When you hear the word “supple” in relation to a western horse, you likely picture an athletic horse that moves gracefully and in balance, willingly responding to the rider’s nearly imperceptible cues. But how do you recreate that image?
“Put simply, a supple horse moves without tension and carries himself in a balanced frame,” says Dale Rudin, a Certified Horsemanship Association trainer based in Tennessee. “He is light and responsive to the rider’s cues, and willingly shifts his balance and reshapes his frame both laterally and longitudinally.”
“A supple horse displays the mental and physical flexibility, strength and balance to achieve flexion from head to hindquarters, in any direction, and to change the direction and degree of flexion easily when asked,” adds Anne Brzezicki, a Certified Horsemanship Association trainer and American Quarter Horse Association Professional Horseman based in Tennessee who teaches riding at several universities along the East Coast.
Lateral suppleness includes bending or straightening the body and moving away from the bend, as in a leg-yield; or into the bend, as in a half-pass; or bending and going straight, as in a shoulder-in or haunches-in. Longitudinal flexibility includes shortening and lengthening the horse’s frame.
“Some of the great horse trainers say all stiffness is mental, a concept I believe deserves consideration,” says Brzezicki. “Mental suppleness allows the horse to change from one exercise or maneuver to another with the attitude of, ‘Sure! I can do that!’”
What Suppleness is Not
“Suppleness is not about teaching a behavior—yielding to rein pressure, for example,” says Rudin. “It’s about teaching the horse to trust the rider and allowing the rider to control his body. When this happens, his athletic ability can progress naturally. On the contrary, crafting a frame by using fear of punishment inhibits suppleness because it creates emotional stress and physical tension.”
Just because a horse can bring his nose to the girth when asked doesn’t mean he’s supple.
As Rudin explains, “If a horse is overbent—such as when he’s worked in repeated one-rein stops—his body becomes disconnected from his head and neck, and he can no longer operate as the cohesive whole of an athlete.”
The Rider’s Role
Tension anywhere in your body leads to tension in your horse, so a supple horse starts with a supple rider.
Your hands need to move with your horse and shape the movement rather than constrain it. If you’re putting pressure on the bit, are you using it as a directional tool and allowing the horse to relax into the guidance, or are you relying on the force of the bit to change movement? Are you inadvertently putting on the brakes while asking the horse to bend, stop, flex or turn? This creates tension and confusion.
Tension can also result from your mindset. Do you have the supple mindset that your horse is doing his best to understand what you are asking? If you aren’t getting the results you’re looking for, you need to be able to restate the question in a way that your horse can understand. You want to help him understand rather than force him to do something.
“We want to support our horse in a way that allows movement without forcing it,” says Rudin. “When a child is learning to walk, we hold his hand as he takes his first unsteady steps. Think about bringing that same feel to your horse—supporting and gently guiding his efforts.”
A Supple Approach
“As riders, it’s our job to help the horse become more supple and nearly ambidextrous,” explains Brzezicki.
“By incorporating frequent changes of shape, direction, figures, gait, degrees of collection, and length of stride into our everyday training, we can help our horses be prepared mentally and physically for whatever maneuver we expect them to do,” adds Brzezicki.
Exercises to Develop Suppleness
Lateral work is best started in a snaffle bit, using two hands. Imagine the reins are like eggs, and hold them without crushing them. Feel the weight of the reins in your fingers, not in your hands. Keep your hands and arms elastic.
Exercise 1: Bending
Set up a line of cones to provide your horse a reason to bend and follow the direction of the rein.
- Start at the walk and establish a steady rhythm. Lack of rhythm means your horse is getting tense. It should remain consistent.
- Begin the bend. Shorten the inside rein (as opposed to pulling on it). Take a light feel of the rein and allow your horse to follow the direction.
- Drive your horse forward into the bend. Think of his back being aligned with 12 and 6 on a clock face. Now, ask him to bring his head and neck to between 10 and 11 or 1 and 2. As he becomes more supple, he can bend more deeply, but don’t ask him for more than a 45-degree bend.
- Do small half-circles around the cones, or establish a serpentine pattern, asking your horse to come in and out of the bend. Don’t keep him locked in the bend; this invites tension, not supple relaxation. If he can stay in the bend at the walk and maintain a consistent rhythm, he’s developing suppleness. If he can’t maintain the bend or is getting tense or tight, decrease the bend until he can.
- Next, complete a full circle around a cone and connect it to a full circle around the next cone. Build on this by using your inside leg at the cinch and asking your horse to bring his shoulders over in that bend. Open the outside rein. Keep his body tracking as a unit so that his hips stay under his body and don’t drift off the line.
- Ask your horse to lengthen and stretch on a straight line. Shorten the reins without pressure and keep your hands soft, held wider than your hips and low in front of the saddle. Allow your horse to elongate and stay in rhythm. The goal is that he feels the reins and lengthens into the pressure instead of tensing and tightening.
Exercise 2: Turn on the Forehand
Once your horse understands the basic idea of bending and moving in different directions softly and without tension, you can progress to learning the three degrees of the turn on the forehand.
- First, ask your horse to look to the right and move away from your right leg behind the girth, which is easy because it’s natural for a horse to move his two ends in opposite directions.
- The second degree requires your horse to agree to move away from your right leg while you ask him to hold his head, neck and body straight, giving him no help from your right hand.
- Finally, he should look to the left and move his hindquarters to the left at the same time, preparing him for the into-the-bend movements. Picture your horse wrapped around your left leg: When you look down his left side, you can see his left eye and his left hip, and he can travel to the left away from your right leg, pushing with his right hind leg.
All three parts of this exercise are about moving away from your right leg behind the girth, starting with the most natural movement and progressing to a more sophisticated movement, which requires more suppleness. The third degree is very difficult and may take a lot of time for a horse to grasp at first, so always be sure to reward each effort.
Once you can control your horse’s hindquarters, you can start adding the into-the-bend movements, starting with a spiral-in. Done correctly, the horse moves his entire body inward, not just one end or the other.
Eventually the spiral-in becomes the haunches-in, the haunches-out and the half-pass, and these exercises strengthen the horse’s outside hind leg. At the same time, longitudinal flexion becomes easier, as the horse is learning to put his hind leg underneath himself and round his back. Then, after the whole horse is moving in, you can isolate the hind end to be still and the front to keep walking around, creating a turn on the haunches.
The Picture of Suppleness
“If we want our horses to become more supple, we need to look first to how we might be enhancing, or eroding, suppleness,” says Rudin. “While there are many routes to get there, the simplest and most effective tool is this: Force creates tension, and tension is the opposite of suppleness. If you want your horse to be supple, start with a supple mindset, carry that softness through your body, and let your actions support the results you are looking for.”
KARA L. STEWART is an award-winning author and life-long horse owner and student of the horse. Her book, Advanced Western Riding, published by I-5 Publishing, is now available in the revised and updated second edition.
This article originally appeared in the October 2014 issue of Horse Illustrated. Click here to subscribe!