#SundaySchool: Richard Davison on how to improve your horse’s suppleness

  • A dressage rider and coach, Richard Davison has represented Great Britain at four Olympic Games, including at London 2012 riding Hiscox Artemis. He is also a European medallist, former World Class performance manager and British Dressage team captain.

    Training the stars

    My horse, Hiscox Artemis, was short-coupled and, in the early days, he would tend to contract and tighten the wrong muscle groups, so I would do exercises to improve his flexibility and range of movement.

    He was quick to understand that he needed to multi-task with his neck and hindquarters. Soon, he was flexing with me only using the lightest of leg and rein aids.

    Tackling the issue

    Instead of suppleness, I focus on flexibility. If you flex and mobilise joints effectively, your horse’s muscle tone improves. Here is my four-point plan…

    1. Learn about horse anatomy, especially which parts of the horse have the most and the least flexibility. There is no point trying to flex a part that won’t.

    2. Responsiveness is best achieved through the pressure-release system. Start by checking your horse’s forward response to your leg. The important thing here is to remove your leg pressure when the horse responds.

    3. Work on the sideways response to your leg by leg-yielding your horse towards and away from the side of the arena. Then ride down
    the long side and apply your outside leg slightly further back until he moves his hindquarters on to the inside track, while remaining on the outside track with his front legs (see diagram, above). Avoid flexing your horse’s neck too much at this stage — you are not trying to ride travers. After approximately 15 metres, use your inside leg to straighten him.

    Repeat this exercise two or three times on the same long side, depending on the length of your school. Work on both reins and eventually anywhere in the arena, varying the direction in which you mobilise the hindquarters.

    4. Ride in a straight line and use your inside rein to flex your horse’s neck to the inside, ensuring he stays straight with his legs. After 15 metres, straighten up using your outside rein and repeat, then move to the inside track and flex to the outside for 15 metres. Straighten up and repeat in different places around the arena. This will mobilise your horse’s neck joints.

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    Things to consider

    • Begin the exercises in walk and progress gradually. It is easier for your horse to mobilise all parts of his body in a slower pace.
    • Minimise the pressure of your leg or hand as soon as your horse responds to the aids.
    • This isn’t about ‘holding the bend’, but about getting your horse to respond to the pressure-release system. The more you hold your leg around him, the less he will respond, making him appear inflexible because he can’t find a way of relieving the pressure.

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