Posted by on 7. February 2019

The last blog post dealt with rhythm of movement / tact – the first point of the “scale of training”, its different aspects and which factors influence the rhythm of the horse.
In this blog contribution, I would like to discuss the next point of the training scale – the suppleness. For just as the rhythm/tact, so also the suppleness has deeper layers, without whose observance in equestrianism no real suppleness can be achieved.

What does suppleness mean from a biomechanical point of view?

Suppleness means the even tensioning and relaxation of the muscles in movement.
Suppleness also means, even while the horse relaxes its muscles, there is a certain amount of basic muscle tension, aquired in training. Without a natural basic muscle tension horses have delayed reactions and are prone to accidents and injuries.
And as the term “evenly” already conveys, suppleness has something to do with tactfulness.
If, as a rider, I have a problem with my horse’s suppleness, the first thing I have to do is check the rhythm/tact.
The individual training steps of the “training scale” interlock seamlessly and always influence each other.
It makes no sense, even in higher levels of training, to continue to work doggedly on a problem such as a non-functioning canter change or a straightness that has not been achieved, without conscientiously and honestly with yourself checking the previous training steps.

Riding has a lot to do with self-discipline and honest self-assessment and very little to do with ego.

Back to suppleness.
The FN writes to the training point “Suppleness”:
relaxed tightening and relaxing of the musculature, with inner serenity

or more detailed at Wikipedia:
Suppleness when riding or driving describes the state in which a horse runs with his back swinging, his neck stretched forward and without hurry with natural, clock-like and relaxed movements and reacts to the help of the rider or driver. Suppleness is the second level of the training scale for horses.

Pferd losgelassen, in Dehnungshaltung
A supple and relaxed horse, in a forward stretching position, clear tension in the upper neck musculature, good contact to the rider’s hand, even if a
little behind the vertical and – although the head and neck is deep – one recognizes clearly that the thorax is lifted with the withers as the highest point,
the hindquarters is engaged and steps sufficiently under the center of gravity; Coaching for Riding Instructors Hofgut Liederbach, “Rider’s Seat and
Biomechanics of the Horse”

From a biomechanical point of view:

Here, too, the words “clockwise” and the term “with the neck stretched forward” show how closely the first three training levels are interlocked.
What always falls under the table, however, is that a horse with a blockade, be it in the 7th cervical vertebra left or right, be it in the passive standing apparatus one-sided or two-sided, or anywhere else, will never be able to act in time, or be supple, or may carry himself, or may swing or straighten or get impulsion ….. (one could go on with it forever).

For in all levels of the training scale the word “evenly” is found either literally or in between the lines. A horse with a blockade – no matter in which part of the body – is never straight or evenly in itself. It will also never develop a correctly balanced body feeling or balance and carry itself.
Please notice the term “itself”.
Of course an experienced rider is able to “ride over” such a problem. The words “he/she has to go through it” or “grab him/her properly” are words that are used again and again in such cases. But they have nothing to do with correct riding training.
In addition, riding over a movement disorder is associated with an incorrect loading of joints, distress on muscles and the entire ligamentous apparatus, including fasciae. Because with a blockade a horse will always try to avoid the painful movement and make a “substitute movement” for it, in order to comply with the aids and demands made by the rider.

It is our responsibility as riders, in case of a blockade, which is always associated with pain for the horse, not to make these demands, but let somebody remove the blockade first. This is where the behavioural aspect of “suplleness” comes into play.

From a behavioural biological point of view:

What we shouldn’t forget: Blockages cause pain and pain affects the behaviour and reaction of our horse. The horse as an flight animal reacts instinctively and with rapid movements to stimuli such as noise, a loud bang or a rapid movement. A healthy horse without a blockade will quickly turn his eyes and ears to the stimulus and decide within fractions of a second: must I flee because of danger, or has a broom fallen over back there.
A horse with a blockade does this once or maybe twice, then it notices, “ouch, every time I turn my neck to the right, my neck and back aches”. At the third time it will no longer try to turn its head, but will simply run away or jump to the side, because for safety’s sake it would rather flee than be eaten by the lion.
And it doesn’t end there. Horses with blockades become unsafe and therefore at least dangerous and sometimes even malicious.

So if you have problems with the behaviour of your horses, think of pain and osteopathic problems and not always immediately of famous people who offer expensive courses to correct the behaviour of your horses. I don’t mean to say that it’s always an osteopathic problem, but it’s the possibility that I’d like to clarify first.

Maybe another aspect of behavioural physiology:

Even a healthy horse will only relax in a non-physiological situation if it feels completely safe in our hands.
And let’s be honest about being ridden and jumping over obstacles and performing dressage tasks at foreign places and in front of many spectators ??? that’s not physiological for a horse.
But I don’t want to pillory riding as a whole. Nowadays our horses are only bred for this purpose, they earn their living with it, so to speak. Nevertheless, we should make their “profession” as easy as possible for them.

So when does a horse feel safe with us?

If we adapt to the situation, at the right time and with aids adequate in intensity to affect the horse.

The very first thing to do is to know:

    When do I have to react at all?
    Which situation requires aiding the horse on my part and which not?

This presupposes that I am familiar with the physiological behaviour (escape behaviour, avoidance behaviour, body language of the horse, etc.).
And that every time I deal with a horse, I am constantly aware and exclusively concerned with my horse. Not only when I ride, but also when I clean it, lead it or simply stand next to it. I’m talking about those people who talk on the phone on their horses or do their WhatsApps, have a chat with their girlfriend, tattle about others or just have a smoke.
There the unpopular word self-discipline comes into play again.

But this also includes a certain amount of training and body awareness on the part of the rider. I have to be able to assess exactly how strong my help is, how strong I have to use it in this moment. Am I muscularly able to balance a sudden and unexpected movement and am I reactive and agile enough. Yes, riding is a sport, but other sports are recommended as compensation or support, as well as regular visits by a physiotherapist or osteopath for the rider himself.

Only if a horse can rely on the correctness of our reaction in every situation – i.e. I react to every problem, every day and every minute immediately, with the strength adapted and reliable always the same way – it will feel completely safe with us and recognize us as a leader.
Someone who is inattentive, reacts diffrent today and tomorrow and does not concentrate on his horse can attend so many courses about the safe handling of the horse, the psychology of the horse or whatever they are called, he will never be a “leader” of his horse.

Have your head together, put your worries and problems out of your mind and be with yourself. Then you are also with your horse and your horse is with you.

This is the only thing that qualifies you as a leader and this is exactly what gives your horse security and the feeling of being able to let go internally.