The term ‘impulsion’ should not be confused with ‘speed.’ Rather, impulsion creates speed, power and balance.
“When a horse lacks impulsion, he will either feel sluggish and unresponsive, or tense and quick,” said Anne Gage, partnership trainer and owner of Confident Horsemanship. “His gaits will be stiff, rough and difficult for the rider to sit to. The horse will carry himself in a poor posture – hollow-backed and heavy on the forehand. He will pull himself forward with his front end, putting strain on his muscles, joints and skeleton.
“With impulsion, the horse has a willingness to go forward naturally. The rider feels herself being lifted as the energy flows forward through the horse’s relaxed and swinging back. There is power and energy in the horse’s movement. The front end lifts so the horse feels light in the rider’s hands.
“It is a push created from the engagement of the horse’s hindquarters in response to light leg aids from the rider. When the hindquarters are engaged, the horse’s hind legs step well underneath his body, lifting his back, with energy travelling through his neck, poll and jaw, and back to the rider’s hands. The rider can then contain or shape that energy with half halts.”
Equestrian Canada and AQHA judge Lindsay Grice said, “Riding a ‘light’ horse is like playing a musical instrument – a partner in tune with your every subtle request.”
She added, “Impulsion is about going forward with a loftier, more energetic stride, not a quicker stride, scrambling forward. The energy surge is channeled straight, maintaining a soft, round topline through the rider’s hand. You don’t have to manufacture the energy, the horse carries his own rhythm for several strides.”
“Impulsion is needed for smooth transitions, jumping, turns, collection, lengthening and self-carriage,” noted Anne.
Common Causes for Lack of Impulsion
Horses may have difficulty creating impulsion due to:
- lack of fitness – have not developed the correct muscles or posture
- lack of straightness, balance, suppleness or relaxation
- physical limitations – conformation, pain, low energy, weak hindquarters
- unresponsiveness to or uneducated about leg and seat aids
The rider can interfere with the horse’s ability to develop impulsion through:
- incorrect position – particularly riding behind the vertical
- tension or stiffness
- holding the reins tightly, too short, or without giving a release
- inconsistent or no contact
- busy hands
- over riding with too much leg or seat
Steps Toward Impulsion
Before impulsion can be achieved, a few building blocks must be in place.
“First, in order for the horse to be able to lift his back, lengthen and round his neck and soften his jaw, the rider must have a relaxed, supple and balanced position with an independent, following seat and consistent, light contact through soft hands,” said Anne. “The ability to use the half halt correctly is also important for containing the energy created through impulsion. Poor rider position, imbalance and tension create resistance, tension and poor posture in the horse.
“The horse must be relaxed and supple through his back, neck, poll and jaw, have freely moving legs, and be able to engage his hindquarters. He must be focused on the rider and responsive to quiet, light aids.”
Anne added, “Exercises such as leg-yielding, frequent transition, hill work and riding over ground poles or cavaletti help the horse develop the muscles necessary to engage the hindquarters and lift his back. This work should be introduced slowly to prevent overwork and causing the horse to become sore. (See Strengthening Exercises on page 34.)
Self-Carriage Begets Impulsion
Lindsay explained that to achieve impulsion, riders must encourage self-carriage in their horses, by providing clear aids, boundaries and well-timed release. “Picture your horse within an imaginary box,” she said. “If your leg represents the back of the box, your dull horse has likely become quite content to rest on it as he would on the butt bar of a trailer. When your horse stays inside the box, without you having to hold him there, that’s self-carriage – kind of like cruise control. He’s discovered, by trial and error, the box’s boundaries, encountering your aids when he makes an unauthorized change. For example, if he rushes forward, he’ll find rein contact. If he drifts to the inside, he’ll find your inside leg. If he loses rhythm he’ll feel your leg pressure sending him forward again.”
Lindsay laid out the following progression for dealing with a horse that is ‘dull’ to your aids, from a clear ask, to added pressure, to reward:
“Ask. Skilled riders are intentional about their communication. I ask riders to describe, for example, the cue they use for sending the horse forward. It usually takes several tries before they can spell out the exact location, amount and technique. We can’t blame a horse for not responding to a cue he doesn’t understand.
“Amplify. Horses tend to lean on boundaries without sufficient motivation not to. Habituating to riders’ aids can result in lack of impulsion or even behaviour problems.
“On a scale of one to 10, aim to start each request for more energy at the low end and increase it until you get a reaction without an overreaction. After you’ve made a reasonable, light cue, dial up the volume on the megaphone. How fast you go up the scale will depend on your horse’s temperament. A sensitive horse requires careful crescendo. For the dull horse, you may have to surprise him a bit to motivate him! If he’s dull, try a chasing action, lifting up your heel, a sharp kick or cluck to motivate a response. Turn up the volume until he surges forward from it and the instant he does, reward by releasing the pressure. Done correctly, after several repetitions, you will be able to refine the process until your signals become discreet.
“Our goal, ultimately, is to use the lightest of natural aid pressures to signal the boundaries of the box.
“When a horse begins to ignore those lighter pressures, a rider may choose an artificial aid, used as part of a logical system – light cue, stronger cue, artificial aid, reward.
“Spurs fortify the back or sides of the box, supplying motivation if your “go forward” or “move over” signal is ignored. If we make our request with correct technique and amount, it’s fair to escalate the signal with a stronger one if he doesn’t respond.
“Reward. Constant pressure is discouraging to a horse. A rider who pumps her upper body every stride of the canter or squeezes with every down phases of the posting trot sabotages impulsion. When that first surge attempt isn’t reinforced with freedom, her horse becomes desensitized and stops trying to find the right answer.
“Instead, catch your horse doing something right and reward it. Timing is everything. For every spurt of energy, immediately lower your heel, softening your leg to send him the ‘thank you’ message.”
If your horse is struggling with self-carriage, Anne suggests the following circle exercises to build strength and correct impulsion from the rear.
“It’s most effective to start these exercises at either walk or trot, on a large circle ensuring the horse is in the correct bend and stays aligned – nose lined up with the centre of his chest and hind legs tracking directly behind front legs – throughout the exercise.
“Encourage your horse to move off your leg into an active and forward walk or trot, and reward him for doing so. Allow your lower back, elbows and shoulders to soften and follow your horse’s movement. Any tension in your body will interfere with your horse’s ability to move forward freely and relax and lift his back.
“Gradually, spiral the circle smaller by moving your horse off your outside leg. Maintain his tempo, alignment and the correct bend by supporting with the outside rein and asking him to bend around your lower inside leg. Pulling on the inside rein to move him into the smaller circle will create resistance and crookedness. Once the circle is as small as you can comfortably make it without losing the forward energy, gradually leg yield back out onto the larger circle.
“As this exercise becomes easier, introduce repetitions of transitions on the larger circle. Depending on your horse’s level of fitness, you could start with walk/halt/walk transitions, walk/trot/walk transitions or trot/canter/trot transitions. Always start with an active, forward gait before asking for the next transition – eg. walk up to trot; trot up to canter.
“For example, working on walk/trot/walk transitions. Start with an active, forward walk. Transition to a trot. Trot for a few steps, no more than a quarter of the circle, while maintaining relaxation, forward energy, level posture, alignment and true bend. If any of these areas fall apart, correct them before asking for the next transition. Transition to walk again.
“Focusing on the quality of the transition rather than on the next gait is most important. A rushed, unbalanced transition or poor alignment or posture will not help the horse develop the relaxation, suppleness and muscles required to engage his hindquarters.”