Two Secrets to Easing Your Horse Into Suppleness

All riding disciplines value a horse that demonstrates suppleness while elegantly transitioning through his paces, floating weightlessly with pleasant engagement and enthusiasm. But many of us find that our horses feel more like rigid cardboard. Instead of bending seamlessly left then right, we find ourselves in a never ending tug-of-war against a braced jaw, poll, neck, back and hind end.

So precisely because we do not want to hurt the horse, we do nothing.

Photo Credit: NBanaszak Photography

Instead, we become passive riders, not interfering with the horse but also not helping him achieve a healthier weight carriage. He travels with a stiff gait, crooked and hollow and eventually works his way into lameness – not because of what we did, but because of what we did not do.

We eventually learn that just hanging on and letting the horse travel incorrectly is not the solution.

On the other hand, we don’t want to push, pull and pretzel the horse into a fake shape that falls apart at a moment’s notice anyway.

How can we find the happy medium?

Recently, I learned all over again about suppleness not through riding but through yoga and “listening” to the responses of my own body. Sometimes, there is no bigger lesson learned than through a personal first-hand experience.

To find suppleness in your own body, try practicing yoga. Or any martial arts, or dance or gymnastics.

Or choose another physical activity that you enjoy.

Then take notes.

Learn about how you can become more supple in your body.

As you move through the stretching and bending routines, you will soon realize that you won’t be able to force your body into looseness! In fact, the harder you try, the more tense your body will become. Instead, you will have to just go through the movements until your body can release through the muscles, tendons and ligaments. But this will take time.

The next time you go to yoga (or your activity of choice), your body will be more supple just on its own. You won’t have to force or crunch – the muscles, tendons and ligaments will simply be more giving and “loose.”

The same can be said for the horse.

The quickest way to suppleness in the horse is through regular practice and steadfast patience. (Click here to tweet this if you agree.)

First: Practice

Practice is the first step toward suppleness. In riding, this translates to working on specific exercises that encourage the horse to move with more fluidity and grace. This means that rather than doing nothing, or just hanging on during the ride, we need to set up situations that promote release of the muscles.

Even if your horse feels like he simply can’t soften or supple, work on getting him to release his topline. Ask for more impulsion. Try some stretches, work on bends. See if you can “accordion” the horse a few times, at the walk, trot and maybe even at the canter.

If your horse feels too tight to really respond, ease up on your aids a bit. But still ask and continue setting up the situations. Bend left, turn left. Bend right, turn right. Keep the turns soft and large but still try to get a mild bend from the horse.

Remember that the idea isn’t to crank him into position. Rather, you want to invite him into softness through the body. This is something that cannot be forced.

Second: Patience

If you don’t see instant results, don’t get too disappointed. Understand that the stiffness you feel is deep within the horse’s body and it might take several rides before he can loosen enough to respond to your expectations.

Patiently use your aids but don’t rush him. Wait for him especially if you notice increased tension in response to your aids. Don’t get stronger. Don’t become frantic. Just ask and wait.

If the tension persists, finish the ride on a calm note and call it a day.

Try again the next ride. Work toward small improvements each day. You might be surprised to feel a more supple horse just like that!

How do you work on suppleness? Let us know in the comments below.

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If you enjoyed the above post, you might also like these:

7 Reasons Why “It Depends” is the Right Answer in Horseback Riding: When it comes to horses, the only “truth” is that there are many truths.

Finding the Magic of the Inside Rein: If you stop to break down the effect of the rein aid during the horse’s movement, you might notice that about half of the time, while you pull on the rein, you are effecting the inside hind leg in a negative manner.

5 Ways to Amp Up Your Warm Up in Horse Riding: How to plan a useful, productive and enjoyable beginning to a ride.

The #1 Rider Problem: Pulling to “Frame” Your Horse: The problem is that while the front end can contort enough to find the release from you, the middle and hind end cannot lie. 

Why You Must Shoulder-Fore on the Rail and How to Do It: The shoulder-fore is a movement that should be in your riding vocabulary from the beginning to the end of the ride.


Done With Going Round and Round on the Rail? Try the “10/5 Challenge”!

go and no

Photo Credit: NBanaszak Photography

Do you ever get stuck in the same rut ride after ride? It is true that finding a routine is a good idea because it gives you and your horse a sense of structure that you can build upon over time.

But there are times when you want to spice things up before you pack it up!

Use the 10/5 Challenge when:

- you’re both done with that 50th loop around the rail and want to do something completely “off the wall” (pun intended!)

- you feel that everything went right in the ride and there’s still more left in you and your horse for a bang-up last effort

- you want to get the kinks out and release tension in you and your horse

- you want to develop hind end engagement and larger hind end strides

- your horse is feeling a little lethargic and “uninspired”

- your horse is too pumped up and needs to put his energy somewhere

- you want to fine-tune your aids and transitions

- you want to play a little with a “last dance” before you’re done for the day

In any case, this exercise will help both you and your horse work out of your tightness. It encourages your horse to loosen over the topline, work out his balance and engagement, and in general, become better able to work through any transition.

The 10/5 Challenge

The idea is pretty simple. You want to do 10 strides of one thing and then 5 strides of something else.

For example:

- 10 strides canter/5 strides trot

- 10 strides left and 5 strides right

- 10 strides canter/5 strides walk

- 10 strides leg yield/5 strides shoulder-in

There really are an infinite of variations you can use.

