Everyone will agree that suppleness and impulsion are key elements when it comes to riding the horse o the aids. I prefer to use the expression “on the aids” instead of “on the bit” because it presents a different mental image. When you picture a horse that is on the bit, the focus is on a horse with his face on the vertical and an arched neck that typifies the look of a dressage horse. Thinking of a horse that is on the aids takes that a step further in that it makes you think of the same image as on the bit, in addition to a horse that reacts well to the riders aids.
Riders have heard their instructor say, “Ride the horse more forward!” That usually involves a couple of kicks from the leg and or a touch of the whip to encourage the horse to add impulsion to his stride. How much is enough? Can you have too much impulsion? How do you know if there is too much impulsion? These are all questions that the average rider has trouble evaluation. The best way to describe what you are seeking is a horse that is in front of your leg but not past the control of your rein.
You know the horse is in front of your leg when his response to your leg is immediate and sustained for a few strides at a time. If you close your eyes while your horse is trotting, you should feel that most of is body is in front of where you are sitting. If you have the sensation that most of his body is behind you, you need to add more impulsion to the mix. Sometimes when you add more impulsion, the horse goes faster but leans more on the reins, therefore going past what the had can regulate. Most riders get stuck bouncing back and forth between being slow but in control or adding impulsion and giving up some control. When the horse goes with more impulsion but less control, it’s time to check up on the flexibility factor.
Suppleness or flexibility is the willingness of the horse to allow the action of the aids to pass through his body. That means that he accepts the forward driving aid, the half halt and he will move readily to the left or right. You will find that each time you add or subtract impulsion from the horse, the suppleness will have to be negotiated again.
How does the rider create suppleness? The horse is made more flexible through riding bending lines (circles, serpentines, figure eights) as well as lateral exercises (shoulder –in and leg yield). The rider has to be on a constant vigil to keep the horse supple enough that he does not control the bearing on the rein. That means the horse must maintain a light, even, elastic contact on both reins at all times. The moment he braces against one or both reins, he braces his neck against the hand, thereby blocking the energy of the hind leg to flow freely through the body. This causes the ability of the horse to accept the half halt to be greatly diminished.
The ideal environment for training your horse is one where the impulsion doesn’t overpower your ability to maintain suppleness and where the impulsion isn’t sacrificed while creating flexibility. Keeping that in mind, you must always train your horse at his level of acceptance of these principles. If the horse loses his flexibility and acceptance of the aids, causing the quality of his gait to be compromised, don’t hesitate to take a moment to regain his balance and confidence. This would be a wonderful time to add a stretch circle or two for relaxing the horse. The reward will be a horse that moves in his most beautiful way through all of the excercises. With time and patience, he will be able to meet your expectations, while maintaining impulsion and suppleness.