What Is “Suppleness,” Anyway?

In this excerpt from The Horse in Positive Tension, movement analysis specialist Stefan Stammer takes a close look at the term “supple,” what it is and what it is not, and how it all applies to the horse’s performance.

“Supple” Does Not Mean “Light”

We all want to make our horses supple—riders of all kinds of different disciplines have this much in common. And they all experience the same truth over the course of their careers: riding with suppleness is anything but light. But if supple is not light, what does riding theory mean by the terms suppling, lowering the neck, relaxation, light hands, and lightness? The basic problem is that the definitions and meanings of these terms are often taken out of the context of riding theory, and so they drift through indoor arenas as empty buzzwords.

“Supple” Does Not Mean “Relaxed”

The meaning of “supple” in equestrian sports has been influenced by its use in other athletic environments. In addition, relaxation is only one part of the movement cycle. A 100-meter sprinter has to stay supple over the last 30 meters of an Olympic final to win. Once this sprinter
“clenches up,” she loses. But if her body tension is too low, she also loses. She is only truly relaxed 20 minutes later, sitting in a chair with a glass of champagne.

A soccer player before the decisive penalty shot has to be supple to score safely. If she’s relaxed, she’ll fail, just as much as she’ll fail if she is mentally or physically tense. This is what inner and outer suppleness means in equestrian lingo—developing positive body tension and concentration.

Developing this kind of suppleness is not easy, but it’s at the core of any good or very good athletic movement. The most important goal of any gymnast, skier, or track-and-field athlete is to embark on their performance in a state of suppleness. Only then can that performance be considered optimal.

This brings us back to the deep, wide rift in equestrianism. Today’s equestrian magazines and books are very often characterized by the depiction of extremes. If you believe these publications, there are mainly two types of riders.

“Formula 1” Riders

The attitude of these riders is that if suppleness cannot be achieved through lightness, that might mean it’s necessary to “take a good grip” now and then. Horses aren’t made of glass, after all, and those who expect performance have to occasionally train past the limit—with predictable results.

Chronic overload clinical signs (“symptoms” are what the horse feels and “clinical signs” are what we see, although I’ll stick with the term “symptoms” for the most part in reference to both) can be expected from this kind of attitude, an attitude that makes medication to treat the back, hoof joints, and stifle joints an accepted part of a sport horse’s health management.

If this is the case, it can then be assumed that the training and showing of a horse in competition is, at least potentially, connected to wear and tear as well as pain. Neither the equestrian world nor the rest of society should accept such an assumption in the long run.

This places the fascinating living being that is the “horse” on the same level as a Formula 1 engine, which can be expected to fail after a certain number of laps. The effort of engineers is
only to delay this failure for as long as possible, until the finish line has been crossed.

The Other Side: “Light” Riders

Meanwhile, another group, which we’ll call “light” riders, has begun to design their own training philosophies. Particularly relaxed horses that are never ever pushed to or past their limits, and a mindset that everything can be learned easily are what these riders have in common. Their horses live their lives mainly falling from one front leg onto the other, with a low head and a long neck—to the applause of so-called “trainers,” whose most important character trait is that they “love” horses. Afterward, these horses are treated to a wellness massage, because they worked so incredibly hard. Completely lacking here is a serious approach to the horse’s nature as an animal of movement, full of pride and natural dignity.

It is, of course, by no means a disadvantage if a trainer loves horses. However, her professional competence is much more important, including her regard for the animal entrusted to her care and her respect for his nature. The outer effortlessness with which a well-ridden horse moves in the end is the result of skillful and experienced training within his first few years of being started. And this is certainly not a “light” task!

You can tell I’m ready to elbow my way into the middle of this! Not so much because I have masochistic tendencies, but because I firmly believe this is the best position for building bridges between the divergent viewpoints in the riding world.

What Happens in the Middle?

There are still many riders and trainers who do not settle for empty words and quick “wannabe” success. They value their profession and the horses and students entrusted to their care more than themselves, and give it their best every single day. They do not feature monthly in magazines because they have just reinvented equestrianism. They have equestrian skills, sound knowledge, and experience. That is nothing spectacular, but rather the only option in order to
build the movement patterns that horses and riders need to stay healthy long-term and reach their goals, over months and years. Whether this takes place in the competition arena or out on the trails, it is always carried out with joy and respect for the wonderful creature that is the horse.

Photo by Ricarda Mertens.

This excerpt from The Horse in Positive Tension by Stefan Stammer is reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books (www.HorseandRiderBooks.com).

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