An Introduction To Rhythm & Suppleness


One of the biggest challenges facing most riders is working out what to do when you ride in the school. One of the biggest challenges facing most riders is working out what to do when you ride in the school.Whatever your chosen discipline there are some fundamentals of training horses that will help you to improve your horse’s way of going and give you a framework to base your schooling on. The scales of training are a process you should follow to train your horse in the short and long term. You should consider the progressive scales every time you ride and develop the elements over the life of the horses training. You need to ensure you achieve each one before moving on to the next.
The Scales Are:
1. Rhythm
2. Suppleness
3. Contact
4. Impulsion
5. Straightness
6. Collection
Consider a newly backed 4 year old being ridden away; in the beginning there is little chance of suppleness let alone impulsion or straightness. Your key focus should be on establishing rhythm, which can be described as the ‘regularity of the beat’.
Unridden, a youngster will happily trot around the field in perfect rhythm; rhythm is efficient and therefore saves energy which is essential for survival in the wild. Introduce a rider and all of a sudden he has to balance himself in a completely different way, he will lose his balance and also rhythm. He must be given time to re-balance himself, build strength and find his natural rhythm. Your job as a rider is to stay in balance to allow the horse to find his balance. It is so important that youngsters are taught to move freely forward to help develop independence, confidence, balance and strength. Think how it may be best to achieve this, hacking out and showing him the world will have a greater effect on this than constant circles in an arena.
As his confidence and balance improves, he will find his rhythm and start to build his strength, you can then start to think about suppleness.
What is suppleness?
There is a difference between suppleness and flexibility. Flexibility is the range of movement, suppleness is the ease of the movement. Imagine we have two identical hinges, but one is rusty. They both have the same range of movement but the rusty one is less easy to open and close. Both hinges have the same amount of flexibility; the non-rusty hinge is more supple than the rusty one. Suppleness in horses can be thought of in two directions, lateral (sideways) and longitudinal (lengthways), both can be developed together. As you embark on teaching your horse rhythm and suppleness under saddle it is essential that he understand your aids. He needs to know that when you nudge him with your heel you are asking for increased activity from the hind-leg, either in a forwards or sideways direction. He needs to know that when you close your fingers around the rein and apply pressure to his mouth through the bit he should yield to that pressure.
Let’s think for a moment about the relationship between the aids and the response. If a fly lands on your horse while he is out grazing in the warm sunshine what does he do? He will twitch his skin or swish his tail. He felt the fly and reacted; what does he do when you apply a leg aid? He can certainly feel your leg, but does he react to your leg? How will you improve his reaction to your leg? This is where training horses actually becomes simple, providing you keep it simple!
Horses are creatures of habit and become a direct reflection of their environment and experiences. So, if every time you nudge him with your leg and he does not respond how you want him to and you do nothing to change it then it will never change. You are effectively training him to be unresponsive to the leg.
You are training your horse all the time you are with him, training is not reserved for your schooling sessions or lessons, your horse does not know the difference, he is simply becoming the product of his experiences. If you want him to become sharper to the leg aid then you need to be very consistent and clear in your expectations. You must ask in the same way every time you ask, you must back the aid up with an artificial aid if required in order to sharpen the reaction to the aid. This is the key message here, you need to sharpen his REACTION to the aid, not sharpen the aid. Simply put, you must ensure when you put your leg on the horse moves quickly from that aid; if he doesn’t you back it up with a sharper leg aid, voice or the crop. You then repeat the transition with the original aid you are aiming to achieve and reward the horse if he does it well; or back it up again if he does not. Keep repeating this until you have achieved a sharper reaction to the original aid. It is important that whilst working through this exercise you focus on the simple lesson you are teaching him, which is to improve his reaction to your leg. So you might forgive him if goes a bit hollow at the beginning providing he is improving his reaction to the leg. Keeping him round at the same time may become confusing for him. Once you have taught him to move forward from the leg you will be able to develop a more supple horse and improved contact and therefore stay rounder through the transition.
Here you will see that I have alluded to the third ‘scale’ on the scales of training and can hopefully appreciate the value of developing each scale progressively. Work firstly on rhythm, develop suppleness and the contact will follow.
Likewise, if you have a horse that is over-reactive to the leg then you must ensure your leg is consistently around the horse; you must give him confidence that your leg will always be in the same place and will always be there, he will learn to accept the leg and eventually soften to it. From there you will be able to train him to be reasonable in his reaction to your leg. Horses like routine and dislike surprises, so if your leg is a constant in his life he will accept it; if it is inconsistent and makes him jump then he will struggle to understand and accept it.
Once you have your horse listening and reacting to the aids in the way you wish him to then you can start to develop his suppleness. Use exercises that are simple and again, consistent, one exercise I like to use is:
1. Establish a rhythmical trot round the arena
2. Introduce a transition to walk before the corner and return to trot as you leave the corner (you can lay poles in the corner to work round to help with the bend through the corner)
3. This will teach the horse to ‘wait’ for you in each corner.
4. After several ‘walk’ corners you stay in trot and ride a 10 meter circle in each corner
5. Repeat on both reins and introduce shallow loops on the long sides
6. The shallow loops can extend to 10m loops
7. As you reach X on your 10m loop you can ride a reversed 10m circle which finishes at X before continuing to the next corner and another 10m circle.
This exercise progressively teaches your horse to wait in the corners and then develops the suppleness through the exercise by constantly moving him around the arena and changing the bend. Make sure you keep him working forward from the leg to the hand.
It is essential you maintain rhythm and ride the horse from inside leg to outside hand developing bend and suppleness through change of bend. This only works if you have a horse who is reactive the aids. There are no shortcuts, but you can be efficient by being consistent and disciplined as a rider – the discipline needs to be in your way of asking, not a domineering manner. This is where training horses is simple – as I have mentioned before, they become the product of their experiences. If you can ensure the experiences are consistent he will consistently give the right answer. You must endeavour to ride forward, from the leg to the hand creating connection from inside leg to outside hand, which is only possible if your horse is reactive to the aids.
I hope these thoughts will help you to be clearer in your mind about what you should be aiming for in your schooling sessions. This is only scratching the surface of the training process and we have not discussed contact, impulsion, straightness or collection, but you should find that if you reflect on your training and can progressively work on rhythm and suppleness you will improve your horse’s way of going.
Photo Credit's: Tom Fray riding the lovely ‘Wolfie’ who is trained to Grand Prix and owned by Jenny Ward at Brampton Stables


tom fray horse

Article by - Tom Fray, BHS Stage 4 Senior Coach in Complete Horsemanship


The Scales Of Training With Tom Fray - Part 2

The Scales Of Training With Tom Fray - Part 3