‘Needs more impulsion’ is a term that frequently appears on dressage scores sheets. However, when trying to create impulsion, many novice riders fall into the trap of simply making their horses go faster.
So, in this article, we take a look at impulsion within the dressage scales of training, discuss how much impulsion you should have, and give you tips on how and when to inject impulsion into your own horse.
Recap: The scales of training
The scales are designed to provide a systematic and logical framework for training the dressage horse.
There are six scales in total, and although there is the odd occasion when one can be skipped over to work on improving another, they’re meant to be approached in a set order, starting with rhythm and finishing with collection.
They are usually depicted as a pyramid, as illustrated below.
Impulsion with the scales of training
Impulsion is the fourth training scale and only becomes relevant and useful once the first three scales of rhythm, suppleness, and contact are fairly secure.
- The Scales of Training: Scale 1 – Rhythm
- The Scales of Training: Scale 2 – Suppleness
- The Scales of Training: Scale 3 – Contact
Asking for too much impulsion before scales one to three are established can cause problems, as the horse will not yet have the physical ability to manage a lot of impulsion without stiffening or coming against the hand.
In contrast, a bi-product of rhythm, suppleness, and contact is elasticity. If the horse has plenty of elasticity he will generate more energy but with bigger, rounder, higher strides, which will help create more impulsion and elevation.
Also, during those first three scales, the horse is developing an understanding of your driving aids and your restraining aids, and how to work between them. This then leads to the development of the half-halt which is an essential tool when it comes to developing impulsion.
We will cover how to create impulsion shortly, but first…
…what exactly is impulsion?
The FEI defines impulsion as:
“The transmission of controlled, propulsive energy generated from the hindquarters into the athletic movement of the eager horse. Its ultimate expression can be shown only through the horse’s soft and swinging back, and is guided by the gentle contact with the rider’s hand.”
There are a few key points in that definition that we want to break down.
1. “…controlled, propulsive energy…”
It’s important the energy that we create is controllable and, therefore, we must be able to contain it.
If we cannot contain and control the energy that we create, then we will be unable to direct that energy into producing expression, engagement, cadence, and school movements. The energy will no longer be a useful tool and, instead, it will turn into speed and tension.
2. “…shown only through the horse’s soft and swinging back…”
If the horse is tense and tight through the back, then correct impulsion cannot be achieved.
3. “…energy generated from the hindquarters…through the horse’s soft and swinging back…contact with the rider’s hand.”
The definition above describes energy flowing from the horse’s hindquarters, over the horse’s back, and into the contact, which references the energy circle (see below).
It’s within the energy circle where we create and contain the impulsion.
Impulsion and the energy circle
When working to achieve the first three training scales of rhythm, suppleness, and contact, you would have formed a connection with your horse known as the energy circle.
Within that circle, energy flows from:
- the horse’s active hind legs
- over a supple and swinging back
- arriving in the mouth as the horse seeks the bit
- traveling along the reins to the rider’s hands, where it may be modified to create movements, transitions, half-halts, etc.
- through the rider’s supple body and adhesive seat to
- the rider’s driving aids (legs)
…and then back into the activity of the horse’s hind legs. And so on it continues, round and round.
In other words, the horse works forwards in a good rhythm at a suitable tempo (scale 1) through a supple back (scale 2) and into the contact (scale 3).
To achieve the fourth scale of impulsion, we need to turn up the dial on the amount of energy that we have flowing through that circle. At the same time, we need to maintain the same rhythm and tempo, the horse’s relaxation and suppleness, along with a soft and elastic contact.
IMPULSION DOES NOT EQUAL SPEED!
One of the biggest misconceptions is that impulsion refers to speed, and this is what leads novice riders into kicking on and making their horses go faster. Sadly, all this does is push the horse out of a suitable rhythm and tempo, often causing him to lose his balance, fall onto the forehand, get tense and tight through his back, and/or come against the contact.
Instead, think of impulsion as referring to energy, or as we like to call it, “umph!”
How to create impulsion
As we’ve already covered, before you can start injecting your horse with more impulsion, it’s paramount that you have first achieved a fair degree of relaxation along with the first three training scales of rhythm, suppleness, and contact.
Secondly, you must have an understanding of the half-halt and your horse must have learned how to respond to the half-halt correctly i.e. by taking more weight on his hind legs. This is an essential tool in the development of correct and controllable impulsion.
Related Read: How to Ride a Half-Halt
Once you can tick those boxes, you can move on to the following steps and exercises.
Ride your horse onto a large 20-meter circle. The circle will help to keep the horse balanced and encourage him to step further underneath himself with his inside hind leg.
Next, use both of your legs equally at the girth and give your horse a forward-inward squeeze to create a surge of energy from the horse’s hind legs.
Once your horse has responded, let the legs have passively and sit still. Do not constantly squeeze or kick your horse repeatedly because this will quickly make him dead to the aid.
If the horse does not respond to your leg aid, first, make sure that your aiding was clear. If you still get no response then back up your leg aid with a tap from your schooling whip.
As you use your leg aid, you need to apply a containing half-halt so that the energy you created with your legs doesn’t escape out of the front door and turn into speed.