But I love the first one the most, especially for beginner to intermediate horse and riders, so let’s break that one down more for an example.

The 10 Strides Canter/5 Strides Trot Challenge

1. Canter

Go into a canter. Make sure you have a “decent” canter to start – encourage your horse onward if at all possible.

2. Count strides.

The idea is to hit the transition on that 10 mark, and be absolutely picky about changing gaits in the 10th stride.

3. Transition to trot.

You might have to really prepare for this transition at first. Chances are, your horse will not be expecting such a downward transition so soon, so be ready to reinforce your asking aids as soon as you can. The idea is to stay in that 10 stride number. So be picky.

4. Transition to canter.

But watch out! Don’t “sit” on your laurels! Those 5 strides are over before you know it, and you have got to get back into the canter on the fifth trot stride!

And there is the real challenge. This exercise requires you to be sharp, accurate and physically in sync with your horse. The quickness of the transitions will jolt you into a higher level of accuracy and timing. The physicality of the transitions will have you both huffing and puffing in no time. Just remember to keep breathing! You might solicit a nice body-shaking snort from your horse in the process. That is a good sign.

5. Do it again!

The first time is probably going to be the easiest for a while. The next bunch of tries will really highlight the areas that need to come together for a better transition. As your horse starts to realize that there will be more and more transitions, he may go through some tension and resistance before he can gather up his strength and balance to be able to smoothly make so many transitions.

You might discover a few issues as well! Initially, the transitions come up very quickly. You might feel overwhelmed and thrown off balance a bit. Keep at it. If you find yourself not making the 10 strides, do 12. But aim for 10. Figure out how to adjust your timing for the transitions. You might have to do the “ask” for both the upward and downward several strides before.

Practice. Stick with the program 10, 20 times even if things don’t go well. You will get better at it and your horse will become more balanced. Things will start falling together. The next time you try this, you might discover that the horse has an easier time with the transitions and responds more smoothly and efficiently to the aids.

Of all the exercises I’ve used, (click here if you’d like to see more of these sort of ideas in my new book) I’d recommend this one the most for anyone to try at any level. It works well with an advanced horse/rider combination as well as for the beginner rider or horse. You can make it a very basic exercise of one simple transition or complicate it as much as you would like. If the canter/trot is too simple, move onto something that challenges both you and your horse. Do the transitions while you change directions. Change leads and then break to the trot. The variations are limitless!

If you have tried the 10/5 Challenge, let us know in the comments how it worked for you. What went well? What problems did you run into?


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Don’t miss a single issue of Horse Listening! If you like what you are reading, become a subscriber and receive updates when new Horse Listening articles are published!  Your email address will not be used on any other distribution list. Subscribe to Horse Listening by Email

New! Horse Listening – The Book: Stepping Forward to Effective Riding

Available as an eBook or paperback.

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Why You Don’t Need to Panic When Your Horse ‘Falls Apart’: Even if you are not thinking “panic”, your body might be communicating it by either being completely passive or too reactive after the horse is off balance.

Demystifying “Contact” in Horseback Riding: Does “contact” have other-wordly connotations? Here is why effective contact is within reach of the average rider.

Interpreting the Half-Halt: This topic is a tricky one but here is a shot at it.

Stop Kicking the Horse! Kicking your horse only stuns, disturbs, imbalances, and hurts. Once you have better balance in your seat and a more consistent contact with the bit, aim toward using your legs with more purpose.

How to Ride Your Excited Horse in 5 Easy Steps: Let’s face it – horses aren’t always calm and accommodating. There are times when they can be… shall we say… a little over-exuberant!

Why Everyone Needs A Golden Horse – A Poem


Credit: NBanaszak Photography

Credit: NBanaszak Photography

Do you have a Golden Horse? You can spot him from a mile away.

He is “golden” because of his heart of gold. This is the horse that takes care of you even more than you take care of him. You know you can rely on him to not spook, not get unnerved and let you enjoy what it was you set out to do. In fact, it seem that he  enjoys his job even more than you do! 

If you have a Golden Horse, you will soon realize how lucky you are. You will never want to part with him. Because as you learn and grow through his graciousness, you realize how much you are benefiting from him, and how much he is giving you. Every ride becomes a gift and every workout is easy because of his willing nature. You become the rider of your dreams because he lets you!

Although that calm generosity can be learned by good training, upkeep and handling, some horses are just “born that way.” So, for all the Golden Horses out there, here is a poem of gratitude.


The Golden Horse 


Interested ears forward pricked,

patiently waiting through soft velvety nose-kisses,

the Golden Horse 

loves the grooming attention;

two hours of brushing, polishing and wiping

with nary a fuss but more like a sweet relaxation

reminiscent of a day at the spa.


Solidly standing for the mount,

quietly ambling the first strides

into 100% effort.

Team player to the point

Of two becoming one.


Reciprocal listening, flickering ears back and forth,

gives and takes and loose flowing backs,

seamless communication seemingly telepathic,

mindreading  aids and signals, snorts and strides,

bounces and swings -

there is no better synergy 

than when two combine.


Patiently waiting through your confusion,

Kindly caring through less-than-perfect risk-taking,

he is the ultimate teacher

in your quest to grow.


One of a kind.

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Don’t miss a single issue of Horse Listening! If you like what you are reading, become a subscriber and receive updates when new Horse Listening articles are published!  Your email address will not be used on any other distribution list. Subscribe to Horse Listening by Email


New! Horse Listening – The Book: Stepping Forward to Effective Riding

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