Suppleness and the Value of Lateral Movements

The Second Stage of the Training Pyramid.

A while back I talked about rhythm, the base of the dressage training pyramid.  The second level of the pyramid is suppleness, or looseness (losgelassenheit).  This isn’t merely the ability of the horse to stretch and bend his frame, but also the relaxation with which he moves.

A horse who is supple and relaxed will move with a swinging motion in the spine.  His tail will sway back and forth like a pendulum, and his head will be soft at the poll (the connection between the neck and skull) with no stiffness or bracing along the neck or back.  Other signs of relaxation include mouthing the bit and soft snorting.

Suppleness is required both longitudinally and laterally for a horse to be truly relaxed and responsive.  Longitudinal suppleness allows the horse to coil his hindquarters beneath him for a powerful, balanced stride, and to raise his neck from its base for proper contact and later, collection. It is most clearly seen, though, when the horse is stretching ‘long and low’ on a free rein.

Lateral flexion is seen from above in the curve of the horse’s body when he is bending his body along the track of a circle.  His body should curve evenly from head to tail along the path of the circle.  Lateral suppleness is needed for lateral movements such as leg-yielding, shoulder-in, half-pass, etc.

How do lateral movements help the mounted combatant?

The ability to control your horse’s haunches and forehand independantly is vital in the mounted mêlée.  It is the equivalent of the triangle, or compass, step on foot.  It allows you to reorient your horse during or after a strike to improve your line or defend his body.  Aside from being able to stop and turn your horse, independent control of the fore- and hind- quarters is the most useful skill a mounted warrior has.

How to identify suppleness

First, learn by watching.  Search the web for videos of both amateurs and top riders performing dressage tests and see if you can identify horses that are relaxed throughout their whole spine.  The easiest place to spot this is about half-way through most tests when the horse performs the free walk: a walk on a loose rein, with the neck low and stretched.  When you’ve done that, watch horses in other disciplines online or in person, and see if you can spot tension and relaxation.

When you ride, test your horse’s relaxation periodically by giving a loose rein.  The horse should stretch her neck forward and down to meet the bit and may snort or blow softly.

To test lateral suppleness slightly raise one hand, tipping your horse’s nose to the inside so you can just see her nostril and eye.  Support her at the girth with your inside leg, and slide the outside leg back slightly to keep her haunches from swinging away.  Your horse should have an even curve from ears to tail.  Have a friend on the ground (or better yet, on another horse) confirm this for you.

Increasing suppleness

  • Walking or trotting over ground poles for longitudinal suppleness
  • Circles, serpentines, loops and half circles, using a supporting inside leg and guiding outside leg for lateral bend
  • Lateral movements such as leg yield and shoulder-in

Lateral movements help both types of suppleness as the bend around the leg increases lateral flexion, and action of bending while moving forward encourages the horse to place the inside leg farther under the body, increasing longitudinal suppleness, and eventually collection.

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