines, and over time the following changes will take place in your horse:

  • Development of postural muscles which support the ring. You will see the line delineating the abdominal muscles along your horse's belly more clearly and more consistently. This applies (of course) to your own abdominal muscles! Don't expect a six-pack overnight, but you will strengthen them up considerably.
  • While your abdominal muscles are contracting, you and your horse's back muscles are stretching, and the vertebrae are therefore arranging themselves in the healthiest way possible, opening out any compression and allowing the discs to fill with fluid properly. Both you and your horse might have existing spinal lesions which will be disturbed in this process. In this case it is usually necessary to seek the help of an alternative therapist to help resolve the blockages. If you carry on regardless, compensations can set themselves up, and these will cause stiffnesses which negate the work towards suppleness that you are trying to carry out. You can find more about this in Horse Healing.
  • Correct development of neck muscles and hind-leg muscles. When a horse is moving either towards engagement (because he is not yet strong enough) or in engagement, he is building up all the muscles which support that. This is why quality is far more precious than quantity. Even two minutes of correct engagement work is worth more than hours of unengaged work. In fact work on the wrong muscles is fixing the horse deeper into the hollow posture, therefore the more training that is done like this, the worse it will get. Working towards engagement is often the first stage, but will still build the horse correctly. Quite often a horse is too weak to hold himself in the ring, but trying to hold him or place him there will only cause him to stiffen against the restraint and derail the development of suppleness.
  • One of the objectives of real dressage is the suppling of the majority, if not all, of the joints of the horse's body. From the temporomandibular joint to the fetlock joints. While the horse's ability to hold himself up and propel himself forward improves, his joints are becoming flexible enough to receive and absorb this movement. This is what makes the paces of a gymnasticized horse so attractive. The movement is synchronized and this allows the paces to become more expansive and cadenced. Not to be confused with the gimpy jerking movement of a horse working in tension.
  • All of the outcomes above work together to strengthen the core structure of both you and your horse. This is the ultimate goal in the physical dimension of horse training. When the horse can develop enough evenness in his muscular power, and enough consistency in the suppleness of his joints through which to channel that power, then he transforms into a different animal altogether. You, as his rider, have also been developing your postural ability to stay straight and therefore keep your horse straight, and this strength will harness his strength, so together you move in powerful gymnastic harmony. The beauty of this engagement cannot be mistaken. There is something about it that looks right and feels right, and once you have felt it nothing else is enough.

correct suppleness in dressage

tension and stiffness in dressage

In these photos, the horse on the left is working in correct engagement - the means by which we achieve suppleness in riding, whereas the horse on the right is being forced, between spur and double bridle, into an artificial posture, resulting in tension and therefore stiffening of the joints. To an uneducated eye these two pictures could look quite similar, but they could not be more different in terms of the gymnastic dynamic that they portray.

The Suppleness Challenge

Evil is done without effort, naturally, it is the working of fate; good is always the product of an art.

Charles Baudelaire

In terms of the effort, both mental and physical, required not only of you, but also of your horse, in order to achieve a single moment of perfect unity, there is no doubt that correct riding is one of the most difficult activities you can attempt.

There are always a thousand ways to do it wrongly, but only one way to do it right. If it is viewed, however, as the challenge that it undoubtedly is, and taken seriously, it will give you some of the greatest moments of fulfillment that you will experience in your life. As well as your physical development, you will also develop your ability to concentrate and remain patient in trying circumstances. Don't let yourself fall prey to quick fixes and gadgets, they are only a means of distraction from the real work.

happy horse after work

Remember that the process of developing suppleness will be just as trying for your horse, maybe more so because he has to accept your judgment of every situation which arises, and no-one is right every time. But if allowed and encouraged to, horses can and do take their work extremely seriously, and derive the greatest pleasure from it. It can not only civilize them, but it can capture their imagination and expand their horizons way beyond the ordinary outlook of a horse.

Relevant pages on Happy Horse Training that may interest you:

How To Train A Horse Without Force
Training Horses: the whole way!
What is Real Dressage?
Lunging A Horse Well: The Best Foundation For Training
Training Young Horses: Important Attributes in Trainer
Rider Biomechanics
What does 'on the bit' really mean?
Our Philosophy of Horse Healing
Photo gallery

return from Achieving Suppleness in Horse and Rider to Happy Horse Training home

Share this page:
Enjoy this page? Please pay it forward. Here's how...

