Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Exercises to Supple Your Horse’s Back and Topline

There are two kinds of suppleness a horse can have:

– Lateral suppleness which is activated and improved through lateral exercises such as leg yielding, shoulder-fore, shoulder-in, renvers, travers, etc.

A very helpful article: Lateral exercises at the walk and trot   

Lateral Work Diagram

- Longitudinal suppleness which is the activation of the horse’s topline through the lift and swing of his back

“Longitudinal suppleness is reflected in the horse’s adjustability. He will be able to lengthen and shorten his stride while maintaining his rhythm. Frequent lengthening or shortening of stride helps to create longitudinal suppleness if done properly by maintaining forward motion and rhythm. Longitudinal suppleness is demonstrated by looseness in the horse’s haunches, back, neck, poll and jaw.

Lateral suppleness refers to the horse’s ability to bend his body and neck and is reflective of the horse’s ability to balance. This is especially true when performing the circle. The horse that has lateral suppleness can bend comfortably around the rider’s leg in an arc appropriate to the degree of the circle. The horse should be able to bend without falling in on the shoulder or swinging out of the haunches. The laterally supple horse is able to move his hocks, stifle, shoulder, back and neck. This is generally achieved by performing movements like the leg yield and the shoulder in.” – Excerpt from The Training Pyramid – Relaxation with Elasticity and Suppleness

Your horse can be laterally supple, but still have a stiff and hollow back – as most easily seen when incorrect extension work occurs.

Extended Trot Correct vs Incorrect

Or like this:

Incorrect vs Correct

“Longitudinal suppleness refers to the relaxation and stretch of a horse’s topline from back to front. For a horse to achieve elastic self carriage, he must be free in his back. To be able to perform the increasingly more demanding movements as a horse progresses up the levels, he must have full use of his back, not tensing or stiffening the topline.

‘Lateral suppleness’ refers to the side-to-side relaxation in a horse’s body where as ‘longitudinal suppleness’ refers to the relaxation back-to-front in a horse’s topline. Both are important to enable a horse to carry himself in a relaxed and balanced manner. When a horse is stiff, lateral suppleness is often the first problem. If the horse does not want to flex in the poll and is heavy on the forehand, he needs to work more uphill in front of the leg and be suppled laterally to release the tension in the back.

When a horse carries his poll as the highest point but is short in the neck, it is indicative specifically of a lack of longitudinal suppleness. Horses like this must be taught to reach for the bit and unlock the back longitudinally. All horses can benefit from the following exercises for encouraging longitudinal suppleness.” – Except from Longitudinal Suppleness by Dancia Yates

A tight back in a horse’s work can manifest in different ways; one of those being that it is difficult for the rider to post to the trot. The horse’s back has no swing, so there is no ‘upward’ motion to push the rider out of the saddle.

It can also mean that your horse is unresponsive to seat aids, and/or rein aids. Your horse may lock his neck and jaw against the bit, and pull away from the contact, and by shortening his neck, effectively work above the vertical, or behind the contact with the bit.

Either way, a crucial component of correctly training dressage is the ‘schwung’ – or swing – to the horse’s movement only achieved through the relaxation of the topline.

Schwung - Sometimes people are described as having a certain spring in their step, and the same combination of physical and mental implications are contained in the German expression 'schwung'. In general, it describes a containment and redirection of energy that allows forward movement which comes from the whole body lifting itself out of the restraints of gravity for a split-second with each step. A well-trained dressage horse gains increasingly more forward implusion from his hindquarters, and this, together with a well-developed topline, allows him to swing through his back and therefore move his limbs freely and efficiently, almost like a puppet on a string. His athletic power, losgelassenheit (looseness) and subsequently, 'durchlassig' (submission – soft) attitude allow him to submit all his energy and ability to the demands of the task that the rider is setting, gaining ground with elastic, bouncy steps and eventually giving expression to his energy in the grace and suspension of a passage or the concentrated power of a canter pirouette.

Free movement allowing energy to flow and create elastic power is essential.

“We want the horse to demonstrate a good, lively, but not hurried, walk, which should be ridden in such a way that we can, at any moment, immediately trot or canter on. And the trot and canter must be ridden so that any transition can be executed immediately. We should have the feeling that the walk is lively enough so that we could urge the horse fluidly into the trot using only a slight pelvic tilt (this is the concept of the concerted efforts of both gluteal muscles, seat bones, and coccyx) and increased pressure with the legs (this is another concept of the concerted effort of the thighs, knees, and calves) .

With all of this, it is important to pay attention to giving the aids in a well-balanced way, so that we don’t push the horse into the trot with strong, exaggerated aids. Once the horse finds itself in the trot tempo that is correct for him as an individual, we ride him back into the walk with active haunches. Shortly thereafter we pick up the trot again, and so forth. In this way, the horse develops Schwung almost invisibly. Only when these two transitions are harmonious, fluid, and full of Schwung should we begin to lengthen and shorten the steps of the trot. The two-beat nature of the trot must be maintained as both the frame and the length of the horse’s steps become shorter. The hindquarters must simultaneously become even more active. The horse’s energies are gathered up in a way that uses hardly any strength, so that merely by yielding both hands forward slightly, we can encourage the horse to lengthen his frame as is required (this happens throughout his whole body).  Only a few steps later, this Schwung is captured by means of a light restraint with the hand and the deepening of the heels (the increased weight that the rider puts in the saddle when he deepens his heel is felt clearly by the horse in his back). Sitting too heavily will be uncomfortable for the horse and cause him to drop his back away. Merely deepening the heels also bulks the calves and drives the hindquarters under so they can take more weight off the forehand.” – Excerpt from “Schwung – Expanding the Frame” by Walter Zettl

So, how to unlock a tight back and develop longitudinal suppleness?  Start with basic lateral suppleness; circles, serpentines, leg yields and shoulder-fore. This is the beginning for developing looseness in the horse’s back, by allowing the shoulders/fore legs and sideways movement of the haunches to introduce elasticity into the horse’s motion.

Then the rider can begin focusing on exercises that create schwung, and relaxation of the topline, resulting in longitudinal suppleness.

Training Tip: Exercises for Longitudinal Suppling

Cavaletti asks the horse to compress his joints to lift his legs and engage his back – all good things for suppling and engaging ‘schwung’. An instructional video for dressage training with cavaletti:


See ya,



  1. This is an old post, so hopefully someone will still see this. But on the "These are not an extended trot, this is" post, could you help walk me through the differences? Im trying to train myself in addition to working with a great trainer. And since I want to teach in the future I want to improve my eye.

    1. Look at the reach of the front leg in comparison to the diagonal hind. They should be relatively equal angles, and in the NOT pics the horse is making a significantly greater effort in front, without engaging the rear.
      I highly recommend Sylvia Loch's Dressage in Lightness for excellent explanations/diagrams. Good luck!

  2. Hi! I'm a physiotherapist specialized in riders in Sweden. I would very much like to use the upper picture (belive it is yours) for my blog and social media. Can I do that?

    1. Why? "The rider is "waterskiing." When I began riding some 50 years ago this was NOT a picture you wanted present to the world.


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