For dressage, it’s essential that your horse works forward from your leg and with impulsion. However, some horses naturally have such big forward-bounding strides that they can be difficult to control and balance, especially in the confinement of a small dressage arena.
So, in this article, we explain how to control that power and put it to its best use.
Why is impulsion and ‘forward thought’ important in dressage?
The ultimate aim of the dressage rider is to create an equine athlete that works in a balanced, uphill cadence with expressive, elastic paces.
If the horse is not working forward from the rider’s leg, he is likely to trail his hind legs out behind him and simply run along on his forehand. The tempo may be too slow, and it will be impossible to connect the horse through a supple back to an elastic contact, round frame, and consistent balance.
If your horse is wanting to go forwards, even if the strides are a bit rough and unbalanced, then this is a great starting point.
- How to Get Your Horse In Front of the Leg
- How to Get Your Horse off His Forehand
- The Scales of Training: Scale 4 – Impulsion
Why is power desireable?
When you first place a rider on a horse’s back, he will naturally carry most of the weight on his front legs, thanks to his long neck, large head, and table-like body.
The dressage rider’s goal is to encourage the horse to shift that weight onto his hind legs and work in an uphill balance.
This functional posture enables the horse to lift his forehand and move more freely.
Think of a powerboat. When you increase the engine’s power, the stern comes lower in the water and the bow rises up out of the water. It’s the same principle with the dressage horse.
To do that, the horse must increase the impulsion and engagement of his hind legs. These powerful horses have some of the necessary qualities to do this, but their energy is a little misdirected.
Don’t slow down!
When a rider has a very powerful, forward-going horse, there is a temptation to slow the horse down in an attempt to control the energy.
Avoid this at all costs.
In the worst-case scenario, the rider ends up in a tug of war with the horse, this can lead to tension, create faults in the horse’s paces (e.g. the canter could become 4-beat, and the walk could become lateral), and kill the horse’s desire to go forward.
How to harness your horse’s power
So, you have your horse working forward, but if you don’t harness that power, he will simply run along on his forehand. That won’t get you very high marks in dressage and can also damage your horse’s front leg joints.
Some horses have a spectacular front-leg action without doing very much at all behind. Although that looks spectacular, a good dressage judge won’t be fooled! So, you need to contain and harness that power to utilize the horse’s “engine” correctly, which will make his movement even more impressive since he will demonstrate the same degree of movement behind as he does in the front.
But how do you harness the forward momentum and power you’ve created?
Essentially, you need to use a combination of exercises and aids to control and contain the power without stifling the horse.
When riding the half-halt, think of it as a collecting, balancing aid that you use to contain the power or thrust from behind.
Don’t think of slowing your horse down or stopping him from going forward when you ride the half-halt. Think of this as adjusting the balance and re-cycling the power into upward thrust.
The generic half-halt is ridden by using a combination of the hands, legs, and seat.
To connect your horse and harness the power he offers you, you need to use a half-halt that consists of three sets of aids:
1. Driving aids (using your seat and both legs)
2. Bending aids (using both legs and your inside rein)
3. The outside rein
Close both your calves against the horse’s sides, as though you’re squeezing toothpaste out of a tube. That should create a surge of power from behind.
At the same time, stop following the horse’s movement with your seat, as if you were about to ride a downward transition.
Now, close your outside hand into a fist that contains, captures, and recycles the energy back to the horse’s hind legs.
Finally, squeeze and release the inside rein to keep the horse’s neck straight. Your inside hand keeps the horse’s neck from getting bent to the outside since you’re keeping your outside hand closed.
Maintain the collecting half-halt for a brief moment until you feel the horse shift his weight back and lighten the forehand, even if this is only slight in the beginning. Then return to the passive, maintenance pressure of your leg and hand that you had in the beginning before the half-halt.
Transitions on a circle
Transitions are great exercises that can also be used to contain and control power, as well as helping to improve the horse’s overall balance.
If you have a powerful horse with big paces that tends to run away with you, you can use downward transitions to help steady the tempo and engage the horse’s hindquarters. That’s a much better tactic than simply pulling on the reins and trying to slow him down.
Slowing the horse down will simply kill the energy the horse is offering you and affect the balance and, potentially, the rhythm.
Ride the horse on a 20-meter circle in an active working trot. Be sure that the horse is working into your outside rein from your inside leg.
A 20-meter circle is helpful as it helps keep the horse bent around your inside leg, bringing his inside hind leg underneath him.
Maintain your outside rein contact to prevent the horse’s shoulder from sliding out as you ride the transition.
Use a half-halt to prepare the horse and to collect the power and energy and engage the horse’s hind legs before the transition.
As the horse makes the transition, keep your legs on. Sit deep in the saddle, holding the horse with your legs, back, and seat, and keeping your rein contact elastic and consistent.
As soon as the horse transitions into the walk, allow him to march freely forward, keeping your legs on.
Ride an upward transition back into a trot, and then repeat the exercise.
What not to do
When you have a horse with big forward-bounding strides that is yet to find its balance, it can be tempting to just ride around and around the area in the same pace and at the same tempo thinking that the horse will find its balance eventually.
More than likely, all this serves to do is string the horse out, making his strides longer and flatter, pushing more of his weight on the forehand, and making him less balanced.
Instead, use a combination of patterns and transitions together with the half-halt and re-direct the horse’s power back into his hindlegs to create more engagement and impulsion.
If you have a forward-going horse with big, expressive paces, it can be very difficult to balance him in the confined space of a dressage area.
Although it can be tempting to pull back on the reins to slow the horse down, avoid doing this at all costs as it can lead to tension, corrupt the horse’s natural paces, and leave you with no power to contain and collect.
The desire to go forward is a key aspect in dressage, so embrace this natural quality in your horse and put all that power to good use.