Pretty much every ride, and every lesson, I'm reminded about the importance of impulsion and teaching impulsion to the horse and the rider. I use it myself all the time, and you'll see why when you read the list below.
Don't get me wrong. It's true that there is such thing as too much energy, but I feel that impulsion isn't exactly the same thing as energy, although energy is a pre-requisite to impulsion. And it's also true that developing "correct" impulsion may take years to fully learn and understand. But that doesn't mean that even the most novice rider can't learn it at the basic level, and use impulsion to help counter or completely eliminate riding problems as they arise.
I've written quite a bit about impulsion over the years. If you want a simple, concrete way to get started, read How Two Strides of Energy Might Solve Your Horse Riding Problem, and Not Fast, Not Slow. So What IS Impulsion? to help with understanding the concept itself.
So why do I keep coming back to impulsion? It's not like I want to harp on the same topic all the time - it's more because the topic keeps coming back to me, through lessons and rides, and solving riding or training problems. So many discomforts of the horse are rooted in not being allowed to really move under saddle. And I love it when I can help an ear-pinning, tight-backed, short-strided horse morph into a bounding, longer-strided, bright-eyed, ears-forward version of himself in one lesson, because all the rider needs is a little encouragement and direction.
Here are 25 problems (or, shall we say, discomforts to the horse) that can be at least improved upon when thinking about impulsion, even while you're doing other things.
- Crookedness: You might be amazed that most of the horse's dropped shoulders or hind end crookedness can be improved upon by a straight-positioned rider and a little (maybe not even a lot) of impulsion. Energy that is allowed through the body can straighten the body.
- Down transitions: A horse that is truly forward is better connected through his body and to the rider's aids. And so, balance is better and the horse can respond better. Instead of having to pull the horse into a downward transition, you might only have to use a little leg and half-halt and transition down yourself through your seat.
- Up transitions: If your horse only moves faster in the original gait, and runs/stumbles/pulls your arms forward until you get the gait change, chances are that you needed more impulsion before your upward transition. If the horse has more energy, he has better balance and the hind end is more underneath the body, which will allow a light, skipping transition into the next gait.
- Maintenance of tempo: If you feel your horse go fast and slow and fast and slow, chances are that you have to maintain impulsion through every step.
- Shoulder-in or shoulder-fore: Moving the shoulders takes a lot of energy and strength for the horse (especially in the learning stages) and you might find your horse losing energy when you ask for shoulder-in or shoulder-fore. Ask for a little impulsion before the movement and it might be easier to move the shoulders.
- Hollow back: Allow a little more energy through your horse to begin to send the energy "over the back". This will give the horse better strength to allow the back to swing and move with his strides.
- Haunches-in: The inside hind leg bears more weight with the haunches-in. Ask for more energy going into the movement and your horse will have an easier time staying in balance.
- Halts: Wow, can impulsion improve the halt! I usually don't get too fussed over a horse that doesn't halt square, because I know that once the rider learns to power into the halt (and stay straight herself), squareness will just happen.
- Collection: Well, we all know that collection requires a high amount of energy and strength. In order for the horse to actually tilt the pelvis, those hind legs have to go underneath the body more and bear more weight. You can't collect without impulsion.
- Lengthens: A lengthen can only be as good as the collection that came before it. So impulsion plays a huge role here too.
- Leg-yield: One of the most common problems with leg-yield is a loss of tempo and energy through the movement. Add a little impulsion, maybe even every three strides or so, and see what that will do for your leg-yields.
- Circles: Many horses slow down when coming off the rail and into a circle. Circling requires balance and energy in order for the horse to continue to move freely with a swinging back. Enter: impulsion!
- Bend: The inside hind leg plays a large part in allowing the horse to bend around your inside leg. To help the horse with balance and subsequent suppleness, add a little impulsion.
- On-the-forehand (combined with half-halts): Add some impulsion before your half-halts to help your horse develop better uphill balance. You create energy, and only then you "recycle" it to the hind end.
- Half-halts: It's very difficult to have half-halts that help to balance the horse when there's limited energy. So in all cases, add that little bit of impulsion before the half-halt.
- Balance: It's so much easier for the horse to truck along on the forehand than to carry weight to the hind end. Use your two legs for "go" and see if he has an easier time staying off the forehand thanks to the extra energy.
- Mouth "issues": The first time I saw impulsion do magic with a horse's mouth problems was at a Stephen Clarke clinic. He was absolutely not worried about the mouth (and head tossing). He just worked the rider and got more impulsion, and soon enough, the horse calmed, the mouth softened, and they had a great ride. I've used this strategy many times now and it seems to work with many horses.
- Rooting the reins: Horses can only pull down and forward on the reins if they are leaning to the forehand. Before the horse gets too far, use two legs and encourage forward movement. You might be excited to notice that the horse's head comes right up and away you go.
- Lack of rhythm: Rhythm in horse riding is all about getting the footfalls to be timed correctly for the gait. So a trot is a 2-beat rhythm, the canter a 3-beat rhythm and the walk is 4-beats. If you have trouble keeping rhythm, just add a little impulsion and maybe a few half-halts.
- Ear pinning/tension: The horse that is pinning his ears is generally looking and thinking backward to the rider. Send him forward and look for the ears that show that the horse is looking ahead and not behind.
- Bucking/rearing/kicking out: The horse can only do one of these moves when there is little to no forward energy. Feel it coming on? Teach the horse that he can move ahead, and use his hind end.
- Spooking: Spooking feels very energetic sometimes, but can only happen if the forward energy is replaced by sideways (or otherwise) energy. So send the horse forward at the slightest hint of a spook.
- Stopping/balking: These two problems are almost the same as spooking. The horse simply can't stop if he's going forward. It will be your job to teach him that even before he thinks about stopping.
- Bracing the jaw or poll: Horses often brace in the jaw or poll when the rider holds on too long or with too much pressure. Some learn to lean into the pressure and just truck along. If you ask for impulsion when this happens, you'll find that suddenly there is room in the reins (as long as you are not actively pulling backward at the same time). Then you can go ahead with a half-halt if needed, and the small release after that. If you can do this often enough, the horse will learn to soften.
- Rushing: This one sounds counter-intuitive, because how can rushing be corrected with more energy? But it does work that way with riding, because in general, when a horse rushes, he is on the forehand. And when he's on the forehand, he's NOT using his hind end. So again, asking with two legs and then using a half-halt might help to slow the legs down, increase the stride length, and develop better balance.
Well! If you're still here, thanks for reading all that! I hope this helps you in your riding journey. The role of impulsion in riding cannot be overstated. If you can think of other ways that impulsion can change your ride, let me know in the comments below!
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