The thing is, we often think that energy is all about a surge of forward-moving legs.
Use two legs, squeeze either from the calf or from the lower leg. Follow with your seat to allow the increase in movement and energy from the horse. Then invariably, this happens:
The horse runs faster.
His tempo speeds up. His legs move faster, churning at a higher rate. He has to balance by bringing his head higher and "off the bit" (or letting go of connection), hollow his back to counter the energy that pushed him to his forehand, and generally brace through the body.
Speed often masquerades as impulsion and it's easy to just let it go. (Click here to tweet that if you agree!)
Three things can happen when you ask for more energy.
1. Faster Faster "Out The Front End"
This usually happens when horses and riders are learning what impulsion is about in the first place. It takes time and repetition to learn the "feel" of fast legs. Originally, we think of fast legs as increased energy and then try our best to stay with the horse through the flurry of increased movement.
If we are reluctant to take the contact initially, then all that happens is that the energy increases leg speed and then is let out the front. This means that nothing really happens with the energy. We leave the horse to his own devices and expect him to deal with the resulting imbalance that the energy creates.
While keeping the "energy in the body" (which is the opposite of letting it out) isn't done exclusively by creating short reins, the reins do play a role. If you let the reins slide out of your fingers in the moment that you ask for increased energy, you effectively send the horse into a longer body frame, which then results in sending his weight to the forehand. He then has to try to manage this change of balance while increasing his leg speed. You can now imagine why he would brace and perhaps hollow his back in effort to prevent a fall or stumble.
2. Slow But No Energy
So we grab at the reins and stop the forward energy. The horse has no choice but to disengage at this point. Rather than reaching further underneath with his hind legs, he shortens his stride. This can cause many problems in the horse's body including a hollowed, braced back (because there is lack of energy to give strength to the carrying muscles). The legs slow, but the body lengthens and suddenly you feel like you're riding a hammock.
You might have difficulty getting a turn, or changing gaits (especially to canter). Anything that has to do with balance becomes more difficult (like turning, half-halting, lateral movements). The horse might actually stumble because of the heaviness on his front end, or because he simply can't bring his hind legs deep enough under his body due to the lack of energy.
Fast isn't the answer and neither is slow. What, then?
3. Create and Contain
It sounds simple, really. First - create energy. Second - contain it.
The problem is that it takes a lot more strength and effort from both the horse and the rider to do both at the same time.
If you're not used to it, you'll find yourself teetering between both extremes. Sometimes, your energy causes the horse to move faster-faster. Other times, your reins cause him to plod along with stunted gait and feeling "stuck."
Cut both of you some slack as you begin to experiment with energy and containment of energy. If you notice the legs speeding up, just slow down again. If you feel the horse getting stuck, ask for more energy.
Keep fine-tuning your aids and soon enough, you'll notice that the difference between the extremes becomes less and less. One day, you'll feel a surge of energy that doesn't make the legs faster! You might notice an increase in movement but you seem to travel less than usual.
This is when you know you're on the right track!
How can you tell you're heading into real Impulsion-land?
The horse's legs move slower WITH energy and activity.
- movement flows (doesn't feel like it's going to stop any moment)
- more bounce to the gaits
- horse generally seems to maintain balance better - not falling to the forehand or heavy on the bit
- body becomes rounder, more uphill
- transitions are effortless (especially downward transitions)
- you travel further with less strides
When you're not used to this type of energy, you might even become a little unnerved because the horse feels like he's going to take off. That's the key! He feels like it but in fact, he doesn't. That energy stays in the body and becomes expressed in higher leg movement, more bounding strides, and most significantly, rounder movement that is usually easier to sit to.
If you'd like a tried and true exercise to help develop your impulsion at the trot, try this Canter-Trot exercise and see what happens to your trot after the canter. Be ready for the extra energy and ride it!
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Read all about impulsion here:
12 Riding Quick Tips - #6: Developing Impulsion: How can the rider encourage impulsion?
How You Know You Don't Have Impulsion (Yet): There are actually two fairly easy to spot signs.
Impulsion: How Two Easy Strides Of Energy Might Solve Your Horse Riding Problem: One of the easiest, and most beneficial solutions to many riding problems is to teach the horse to move from the hind end.
12 Riding Quick Tips - #5: How To Prevent An Upper Body Collapse During Transitions: Do you have a tendency to "fall", or collapse in the upper body, during transitions?
38 Moments To Half-Halt: Here are 38 moments in a ride that you could use the half-halt.