By: Pat Parelli
In dressage terms, impulsion usually refers to the forward driving power of the hindquarters. Reiners know impulsion is about responsive forwardness coupled with the equal desire to stop. Most recreational riders don’t think about it at all!
If your car kept getting faster and faster even after you’d taken your foot off the gas pedal, you’d say it was impulsive. There’s so much power and speed but you have to stomp on the brakes to make it slow down. If you pushed the gas pedal to the floor and very little happened, you would say it was non-responsive. Impulsion exists when you can press on the gas pedal and the car responds by moving forward at the appropriate speed, yet when you take your foot off, it decelerates. Impulsion, therefore, is controlled forward energy.
A horse that has more go than whoa is impulsive. A horse that has no go, and is all whoa, is non-responsive. A horse who has go and whoa equally, has impulsion. This means it takes less than four ounces [of pressure] to go, to whatever speed you want, and less than four ounces to stop, from whatever speed you are going.
No matter what kind of horse you have, you can enhance impulsion, or ruin it if you’re unconscious of how it works. The Harmony Program explores impulsion as one of its major ingredients. If you’re always having to hold your horse back a bit (or a lot!), or have to urge him to keep going, you cannot have harmony.
Long horses and short horses
Simply put, a ‘long’ horse is one that wants to run. He has more go than whoa. A ‘short’ horse would rather plod along, or if he runs, not go very far at all. He has more whoa than go. The naturally evolved, wild horse is neither long nor short: he has as much go as whoa. Over the years, man has genetically altered horses to suit his needs.
A way to understand the difference between long and short horses, is by their ‘flight distance’. This is the distance a wild horse will run before he turns to look back at the predator chasing him. It is approximately 440 yards, just a bit further than a lion who is able to run up to 400 yards at full speed. When the horse crosses the ‘flight line’ he turns around and looks back to reassess the situation. When the horse is fleeing, he’s not thinking, he’s using his ‘right brain’, the instinctive, reactive mode. As soon as he turns and disengages his hindquarters, the ‘left brain’ kicks in. This takes him back to the thinking mode, so he can decide what to do next, either take off again or relax because he’s safe. Every time you disengage a horse’s hindquarters, you cause him to cross the flight line – he’ll change from right brain to left brain. (This is why disengagement works so well in calming down an upset horse.)
Over the centuries the natural horse has been genetically altered for man’s purposes, to lengthen the flight distance (Arabian, Thoroughbred), or shorten it (Quarter Horse, Drafts, Warmbloods).
There is one other element that can affect the nature of your horse, and that’s his spirit level. Spirit is innate, it’s what a horse is born with. Some horses are high spirited, others medium spirited or low spirited. Spirit could be likened to a fuse: short fuse=high spirit, long fuse=low spirit.
Straight lines ‘lengthen’. Circles ‘shorten’. Therefore, if you have a short horse, use lots of straight, long lines to go somewhere to help him lengthen out. If you have a long horse, use lots of circles to help him get shorter. This is something to imprint into your brain, so when you’re feeling a little right brained in a situation with a difficult horse, you’ll know the proper thing to do!
Where most people get into trouble is by doing the exact wrong thing at the right time. For instance, a horse that is always prancing and raring to go should not be taken on long trail rides at a brisk pace, nor galloped until he is ‘tired’. It doesn’t work. The horse usually gets more revved up, you become more tired and frustrated, and he’s even worse the next time!
The opposite is true for the short horse. Being confined to arenas and corrals and just going around and around in mindless patterns and circles does nothing to motivate him into more action or expression!
A long horse, therefore, needs circles. The infinity of the circles takes away the motivation for running and the consistency helps him to move forward long enough in one mode that it becomes safe for him to begin thinking again. A short horse needs straight lines. It gives him a place to go, and sometimes you can add an incentive at the end of it, like a bucket of grain.
Get to know the Impulsion Programs (Clover Leaf, Bullseye, Point to Point, Corners Game, Trotting Game, Sideways Game and Backwards, Canter Trot Transitions) and which ones to use to solve the particular situation you have with your horse.