How to Create Energy in the Dressage Horse
“Lacking impulsion.” That’s a comment no dressage competitor wants to see on their score sheet. Yet, a lack of energy in the dressage horse is one of the most common faults seen by judges at all levels.
In this article, we discuss how to create energy in the dressage horse, without spoiling the all-important rhythm of the paces and harmony between horse and rider.
What causes the horse to lack energy?
Before taking steps to tackle a lack of energy in the horse, it’s important to rule out non-riding related problems.
First, ask your vet to check the horse to make sure there are no physical reasons for lack of energy.
For example, dental issues that are causing the horse pain could trigger a reluctance to work forwards to the contact, or the horse could be suffering from an undiagnosed virus.
Feeding for energy
Next, take a look at your feeding program.
Sometimes, a lazy horse can be perked up by increasing his hard feed, switching from hay to haylage, or changing to a different forage supplier.
Most large feed companies employ nutritionists who are happy to give free advice over the phone or by email, so take advantage of this service.
Consider your horse’s regular daily routine.
If he spends most of his time turned out, he may be feeling lazy because he’s full of grass or has used all his energy playing with his field companions.
You may find your horse more enthusiastic if you ride him before he goes out for the day.
Age and work routine
Your horse’s age can be a factor that influences his energy levels. Older, more experienced horses can sometimes be less enthusiastic about work than younger, less exposed types.
Of course, your horse’s work regimen can cause a problem if it’s too repetitive.
Horses, like people, become bored and stale if they’re over-schooled. Try putting schooling work aside for a week and take your horse out hacking or jump him instead. If a change of routine puts the spring back into his step, you’ll need to rethink his regular work routine.
Is it you?
Having ruled out the above causes of energy loss in your horse, take a look at yourself.
Make sure you’re not riding in a way that interferes with the horse. For example, if you sit crookedly, your horse will begin twisting his back to compensate and rebalance himself. A crooked horse cannot move forward. Hence he will lack energy.
Also, if you habitually sit to the trot, go rising instead to allow your horse to move freely forward without your weight impeding the swing of his back muscles.
Finally, make sure that your hand is not restricting the horse and preventing him from going forward. If you’ve recently started riding your horse in a double bridle, switch back to a snaffle and see if that makes a difference to his willingness to go forwards.
Teach your horse how to work forward from your aids
Having ruled out all other possible causes of a lack of energy, you can start working on your horse’s reaction to your aids.
The horse must respond to your leg and your seat. And your horse should move forward from the smallest aid, i.e., from a whisper, not a scream!
Using your seat as a driving aid
Many riders make the mistake of pumping and pushing with their hips, thinking that this is using their seat.
To drive with your seat, adjust the angle of your pelvis by slightly rounding the small of your back and contracting your stomach muscles. This draws your seat bones forward and underneath you.
While in this position, you must keep the alignment through your ear, shoulder, hip, and heel. Sit still and allow the horse forward with your hand.
Now, use your leg to back-up your seat.
Stretch down with your legs, taking your weight into your heels, and close them around your horse. Don’t grip with your leg, as that will push your seat away from the horse.
As you wrap your legs around the horse’s barrel, you should feel your seat deepen, and the horse’s back becoming round underneath you.
Reinforcing your aids
If your horse persists in ignoring your seat and leg aids, reinforcement is necessary.
That doesn’t mean immediately reaching for your whip! You want the horse to move willingly and freely forward without tension.
Although you don’t want to rely on artificial aids to create energy, introducing spurs once in a while can help to reinforce your leg aids.
If your horse is not used to being ridden in spurs, choose a short, blunt pair to begin with.
Remember that a horse’s skin is so sensitive he can feel a fly landing on his side. He will, therefore, feel your spurs, so proceed with sensitivity and caution until you know how your horse will react.
Using frequent transitions from one pace to another and within the paces often sharpens up a lackluster horse.
To begin with, all you’re looking for is a reaction to your seat and leg aid. Your horse should immediately respond to your leg and seat with a sharp, crisp transition.
Sometimes, a few long sides in medium canter can do the trick!
Don’t resort to nagging constantly with your leg. Too much background noise will only make the horse “dead” to the leg.
If you ask for an upward transition and the horse is slow to react or ignores you completely, try giving him one sharp kick, and then sitting still again.
If the horse immediately jumps forward, reward him and ask for the transition again with a quieter aid.
Check your rein contact
Make sure that the rein is not restricting the horse by easing your hands forward a few inches when you ask the horse for more energy.
Your reins should be short enough to allow you to keep an elastic contact with the horse’s mouth, but the horse must still be able to move his head.
If your contact is restrictive, the horse will be unable to flex his pelvis and step through with his hocks underneath his body, creating a longer stride, and building impulsion.
The longitudinal roundness throughout the horse’s topline must be consistent and even, tail to poll. If you’ve used too much hand, the horse’s neck will be shorter and rounder than the rest of his topline, preventing the development of true impulsion.
What about using a whip?
The whip should be used to activate the horse’s hindquarters, not to drive him forward.
So, once your horse is moving forward from your seat and leg aids, you can tap him with your whip to increase activity and engagement.
Once you have ruled out physical problems, feeding shortfalls, and boredom with his routine, you can begin re-schooling your horse to go forward from your leg and seat aids as described above.
Every time you school your horse, you should have the Scales of Training at the front of your mind. Often, if something starts to go wrong, it is because one or more of the Scales has been neglected.
Do you have a lazy horse? How do you create more energy in his work?
Tell us your tips in the comments below!
- How to Sharpen up a Lazy Horse
- How to Get Your Horse In Front of the Leg
- The Scales of Training: Scale 4 – Impulsion
- What is “The Correct Way of Going” in Dressage?