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Tuesday, 6 August 2019

The Six Scales of Dressage Training – Part 2: Suppleness

Photo credit: Paul Dobson Photography

Suppleness is the second scale in dressage training, but is heavily interlinked to the first scale, rhythm. The more supple you can have your horse, the more you can develop the established rhythm. But equally, you can’t have true suppleness without establishing a correct rhythm.

What does suppleness mean when it comes to training your horse to be correct in the dressage discipline?

British Dressage define it as
“The aim is that the horse’s muscles have tone and are free from resistance, his joints are loose and he does not tighten against the rider’s aids. The muscles that are really important are those over the top line from the hind legs over the quarters, loins, in front of the wither and up to the poll”
Crucially, the topline described in the above definition includes those two big long muscles across the horses back that I mentioned in the first scale of training – rhythm – so it’s easy to see just how connected these scales are. Once you’ve established correct rhythm and ensured that your horse is truly showing suppleness, you’ll be easily able to transition to the next scale (Contact) to your training.

Suppleness is both about longitudinal suppleness (the lengthening and shortening of your horse’s frame) and lateral suppleness (the ability to move sideways fluidly). When you ask a rider about suppleness, it is a common mistake that they only think of lateral suppleness (bend, leg yielding, half-pass etc), but longitudinal suppleness is key to establish first.

Think of the British Dressage test series. Lengthening of strides and the introduction of medium trot and canter is included within tests long before leg yielding, half-pass and pirouettes are. Your horse needs to be pliable, whether longitudinally or laterally, and there are several easy to spot indications that your horse is truly supple – it’s not only by whether your horse can lengthen/shorten or go correctly sidewards! 

The FEI definition factors in both longitudinal and lateral suppleness and is reflected in the quality of test a combination is expected to perform once they reach that standard of competition.
“Pliability, ability to smoothly adjust the carriage (longitudinally) and the position (laterally) without impairment of the flow of movement and balance" 
If you’re working on your suppleness training, try filming your session to help you to see you and your horse in action. When watching it back look at a couple of variables about your horse…

Does he look like he is like a piece of elastic in his steps, is his back swinging and slightly raised, with his tail swinging in sync too? How about his mouth – is it quiet and only softly chewing on the bit giving you an elastic feeling and not feeling rigid and blocked? 

A great way for instant feedback on the view from your horses back and mouth is by giving the reins, and seeing if the horse will stretch forwards and downwards as if he is following the bit while maintaining his rhythm & keeping his own balance… A horse that isn’t supple is likely to shoot his head up, change his rhythm and create your reins to go in a big loop.

Of course, his face says a lot of words too. Does he look happy, relaxed and enjoying his work? The dressage training scales are designed to work the horse properly so when you achieve them, your horse is likely to feel good about his work.

Take a step back when you watch your videos, look at your whole horse and ask yourself if all of him is moving as one, or are only his legs? If it mostly looks like his body is rigid and his legs are doing all the work, you’re pretty much secure in saying that he isn’t truly showing suppleness.

Once you’ve established your rhythm and suppleness, and worked out your method of feedback, you’re ready to progress onto the next scale of dressage training – contact.

Discover the other scales of dressage training

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