Straightness Versus Suppleness

I went through this last week with Mum and Matt, but it’s a frequent topic in my lessons, so I thought it was time for a blog post.

We discussed improving Matt’s suppleness by straightening his body. That is, by reducing the bend in his neck and encouraging his inside hind leg to step under and carry his body so that he works consistently on two tracks.

I think this issue arises for several reasons. Firstly, visual feedback is often far more instantaneous and effective than any other form of feedback. Secondly, as riders we are obsessed with circles and bending. Thirdly, it is easy to turn the head and neck whilst riding with the hand than it is to bend the rib cage with the seat and leg. Fourthly, suppleness comes way before straightness in the scales of training.

Let’s start with the Scales of Training. I believe that suppleness comes before straightness because only when you are supple can you work evenly and efficiently throughout your body. But I think the Scale assumes the horse is a blank canvas whereas in actual fact most horses come with asymmetries. From previous training, from old injuries, from conformation, from previous riders, from life in general. In order to begin to progress through the Scales of Training you need to iron out any previous issues, which first means straightening the horse before focusing on improving their suppleness.

When you learn to ride you watch people which means that you initially see the obvious observations first. Such as if the horse has their head turned in the direction of movement or not. You also get feedback from what you see whilst riding, i.e. what’s in front of the saddle, verbally from your instructor i.e. positive or negative, and finally kinaesthetic feedback. This is what you feel, and it can be hard to adequately describe what you are feeling, or for someone to describe what you should be feeling, so a rider’s feel is usually the slowest to develop. Because of the instant visual feedback in a rider’s frame of sight, it can lead to them focusing on the position of the head and neck. When riding a circle, they see that the head and neck are following the line of the circle … but aren’t aware of what the rest of the body (which is out of sight) is doing.

Likewise when learning to ride you perfect the coordination of the hands for rein aids first, and can manoeuvre a horse more easily by the hands than the legs and seat.

Onto circles, and our obsession with them. We strive to ride the perfect circle, which often means we sacrifice the correct bend for the roundness of the circle.

Now with Mum and Matt, along with everyone else I mention this to, they had more bend in the neck than in the rest of the body. A bit like a jackknifed car and trailer, the outside shoulder is wide open. This means that the rider has less control over the outside shoulder, the horse falls out through the outside shoulder instead of engaging the inside hind leg. The rider uses the inside rein because the horse is drifting out through the turn, which exacerbates the bend in the neck so compounding the problem. If you were to look from above a horse with the perfect bend on the perfect circle the inside limbs and outside limbs create a pair of parallel lines. Like a train track. On a horse who is jackknifed, the front limbs follow the line of the circle whilst the hind limbs look like they’re going off on a tangent.

To begin with, I got Mum to ride squarer circles. I don’t think she quite understood, as I didn’t want her to ride a square at first, but she needed to lose the roundness of the circle. By riding a squarer circle and thinking of keeping Matt straight like a plank of wood, she automatically reduced her inside rein action, reduced the bend in Matt’s neck, and he started to straighten up in his entire body. Mainly because she wasn’t so focused on him bending around the circle.

Then I did get her to do some square work, so that she was applying the outside aids to remind Matt he needed to move away from the outside leg. The corners also helped engage his inside hindleg and get him lifting his abdominals which led to Matt being more balanced, less on the forehand and lighter in his way of going.

By riding with her outside aids, and not using her inside rein … even when she thought she wasn’t going to make the turn … Mum found Matt kept his rhythm and tempo through the turns. Which meant her straight lines were better because he started off with a better trot. Once the outside leg was more effective, and Matt was like a plank of wood through the turns, we added the inside leg in again. This, along with her turning her body and using the inside seatbone, created a bend through his rib cage.

A gentle curve through his head and neck then followed. This is a more correct bend as it involves his whole body, but it was a shallower bend than Mum is used to because visually she can see less of a curve in front of her. However, Matt requires a greater degree of suppleness in his barrel in order to achieve this. Next, we can refocus on the Scales of Training, and improve his suppleness by riding smaller circles with the correct bend throughout his whole body and changing the bend frequently, as with serpentines.

As an instructor, I think it’s so important to encourage riders to learn to interpret kinaesthetic feedback, and to increase awareness of the horse’s body which is out of sight of the rider. And to use squarer circles and turns to encourage the more correct use of the outside aids – the outside leg pushing the horse around the turn and the outside rein monitoring the bend in the neck – so that the horse moves in a straighter way before trying to improve their suppleness by asking for a bend with the inside leg. It might take longer to get there, but once on the right path the horse has a good working life projection because they are using their body efficiently and evenly, so won’t overtax a limb or muscle group. Unfortunately though, I still see instructors teaching to get immediate results, and not looking at the long term health of the horse, by taking shortcuts in their training.

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