If you ask for more energy and activity without using the half-half to capture that energy, the horse will simply go into a faster tempo, often losing his balance and falling onto his forehand as he does so.
As soon as you’ve used your activating leg aid and a half-halt, you need to relax your aids and seat to allow the energy to come through the horse’s back from behind and for his hind legs to step further underneath, creating more pushing and carrying power.
Remember that the horse’s back must remain supple, so be careful that you don’t inadvertently grip with your knees or legs which could cause your horse’s back to tighten.
Keep repeating steps 1-3 to gradually increase the impulsion and create more “umph” and power in your horse’s strides.
This is not a case of kicking the horse forwards and keeping the handbrake on with an overly restrictive rein contact. It’s about increasing the amount of energy that is flowing through the energy circle and containing it within the active hind legs of the horse with the use of a well-ridden half-halt.
Only ask for small amounts of impulsion to begin with, and be aware of tension. If, at any point, you feel the horse getting tense, then abandon the exercise and re-establish the horse’s relaxation before beginning again.
You can’t just turn up the impulsion to the maximum volume overnight. It’s a gradual process that is developed over time, so don’t ask for too much too soon.
Along with riding through the steps set out above, here are a few exercises that will help you out on your quest for a greater amount of controllable impulsion.
All transitions, when ridden correctly, will be beneficial in the development of impulsion. However, one of the best exercises for this purpose is transitions within the paces, for example, working trot – medium trot – working trot. Here are the steps.
- Ride a 20-meter circle and establish a good working trot.
- Ride your horse forward into a medium trot. Focus on the horse lengthening the trot strides whilst keeping the tempo the same.
- After a few strides, use half-halts to shorten the trot gradually and then make four or five working/collected strides.
- Repeat the exercise several times before changing the rein.
The horse should become more elastic over his back, which will help to increase the moment of suspension and, therefore, produce more impulsion.
This exercise can also be ridden in canter.
If you have a horse with too much impulsion that gets tense and/or runs away with you, riding lateral movements can be an excellent way of controlling the essential forward movement and impulsion without the horse losing his balance.
It’s much more difficult for the horse to speed up and run forwards when he is moving sideways. This helps you prevent the energy from escaping and helps you to contain it on the horse’s hind legs.
All lateral movement will serve this purpose. You can also combine them with transitions and circles for additional benefits, for example, shoulder-in – 10-meter circle – medium trot – shoulder-in. Here are the steps.
- In trot, on the right rein, ride shoulder-in from K to E.
- At E, ride a 10-meter circle.
- Ride medium trot from E-H.
- At H, transition back to working trot.
- On the next long side of the arena, ride shoulder-in again from M and repeat the exercise a few times before changing the rein.
After a few times, you will find that your horse will start stepping underneath himself automatically. The result should be a more collected, elevated, expressive, and cadenced pace with maximum energy and lift.
How much impulsion should you have?
Impulsion comes in various amounts. You can have too little impulsion, too much impulsion, or just the right amount of impulsion.
Here are some indicators to help you decide how much more or less impulsion your horse needs.
Too little impulsion
If your horse is lacking in impulsion, then he will display the following:
- A lack of athleticism in the horse’s movement.
- Flat and un-elastic paces with little engagement.
- The rider will need to use obvious aids just to keep the horse going.
- The horse will be slow to respond to the rider’s aids.
- There will be difficulty in producing pace variations e.g. collection and extensions.
- The horse will struggle with lateral work and positioning.
Too much impulsion
Yes, it is possible to have too much!
Each horse has its own individual barometer when it comes to impulsion, which is based on its current level of training and temperament. If you ask the horse for more impulsion than what it can currently cope with, then he will display the following:
- Hurrying and/or inconsistent tempo.
- A short and tight neck.
- Contact issues, such as opening the mouth, tilting the head, head-shaking, and/or coming against the bit.
- The rider will also have difficulty with the controls and struggle to bend and position the horse correctly for school movements.
The correct amount of impulsion
Once you get the balance just right, the correct amount of impulsion will be displayed by the following results:
- Increased controllable power. This will allow the rider to produce a range of variations within the pace e.g. collection and extensions.
- Increase thrust. This increased spring off the ground in trot and canter will give more expression to the paces.
- A more pronounced rhythm to the paces. This, when combined with increased thrust, will produce cadence.
- A willingness and eagerness to obey the rider’s aid. This enables the use of lighter aids and creates a more harmonious partnership.
Impulsion is the ingredient that makes dressage exciting and easy to ride, just beware of focusing on it too early in the training.
The horse should always be forward-thinking and reactive to your driving aids but beware of pushing him for an inappropriate amount of impulsion before achieving those first three scales of rhythm, suppleness, and contact.
Always remember that impulsion does not equal speed. So when the dressage judge leaves a comment saying that ‘more impulsion is required,’ think of it as they want to see more energy flowing through the energy circle, not a quicker tempo.
For impulsion to be a useful tool, we must be able to contain and control the energy that our seat and legs have created. Only then can it be re-directed into producing more power, thrust, and cadence.
If you get the earlier stages right impulsion will be easy to add, and then your training will really take off!