Impulsion is the fourth of six stages on the dressage training scale (German or otherwise) and it is up there for good reason. We speak of impulsion all the time, and I personally introduce it to novice riders fairly early in their career. But this concept of increased energy is complex and it may take years to truly grasp as you progress in your riding career.
Impulsion affects so many other aspects of gait quality that it cannot be seen as an entity unto itself. In fact, when you are working on increasing impulsion, invariably, you are also working on rhythm, suppleness (over the back and laterally), "forward", quality of contact, engagement, collection - the list can be endless. Impulsion (or lack thereof) can dictate more than just the speed of your horse's legs.
You can also think of it as a sort of health insurance policy for your horse. The better the movement (which is highly influenced by impulsion), the healthier your horse may be over the long term. And hopefully, healthy movement is something that we're all aiming for.
What is impulsion?
Simply said, it's energy. But not all energy is "good" energy.
Impulsion is the type of energy that makes the gait feel bouncier. It creates a deeper stride in the hind end (therefore allowing for a more uphill balance). It feels bold, powerful, electric. The horse feels like he'll step into any gait or movement at a moment's notice.
The results of impulsion can actually be seen. The horse:
- looks rounder over the top line.
- is more supple in the poll.
- maintains a more even contact.
- responds to lighter aids.
- maintains a more level or uphill balance.
- seems to have an easier time with flexion and bend.
- appears more comfortable.
How do you know you don't have impulsion (yet)?
There are actually two fairly easy to spot signs.
1. First, what happens when you use your leg aids?
Does the horse go faster? Does the horse change gaits? Does the horse pull or root the reins out of your hands and get longer in the body? Does the horse resist, balk or buck?
Any or all of these responses are signs that you haven't yet achieved impulsion. Let's break it down.
When the horse goes faster, you know you've put in energy (through your leg and seat aids). The problem here is that the energy is "going out the front door". To create true impulsion, the energy must stay within the horse's body, allowing for that deeper hind leg stride, that increased bounce to the gait, that powerful rounding of the back in movement. Faster legs do not impulsion make!
The same goes for a change of gait. Many horses will easily respond to an increase in energy by changing from the trot to the canter. It is much, much more difficult for a horse to maintain the trot and allow that influx of energy into the trot than it is to just switch the legs. Impulsion does not a gait change make! (Although surely, increased impulsion before, through and after a gait change will improve the transition).
Heavier On The Reins
In this case, the horse is responding by lengthening through the body - front end and likely the hind end. Strung out, anyone? The horse has likely fallen to the forehand and lost balance, putting weight into the reins. The rider has likely let the reins slip through her fingers, allowing them to get longer longer longer. This sort of response happens often with young or uneducated horses and riders. It's one thing to put in the energy, but it's another thing to contain it!
I call it "resistance", but you might call it "disobedience" or "miscommunication". Regardless, anything other than forward is backward (some people call it "sucking back"). And any backward movement is not impulsion (even if the legs are still moving in a forward manner).
2. Second, what happens during a down transition?
Does the horse come to an abrupt stop? Does the horse change gait but go faster and faster in the new gait? Does the horse trip or take a bad step? Do you feel like you have to haul off and pulllll until the legs finally change gait?
All of these signs give you a strong indication that there was a lack of impulsion before the gait change. The horse simply doesn't have the power to "power-down" in a balanced and energetic manner. While we often think of downward transitions as slower, they are anything but slow. It takes strength and energy to change gaits cleanly and without falling to the forehand.
Impulsion: The Electric Rider
Of course, the rider is the root of all impulsion. A rider without impulsion does not an energetic horse make!
If you ride with impulsion, your horse will have impulsion too. The question is - how do you create the energy and how do you contain it?
Those last two questions take a lifetime to learn and develop. At first, you may be able to energize but not contain. Then you might go through a phase where you contain but can't energize. Then you might energize but not be able to stay with the horse as he reflects that energy.
Then you'll likely go through a balance phase - where you put in the energy, the horse falls more to the forehand, you reduce the energy, the horse loses his forward... and you feel like a teeter-totter until you finally find the happy medium (I have that T-shirt!).
Your horse will likely go through all these phases with you - hopefully patiently - and if not, then you will have to figure things out a little quicker! But in the end, it's all so worth it.
When you have that first moment of clear, bold, power that sustains and magnifies the gait, when you feel like your horse just grew an inch, and when you feel like you're floating in tandem with your trusty steed (that is willing and able to stop and turn on a dime), you won't ever want to come back to non-impulsion land. And that is when things begin to get interesting!
How would you describe impulsion? Comment below.
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More on impulsion:
Impulsion: How Two Easy Strides of Energy Might Solve Your Horse Riding Problem: A simple way to develop impulsion. Try it!
Lighten Your Horse’s Forehand – From The Hind End: How to improve your horse's uphill balance correctly.
What Is Contact? The Second Stage: How impulsion helps develop a more advanced concept of "contact".
Top 10 Common Goals for Riders – Presented by Buck Steel Horse Barns: Guess what one of the common goals is? Yep! "Forward energy".
Bold Transitions That Look Effortless And Feel Great: How impulsion affects transitions.