How often have you climbed aboard your horse for a nice, peaceful work session only to find that he doesn’t want to yield to your legs or pick up a correct lead? If this happens regularly, ask yourself a few questions first, before taking any further steps and reprimanding your horse for “bad behavior”.
Did you give him adequate warmup time? Or just rush right into your work plan for the day? (...you DO have a work plan, don’t you?) If he tends to be cold-backed, did you longe him first to loosen up those muscles before mounting? Did you spend any length of time asking him to give to the bit gently, then flex him, side to side to be sure he’s ready and able to do your bidding? Did your warmup routine include circling him in each direction and asking him to move out uncollected first? If the answer to any of these questions is no, then you’re the one who needs the reprimand.
Remember, your horse is an athlete, and as such he should be treated as one. You wouldn’t dream of asking a track and field sprinter to just take off from the blocks without warmup exercises after sitting around waiting his turn, would you? Likewise, you shouldn’t ask the same of your horse without his muscles being ready to tackle any task you should request of him.
Let’s begin with why you want your horse supple and flexible. Even a horse in the best condition can become stiff and unresponsive after sitting in his stall overnight without much room to move around. This concept can even apply to pastured horses, as they’re generally lazy creatures by nature and won’t go running around to limber themselves up if they don’t absolutely have to.
Liken the scenario to you waking up first thing in the morning. What’s one of the first things many of us humans do when we get out of bed? Other than rushing out to get that first cup of coffee (!), stretching and yawning is a typical reaction, right? As we age, that stretching is often accompanied by those horrid cracking and popping noises, which is the body’s way of helping get us realigned after a night’s rest. Your horse is no different, other than he’s a LOT bigger and therefore he has more muscles, ligaments and bones which need to be prepared before facing a day’s work.
Many folks today start their daily regimen with the horse by doing some simple massage-like rubbing in sensitive areas following a good, thorough grooming. Equine chiropractors suggest stretching exercises, too, before saddling up, often referred to as “carrot stretches” (since you entice the horse to stretch by wagging a carrot in his face). Once my horses are tacked and ready I’ll ordinarily take them out and longe them before mounting, although with some horses the warmup regimen just includes bending, flexing and circling at the walk, then the jog-trot. I’m also a stickler for having a set plan for the day’s training sessions on each horse, knowing what I’m setting out to accomplish or teach the horse. Having goals in mind, no matter how small, helps focus on what’s important.
For instance, say the next horse I’ll be working is a young and inexperienced Western horse. He’s far enough along to have graduated to a full set of tack and is rideable under saddle, perhaps even to the point of being really steady and solid in the snaffle. But he’s got to be able to take that next step soon and gain confidence carrying a curb bit. What would my next goal for that horse be? The very first step, naturally, is to take him out and longe him in saddle and bridle, first with his head free, then loosely bitted up. There’s his initial warmup, and I’ll notice that he’s suppling enough to begin giving to his bit. I can then bit him a little tighter on one side toward the inside each direction and he won’t fight the bit, also taking note of the fact that he’s not rushing, but travelling in a nice, relaxed manner at all gaits. At that point, he’ll be ready to get on. Naturally, this session also begins in a snaffle before we progress to that much-anticipated curb.
Of course, if he IS trying to fight those reins, if he’s rushing about madly or some other out of control behavior, I’m going to want to wait him out and be certain both his mind and body are ready to concentrate on his work prior to my jumping into that saddle. No sense in taking steps backward during the training process just because I have a schedule to meet.
Back to that goal -- before I even take him out to the arena, I know what I’ll be working toward is introducing the curb (for the young ones and inexperienced Western horses I use a very short-shanked bit with a Frog mouthpiece...such a bit has a relatively low port with good tongue relief and a cricket, or roller, that he can sometimes use to occupy his mind and relax) and getting him accustomed to the differences in how that curb works as opposed to the snaffle he’s been used to. I won’t worry about collection or even a headset at first, because we’ve already gotten the requisite frame (though I dislike thinking in terms of "frame" even in a show horse) in the snaffle and he understands how he needs to carry himself. Our main purpose will be his understanding and grasp of responding to an entirely different bit in his mouth.
How does this relate to his suppleness? Simply put, the horse has to be comfortable and at ease in order to work properly and that directly corresponds to how supple he is. A horse who’s stiff and inflexible won’t be able to collect himself at all, his concentration will be all but nonexistent and he sure won’t be happy with what he’s doing. It doesn’t matter whether he’s a Pleasure horse, a Jumper, a Dressage mount or a Reiner, he still needs to be supple so he can perform what’s asked of him without discomfort or pain.
Once you have that work plan in place and you’re tacked up ready to go, give your horse a chance to give you his best by ensuring he is ready as well!