Would you prefer to share this page with others by linking to it?

  1. Click on the HTML link code below.
  2. Copy and paste it, adding a note of your own, into your blog, a Web page, forums, a blog comment, your Facebook account, or anywhere that someone would find this page valuable.

New from HHT!

audioride logo

AudioRide is a series of exercises designed to listen to while you ride.

Audio descriptions guide you through each step of developing a balanced, dynamic connection with the horse through your position.

This truly innovative learning tool gives you a whole new way of being guided in your riding, in a calm, clear, step-by-step way.

Free Download! Introductory Exercise: Riding in the Now

Click here for full details

The Gymnastic Rider eBook

How to ride a horse in balance: The Gymnastic Rider eBook

Now available exclusively from HHT! A unique, comprehensive guide to practical rider biomechanics. This professionally produced eBook takes the rider through the process of developing their body in the specific way that brings the horse's movement into harmony and balance - without force and constraint. Click here for full details, and to download the 15-page introduction for free.

Join the Happy Horse Training group on Facebook!

See and share topical info, news and photo's, and take part in lively discussions.

Click here to go to the HHT group and then click on the 'join group' button.

Join the Whole Horse Newsletter

HHT's free monthly newsletter giving you wide-ranging and intelligent insights into holistic horsemanship.
Just enter your details below to join.

Enter your E-mail Address
Enter your First Name (optional)

Don't worry — your e-mail address is totally secure.
I promise to use it only to send you the whole horse newsletter.

Free bonus on the riding position with all new subscriptions: Ten Top Tips To Instantly Improve Your Connection With Your Horse.

Click here to see back issues of The Whole Horse newsletter

Train Your Horse
The Holistic Way

How To Train A Horse Without Force

How To Train A Horse Without Force is a unique guide to training horses through energetic connection and gymnastic training. Part 1 covers everything on the ground, from handling to the lungeing technique that develops strength, straightness and engagement. Comes with a free eBook supplement on Horse Trauma.
Click here for more details.

What people say about the eBook:

"OMG! I'm BLOWN AWAY by this text [...] It's one of the best horse training texts I've ever read." - Wendy Kendall

"I realized that I haven't yet written you about the impact that your training e-book has had on me, and I want to let you know how inspiring and helpful I found it. As a student of Zen Buddhism for nearly three decades, I've often wondered when someone was going to write the book on Zen and the art of horsemanship, and I think that your emphasis on mindfulness and energy connection gets right at the heart of the matter. It has certainly deepened the way that I relate to and communicate with my horses. I am reasonably sensitive to horses' body language and mood, but new to me was the idea of feeling their energy in a more subtle way - including their connection with me even when I am not directly working with the them. I have made myself more aware of this communication, and it's pretty amazing. I have started grooming differently, too, treating a grooming session as a time to mindfully listen to my horse instead of a way to dust out an old rug (OK, I wasn't quite that bad, but you get the idea). Additionally, I have made myself more open to how I actually feel about the horses themselves - very enlightening. Overall, I think that you are saying something that no one else is saying but that everyone ought to hear." - Tess Lloyd

Do You Have
A Horse Story
To Share On HHT?

So many people have been through wonderful experiences with horses, whether in training or otherwise. If you've made a change in a horse's life - or one has made a change in yours - tell us about it here.

Learn How To Trim
Your Own Horse's Feet

Natural Barefoot Trim eBook

The Simple Seven-Step Natural Trim is a comprehensive step-by-step guide to a cutting-edge barefoot trim. Click here to find out more.

What people say about HHT:

"The riding instruction is outstanding, if instructors in the UK taught this way there would be a lot of happy riders and horses."

"The riding tuition exceeded my hopes and expectations by a long way; giving me an exciting new facet to horsemanship which is lighter. more subtle, more elegant and more meaningful. It is as if a new door has opened bringing more sunlight and air."

"My goodness - what a change has taken place in my riding. I think that I'm starting to sit 'into' the horse rather than on top of him. I felt my horse's movements in a way that has almost never happened before"

Click on Testimonials for more