Asking for impulsion before the previous 3 scales (rhythm, suppleness, contact) are established is a recipe for disaster. Only once your horse can maintain his rhythm, and is supple enough with a responsive contact, will his body physically be able to manage the demand for impulsion. If asked for before these training milestones are achieved, impulsion will only produce running, and not the controlled power of engaged hind quarters.
Too often, judges find themselves making the well-known comment: “Do not confuse speed with impulsion”, and yet many riders continue to do so.
So what 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 a gentle contact with the rider’s hand.”
In a nutshell, impulsion = power, but this only translates into a usable feature when your horse’s body is supple enough to permit the energy to flow through it, and comes with the controls you need to direct it.
Too much, and you may get:
- Loss of balance
- Short neck
- Contact issues
- A struggle to control and direct the power
Too little, and you may have:
- Flat, un-elastic paces
- Not tracking up
- A lack of athleticism
- Difficulty maintaining a consistent outline
- Slow response to aids
- Difficulty producing medium and extended paces
- A struggle with lateral work
- Obvious aids needed just to keep things going!
Components of Impulsion
- The most important criteria of impulsion is suspension (time in the air, not on the ground, although never exaggerated to the point of ‘hovering’), so only possible in trot, canter, and passage. Walk should have good activity, but cannot have impulsion
- Impulsion is about a desire to go forward with both propulsion and carriage (carrying power)
- Forward thinking. Forwardness is an attitude of mind (wanting to go) and as a result, swift reactions to driving aids. It CANNOT be produced by making a horse run faster, which causes the feet to come to the ground sooner, with smaller steps and loss of suspension, shortening and flattening the gaits
- Impulsion is produced from the hindquarters and transmitted forward to the bridle via a supple and swinging back to produce elastic and expressive movement, which the rider should find easy to sit
- For good quality impulsion, the hocks should move energetically up and forward immediately after the hooves leave the ground (sometimes called a ‘quick hind leg’), and not only upward, or backward, before moving forward
- Impulsion is a matter of training, although naturally active and quick hind legs make this easier. It is the rider’s job to add looseness, forward thrust, and suppleness to the horse’s natural gaits
- Over-track is essential, especially in medium and extended gaits where the tempo (scale #1) and suspension (scale #2) should also be well maintained
- Good impulsion is a prerequisite for straightening the horse prior to developing collection
Pre-requisites for impulsion
- The development of the first three scales: rhythm, suppleness, and contact
- A reasonable degree of balance as a result of training so far
- Freedom from tension/anxiety
- A supple back and neck, with no blockages, either physical or mental
- Understanding and acceptance of both the driving aids and the controlling aids
- Crisp and enthusiastic responses to the driving aids
- Relaxed acceptance of the bit, to enable controls and direction of the resulting power
- Conformation and natural movement will play a part in how easy or hard it is to develop this scale
How to develop impulsion
If you are at an appropriate point in your training to address impulsion, then the key points to work on are:
- Speeding up his reactions
- Check that upward transitions start clearly with the hind legs
- Check that following every transition, the first step of the new pace is the same size and speed as the rest – i.e. no trickling through slower steps down, or winding up to speed gradually in the upward
- Check that he does not slow down as you travel through corners and round circles, particularly small circles
- Check that he does not slow down in lateral work
- Ensure that your efforts do not cause him to lose the previous training scales – if they do, he may not yet be ready for this phase
- Ride plenty of transitions within the paces, being more focussed on the reaction in the transition than riding too many either bigger or smaller steps before making the next transition.
Energetic and lazy horses need different approaches
With an energetic horse:
- To prevent tension developing, in the short term you may need to reduce power and speed, i.e., make it ‘lazier’ so the power can be channelled without resorting to pulling on the reins
- Teach the horse to accept the leg aid with relaxation, not to over-react and run off – do not be reticent about putting your leg on, as riding with the legs constantly off can add to anxiety and he may be startled when he feels them.
With a lazier horse:
- You may need to be temporarily speed up to develop the pushing muscles and faster reactions, and to lose (in some horses) the ‘hovering’ or ‘dwelling’ of the pace that less experienced riders may misinterpret as suspension but is, in fact, a result of stiffness and tension in the back and hind leg, and resistance to the forward driving aids and contact
- Must be taught to react promptly to the driving aids
- Do not get caught in the habit of constantly using your legs just to keep going, as this dulls his reactions (and wears you out!)
Case study #1 – horse at Medium level, showing enough impulsion to produce both the lateral work and medium trot with ease and clear, though not yet pronounced, suspension.
Case study #2 – Preliminary level horse showing willingness, with rhythm and relaxation, but without a great deal of impulsion. As a result, his steps tend to drag, and he struggles to maintain a consistent outline.
Results of impulsion
- Power – ability to produce the range of variations within the paces
- Thrust – to increase the spring off the ground (only possible in trot and canter as walk has no moment of suspension)
- A more pronounced rhythm to the paces which combines with the increased suspension to produce CADENCE
- Ease of producing movements
- Ability to maintain rhythm and suspension in all work, especially lateral movements
- Willingness and eagerness to obey rider’s aids
- An impression of contained power
- Makes the horse exciting to watch and exhilarating to ride