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The Training Pyramid - Relaxation with Elasticity & Suppleness

extended trot
Ron Postleb - Crown Dressage International

Relaxation is probably one of the most important parts of the training pyramid. This level of the pyramid contributes significantly to the upper levels in that it helps the horse to prepare both mentally and physically for the work ahead. It is also important to Level 1 – Rhythm and Regularity in that the relaxed horse is able to perform his work without the tension that impedes his movement. A relaxed horse willingly accepts his rider’s aids and moves with a supple back. In turn, he is able to bend throughout his body both laterally and longitudinally. He demonstrates his elasticity by willingly lengthening and shortening his strides. In the relaxation part of the training pyramid , the horse begins developing his “push” (better known as impulsion).

The first major component of relaxation is elasticity. Elasticity is used to measure the piaffehorse’s responsiveness to the rider’s aids. The horse should be readily capable of adjusting his gaits while maintaining his cadence. This is to say, he should be able to lengthen and shorten his stride without losing his rhythm.  An example would be moving from the extended trot to passage. While these movements are generally done at the upper levels, the horse should be able to lengthen his stride as early as the First Level and start with collection and medium gaits at Second Level. As the horse develops his stamina and muscle strength, he will be better able to demonstrate elasticity.

Suppleness plays an equally important role in the horse’s relaxation. A horse that is stiff or rigid in any part of his body will not be capable of utilizing his body effectively, thus resulting in irregular gaits, unwillingness and a general displeasure in his work. A sure sign of a relaxed horse is one that demonstrates a swinging back. There are two types of suppleness: Longitudinal and Lateral.

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 half passthe 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.

Ultimately, relaxation is not achieved overnight. It is an ongoing process to develop the horse’s physical and mental state. During the process of developing relaxation, the horse will become more supple and elastic. Most work at this stage is performed at the trot. This improves adjustability and develops muscle strength, stamina and flexibility. With time and repetitive training, the horse becomes a confident, obedient and willing partner.