Developing engagement is essential if you want to progress up the dressage levels, and engagement is a term that’s often used by judges on dressage scoresheets.
When your horse is engaged, his balance will be more uphill, your transitions will be smoother, and your lateral exercises will have more fluency and flow.
But what does engagement actually mean, how do you go about developing engagement in your horse, and how do you know when you’ve got enough or not enough of it?
Read on to find out.
What is engagement?
The horse’s hind legs step further forward underneath his body to carry more weight on his hindquarters than on his shoulders, relative to his level of training.
Basically, if your horse feels light and uphill, finds transitions easy, and does everything you ask of him fluently and with ease, then you have engagement.
However, engagement is only one element of your horse’s overall way of going and is, in turn, made up of several components. Take a look at the Impulsion collective mark on your dressage scoresheet, and you’ll see that engagement of the hindquarters is included along with the desire to move forward, the elasticity of the steps, and the suppleness of the back.
So, when you’re schooling your horse to increase engagement, you’re working on several components, rather than just one in isolation.
When is your horse not engaged?
If your horse feels as though he’s;
- moving with his hindquarters either in or out instead of following one track,
- and/or falling through his transitions,
then he’s definitely not engaged!
Components of engagement
Let’s take a look in more detail at the components that make up engagement.
1 – Forwards
You need to have your horse working freely forward.
With young horses, that can feel as though your horse is running away with you. However, you must resist the temptation to slow your horse down, as that will be counterproductive in the long run. Once the horse understands the half-halt, you will be able to improve his balance without compromising on energy and his desire to go forwards.
At the other end of the scale is the horse that doesn’t want to go forward. Here, you must be careful that you don’t override and push the horse out of his natural rhythm and balance, as this will only serve to put him more on his forehand.
- How to Get Your Horse In Front of the Leg
- How to Encourage Your Horse to Work More Forwards, But Not Faster
- How to Get a Good Rhythm
2 – Suppleness
Engagement is all about the horse’s ability and willingness to take more weight onto his hindquarters, making his forehand lighter and more mobile.
To create more engagement, the horse must have an increased pelvis tuck and extra bending of his hind leg joints. To do that, the horse must be supple through his topline and in the joints of his hind legs.
- How to Improve ‘Suppleness of the Joints’ for Dressage
- How to Improve Your Horse’s Longitudinal Suppleness
3 – Straightness
For the horse to be engaged, he must be straight. A straight horse will be able to take more weight on his hindquarters instead of swinging them out.
Also, in order for your horse to be truly supple over this back as per the previous point, again, he must be straight.
So, when the horse is moving along a straight line, his footfalls follow one track only. On curved lines and around circles, the horse’s hind legs precisely follow the track made by his front legs. And when moving laterally, the horse’s hind legs should follow the direction of movement and should never be displaced out from underneath the horse.
Questions to ask yourself first
Before beginning to improve your horse’s engagement, there are a few questions you need to ask yourself first.
1 – Are you sitting straight?
Just as the horse needs to be straight, so do you as the rider. So, first of all, make sure that you are sitting correctly in the saddle and that your aids are clear and well-timed.
Your horse can only respond to what you ask of him, so it’s your job to make sure that the horse understands what you want.
2 – Do you have an elastic contact?
When you generate more power from the horse’s hindquarters, he should move forward and upward with lighter shoulders, more elastic steps, and bigger, more expressive strides. But the horse will only be able to do that if you have an elastic contact.
If the rider’s hand is fixed and blocking, the horse will feel as though he is being ridden into a brick wall. This can create tension, a shortened neck, and evasion of the contact as the horse looks for ways to escape the increased pressure being placed on his mouth.
3 – Does your horse respond to the half-halt?
Your horse must understand and respond obediently to the half-halt before you can effectively increase the engagement.
Once the horse understands the half-halt, you can use it to help balance him, which will ultimately help you to develop the horse’s weight-carrying ability.
Exercises to increase engagement
Here are some excellent exercises for increasing engagement.
1 – Transitions
Every schooling session should include hundreds of transitions!
Every time you ride a correct transition, you’re helping to make the horse more uphill and better balanced.
Focus on the quality of the transitions and ride them diligently. Think carefully about your aids and feel how your horse responds.
For example, if you feel the hindquarters swing in during a transition, the horse won’t be able to take the weight behind. Similarly, if you feel the horse is not working through his back into a soft, elastic contact, he won’t be able to step through and make use of his hindlegs. It is up to you to identify this issues and adjust your aids accordingly to correct your horse and improve the effectiveness of the transition.
In the beginning, you’ll ride progressive transitions focusing on keeping the horse’s balance. As the horse becomes stronger and the components of engagement become more refined, you can then make the transitions more direct.
2 – Circles
Circles of different sizes are also extremely useful in developing more engagement.
Riding circles helps to develop suppleness through the back (longitudinally) and also side-to-side (laterally), as well as bringing the horse’s inside hind leg more underneath him so that he takes more weight on his hindquarters and becomes more engaged.
If you have a young horse or one that’s being retrained from another discipline such as racing, you’ll need to start by working him around large circles and turns. As the suppleness, bend, and balance improve, you can make the circles smaller, which in turn will develop more engagement.
3 – Lateral Work
Lateral exercises, such as shoulder-in and leg-yield, encourage the horse to step more underneath his body with his inside hind leg, helping him to take more weight onto his hindquarters and develop suppleness in the joints.
Lateral exercises also help to get the horse working more into the contact, improve straightness, and improve suppleness, too.
Also, if you have a “hot” horse that tends to run away with you, riding in shoulder-fore or shoulder-in can be an excellent way of controlling the essential forward movement without the horse losing his balance.
IMPORTANT: Take your time!
Improving your horse’s engagement is a gradual process that cannot be rushed. Your horse needs time to develop the necessary strength and balance that engagement requires.
The journey is also never-ending, and once you begin working on engagement, you will never finish. There is always room for improvement because you can never have too much.
When the horse is working with good engagement, he will feel loose through his back, his balance will be uphill, all the transitions will be smooth and balanced, and the steps will be elastic, through, and expressive.
To increase your horse’s engagement, work on a combination of correctly ridden transitions, circles, and lateral exercises all whilst making use of the half-halt.
The end result is a horse that will be more pleasurable to ride, easier to manoeuvre, and one that will stay sounder for longer.