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Latitudes and Longitudes

Latitudes and Longitudes

04.08.2014

26.6550* N, 80.2542*- Unless you’re a pilot or a ship captain these numbers probably don’t mean much, but thanks to Google I learned they are the latitude and longitudes of Wellington Florida. I, along with just about every other dressage rider in Michigan, would give anything to reside there about now….   Global coordinates provide essential information in traveling from place to place.  In comparison, when you consider how to get a young developing dressage horse to an athletic Grand Prix horse- paying attention to the latitudes and longitudes of your horse can also help guide your way.

“The dressage horse needs 3 things to be successful…. Suppleness, Suppleness and Suppleness,” expressed the great Steffen Peters at the USDF FEI Trainer’s Conference this past January.

Exceptional knowledge, riding, and horsemanship were shared at the trainer’s conference this year.  I was eager to get home and implement some of the concepts from the 20 pages of notes I took.  However, my reality was temperatures below zero for days on end.  I couldn’t exactly ride with the gusto I had rehearsed in my mind.  But I could layer up my shaved wonder horse and walk, maybe a little trot around the indoor.  I could focus on this concept of Suppleness: what is it exactly?  If you said a human was supple, that may mean she could dance, do the splits, back bends, high kicks.  I took a year of gymnastics when I was 8, and I did a split once…. I remember seeing the more advanced gymnasts, stretching for hours.  They strived to stretch their muscles, tendons, and ligaments beyond the normal range of motion.   And if they missed a day or two of stretching, they’d complain of soreness and loss of flexibility.

So what does it mean when we say a horse is supple?  We want our horses to appear as dancers, graceful, have a big reach with lateral movements, easily come round or stretch their neck down, float across the ground with effortless movement.

We have all heard about making our horses longitudinally and laterally supple.  Longitudinal suppleness refers to how flexible/supple the horse is over the topline: from his tail, over his loins, back, neck, through the poll to the bit.  Essentially making the topline of the horse stretch longer than the underside.  Lateral suppleness refers more to how flexible he is side to side: how bendable his body is left and right. How well and how far the hind legs can cross under and away from the body, how bendy the rib cage is, how flexible the poll and jaw is left to right.  I would say Brioso is relatively supple longitudinally.  He can stretch his topline with his nose to the dirt or bring it up with the poll as the highest point in all 3 gaits.   But I find when I ask him to bend laterally in his poll, neck or body his movement gets tighter, and I have to remind him to stay motivated.  Also when doing leg yields or shoulder in he loses energy and there’s really not much lateral reaching happening.  I end up using more force to keep the gait and the sideways, but sacrificing the looseness.   So I had a thought: my attempts to get him more motivated to my leg aids, will only be as successful as the amount of flexibility and suppleness I can instill. 

“You’re only able to push the hind leg to the hand when suppleness is understood by the horse.  If engagement and expression is demanded without the understanding of suppleness and respect to the bit then tension over the topline is created,” another great gem from Stefan Peters.

When the temperatures were too frigid to do a lot of cardio with Brioso, I found I wasn’t so focused on trying to create a bigger more expressive trot, scopier canter and more power.  I could be really honest with myself, how supple was my horse?  I would choose a circle size and try to create a consistent bend from his nostril, through the jaw, neck, through the shoulder, rib cage to his tail. That if I was suspended above, there would be no part of his vertebrae off the track of my circle.  Traveling to the left, Brioso likes to twist is neck and cross his jaw, and not bend his barrel to the left and stretch the right side of his body as easily as to the right.  I lose the solid feeling in the outside rein and have a stiffness in the inside rein.  It’s tempting to just take more inside rein and demand more flexion when you feel the stiffness.   But I tried to just wait out the bending aid, hold the bend for 3-4 strides then release the tension.  Checking every time if Brioso would maintain the inner flexion without me holding the inside rein.  Creating the feeling that every time I would give both hands forward to the mouth, the response was Brioso would lower his neck and follow the bit in a downward way.  If the result of the giving was a higher neck or empty contact or losing the lateral flexion, then I knew he wasn’t supple enough and I had to keep working.

Scott Hassler said the horse should only be flexed/bent within the channel between the points of each shoulder.  So increasing the neck bend beyond this does not produce more suppleness, just a collapsed neck and underutilized muscles.  I felt by having steady, unwavering inner flexion on a bent line I could really assess where the stiffness was.  Did Brioso want to swing his haunches out to avoid bending in the rib cage, did he want to carry the haunches to the inside of the circle, did he fall out onto his outside shoulder?

Then I assessed, does the left flexion feel and look the same as the right?  Can I make a seamless change of direction with no change in neck position or in the contact?  Was Brioso honestly as flexible to the left as he was to the right?  Sure, this isn’t the most exciting work. It’s not riding test movements or pushing for flashy gaits.  But I tell you what… it pays off.

Last weekend Nicholas Fyffe was in the area to do a clinic.  I was cautiously excited to show him our progress…  Keeping Brioso motivated, fit and flexible took some thought and planning with sub-par weather conditions over the winter.  I could only hope I was on the right track, and all the pieces of the training puzzle were there.  When I watched Nicholas ride my horse- I saw shoulder freedom and uphill balance, the makings of a huge extended trot, a canter easily collectable, and a focused intensity in Brioso’s eyes that was so impressive I had tears in my eyes. 

Training tip- Addressing the longitudinal and lateral suppleness in your horse is the foundation in producing a dressage athlete.  Sure you can have rides where you focus on “things” like test movements, but these “things” should enhance suppleness and ridability not take away from it.  Assuring that your horse will flex his body equally and honestly in both directions will provide the foundation necessary to train up the levels.