The most recent quizz questions on the Manolo Mendez Dressage Facebook page resulted in some very good discussions at La Mancha about equine stiffness and suppleness. Manolo shared his training philosophy on how to help horses develop the bilateral suppleness needed for them to be be able to bend throughout their whole body, and use their joints equally, to both to the left and right hand.
For Manolo, suppling is not achieved by asking the horse for more bend on his stiff side than his soft side while riding or working in-hand. There is no “making” the horse work in smaller circles and figures to make his stiff side give, release or lengthen. In Manolo’s experience, when a rider asks a horse for a smaller circle then the horse can physically perform with ease, the horse feels uncomfortable or over faced and the rider builds resistance and stiffness rather than strength and suppleness.
Manolo believes that this training approach creates mental and muscle fatigue in horses and assumes horses are purposefully not “giving” on their stiff side when in reality, the issue stems from laterality or what is most commonly referred to as crookedness. At its most basic, a crooked horse has a convex and concave side with contracted or hyper-tense muscles on the concave side. When the horse travels with the concave side on the outside of the bend, he has difficulties bending because his muscles are not elongating to accommodate the bended lines as they do on his convex side. All horses are crooked. The question is, to what degree. It is the rider’s job to help the horse straighten so that his muscle mass becomes symmetrical and the horse can use both sides of his body equally well. This can only be achieved over time by carefully gynmasticizing the horse. The muscles elasticity and ability to stretch cannot be forced, it must be developed slowly and carefully.
To help the horse supple and straighten, Manolo likes to make the work as simple, easy and comfortable for the horse has possible. Remembering to match the horse’s physical resistance with flexibility and to assist him rather than fight him.
While training, Manolo does ride circles, serpentines, loops etc.. in both directions. However, he does not ask horses to work to their stiff side with the same degree of difficulty as they do to their easier side. By taking time and adapting the circle sizes to what the horse can do on his stiffer side without over taxing himself, by riding each figure softly and accurately, the rider can begin to release and supple the horse’s stiff side.
When the rider is not fighting with the horse or forcing him into a posture that is uncomfortable, the horse’s confidence in the rider grows, he feels safe and knows he wont be over faced and uncomfortable and so he offers less and and less resistance. With less tension in the body, it is easier to eliminate stiffness.
Over time, the rider can test the improved pliability of their horse’s muscles and ask for one smaller circle here and there. The rider can vary the size of the circles and figures on the stiffer side and increase their number as long as the horse remains soft and comfortable. However, the rider should not drill circles or figures nor should they alternate bend again and again or forget to straighten the horse between bending and counter bending exercises which Manolo uses extremely sparingly if at all.
In the photo from March 2012, Manolo is working on a 12 meter circle left and looking for an even bend through Clint’s body. He is always looking for healthy spinal alignment, for fluidity and to eliminate restrictions and tensions in the body. Note how the horse’s body is longer on the outside of the bend and how Manolo positioned his body so his outside rein is not blocking Clint’s ability to bend. Not blocking the horse is a huge key to being able to develop an even horse.
Beautiful Painted Horse by Debranne Pattillo of Equinology.com
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