Conventional Ideas – Suppleness or relaxation?


These are terms which I hear very often, and which I have often used as well!

 “I am doing this or that to supple my horse”, “my horse does mediocre half-passes because he is not supple”, “my horse lacks suppleness”…

But are these terms being correctly chosen and used in the right context?

First, let’s define these terms.

What is suppleness?

Suppleness refers to the capacity of passive amplitude of physical movement. All suppling exercises have the goal of maintaining, retrieving, increasing or restoring this range of amplitude (B. Calais Germain).

Suppleness is closely linked to the ability of a muscle to stretch. Suppleness is also the biomechanical capacity of range of movement, which can be influenced by a number of factors (genetics, temperature, warming-up, relaxation) and can be improved to a certain extent.

Muscle tension is the mechanical response of a muscle to an aggravating stimulus, by which the muscle shortens and thickens (Larousse). Tension is therefore a limiting factor to achieving suppleness.



What is relaxation? 

According to the dictionary, relaxation describes a state in which a muscle is the opposite of being in a contracted state. The term relaxation is in contrast to that of tightness or tension. It refers to, while seeking maximum efficiency of movement, only contracting the minimum number of muscles, for the minimum of time, with a minimum of exertion.

Muscular relaxation therefore aims to reduce energy unnecessarily expanded by restraining or even harmful tensions. It is efficiency which is sought. To be efficient is to be as effective as possible while using up the least amount of energy possible.

Efficiency does not depend solely on the level of tension in a certain muscle or muscle group. It also depends on resisting forces which oppose it. Therefore, muscular effort expanded by a particular muscle or muscle group is negated when antagonistic muscle groups are tense. 




Without relaxation, amplitude of movement is reduced; movements are jerky or restrained, and dynamic balance is sub-optimal (university Paris12 study Maury 2009). Relaxation is the foundation for sporting achievements: without total relaxation, successful performance is not possible. By watching two athletes run a 100m-race, we can easily see that it is the athlete who is the most relaxed who will have the most fluid movement, and who consequently will win the race. Commentators are picking up on this. In fact, I just read a report of the tennis match in which W Tsonga was playing against R Federer at Roland-Garros. The reporters analysed in detail the performance of Tsonga, where he won points when he stayed relaxed, and had weak moments when he was tense.

In modern training techniques for sportspeople, learning how to achieve relaxation is a goal which goes hand in hand with improved technical performance. Mastering relaxation is already a difficult task for human athletes (mastering breathing and muscle tone, managing stress, having a good knowledge of one’s body). Logically, it is therefore difficult to obtain relaxation in horses. 

Certain elements can facilitate the attainment of relaxation in the horse:

-          Progressive,  good quality warm-up

-          Limiting stressful factors (suitable exercises and logical aids for the horse).

-          Lower or perhaps longer neck position, in case of tension

-          Frequent breaks to facilitate good breathing and therefore good oxygenation to muscles


But be careful, because although relaxation is a priority, it should not come at the expense of a decrease in muscle tone. It is therefore less effective to obtain relaxation by slowing the rhythm, and more effective to maintain an energetic rhythm while varying the neck position and controlling the permeability of the mouth through head and neck flexions, which will allow for general relaxation without losing muscle tone.

Difference between suppling exercises and stretches

Suppling exercises are mobilizing exercises which are supposed to improve joint mobility. It is possible to distinguish between active and passive suppling exercises (VN Platonov 1984). Exercises which develop suppleness are movements of flexion, extension, rotation and circumduction.

Stretches are specific exercises to improve mobility by a progressive lengthening of muscle until it reaches its maximum amplitude. Stretches improve joint articulation within the limits of the ability of the muscle to lengthen. Stretches act on muscular and the tendon/ligament systems. Stretches prevent and decrease muscular injuries.

Careful! While the usefulness of relaxation is sporting performance is unquestioned, stretches, and even more so, suppling exercises, are controversial.


When a horse has difficulty in performing movements such as bending, going sideways, or collecting, we sometimes think that this is related to a lack of suppleness, when actually, it is more likely to be a lack of relaxation. With this in mind, the rider will have a totally different attitude. For example, the rider could ask for the movement or exercise with a lower/deeper attitude, think about their actions to ensure they are not creating tension through bad position, or by giving contradictory or strong aids, and if necessary do light lateral exercises (eg. Work in the shoulder in). The rider’s whole perspective will be transformed.



Translated from French by Clara Mehel

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