When we think about suppleness and flexibility the first thing that springs to mind is how well our horses bend left or right on circles.
However, just as important is a horse’s suppleness over their back, and their ability to lift their abdominal muscles and use their back muscles.
Often I see horses who have their head tucked in, looking pretty, but the base of their neck tends to be set against the rider’s hands. The horse sometimes looks active behind, but in reality the front and back halves are working separately.
If a horse is lacking suppleness over their back I begin the lesson or schooling session by checking that the horse is responding correctly to the leg; this means that the rider can direct the horse, positioning them precisely, with just their leg and seat. That allows the hand to be quiet, even, and forwards-thinking. I usually have to open up the trot a bit to improve the stride length and check that the handbrake isn’t on.
If a horse feels heavy in both or one rein then I like to spend some time flexing the neck left and right. That doesn’t mean they start swinging their heads to and fro, but rather the rider asks the horse to flex to the outside, until the horse relaxes their jaw and unlocks the base of their neck. Then you ask them to flex to the inside. This encourages the horse to carry themselves lightly because their muscles are mobile.
Obviously in order to do this the rider needs to be able to position the head and neck independently to the body, which is why the initial exercise is so important.
So with an active trot and relaxed frame, the horse is asked to look to the outside of the arena on the long side. Not too much flexion, just enough to mobilise the brachiocephalic muscle. The rider should just open the rein and hold it steady, whilst the leg maintains the straightness and forwards movement, until they feel the horse chew the bit and release their neck muscles. Immediately the rein should close and the neck straighten as a reward. As the neck straightens it usually drops forward and down too, so the rider should allow this movement with their hands. I also work the horse in inside flexion and circle with both flexions to increase the difficulty of the exercise.
It’s a lovely feeling when you feel the release down the rein, and the neck straighten, nose drop and withers lift. Then the back really begins to swing and the momentum of the hind legs carries through. The horse usually quickens because it is suddenly easier, and you shouldn’t prevent this, but rather half halt with your seat after a couple of strides. As the horse adopts a long and low position it’s important that the rider doesn’t tip forward and encourage the horse onto their forehand, or let the horse run onto the forehand, as then the horse isn’t working correctly because the hindquarters aren’t the engine anymore.
Once a horse is beginning to float along, and that’s what it feels like as the gait is so light, I incorporate changes of rein and smaller circles to improve their balance. It’s important that the horse takes their neck forwards as well as down because of their brachiocephalic muscle is large then it will tense if they drop their nose down and in, blocking the back.
For horses who need to atrophy their brachiocephalic and improve their suppleness over their back, I like to lunge them in a Pessoa, encouraging a long and low position. When observing you can see the muscles behind the saddle area rippling as they work. The Pessoa should fit between the forelegs, and not be too tight that it restricts the long aspect of the long and low frame, which is a mistake I frequently see.