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The German Training Scale Part 4

By Hardy Zantke

Impulsion and Engagement

In previous issues, we covered the first three items of the German Training Scale:

so now we come to

After we have climbed together the previous steps of the training scale, hopefully successfully with our horse, we now should have a horse that moves rhythmically and regularly, free and with relaxation, accepts the bit, and is seeking the contact. So our first three steps are accomplished; our foundation is laid, and now we have the tools available to work further. Now, we want to develop with that some SCHWUNG, some Impulsion and Engagement. Literally translated, SCHWUNG means “swing,” but not so much as in the free swinging of the legs, which a horse has already when he just trots relaxed, but more like the swing a golfer takes when he swings his club and hits the ball. There is great energy in his swing, great forward-moving force. We now want to create that energy, that force, which we call Impulsion, in our horse.

In our dressage tests, this is called for in the second item under the “Collective Remarks,” where it shows under Impulsion a few items that will help us understand the concept: “desire to move forward.” The horse must show that desire, not the driver! So if your horse is lazy and not willingly going forward on his own, then he has no impulsion. On the other hand, if you have a very hot horse, which you have a hard time holding him back, yes, then there you have a lot of “desire to move forward” so that requirement would be met by a hot horse. However, there is more: “elasticity of steps.” What is meant by that? Ideally, the horse should move like on Cloud Nine; he should just float along, as if barely touching the ground and not pounding every step into the ground. Ideally such a horse would show great “suspension,” a moment in between each stride in which all feet are in the air and none is touching the ground. If he does that, then he is “floating” and on Cloud Nine (and we, too, with pride). So, if the horse just has great “desire to move forward” and we have a tough time keeping him from running away with us, well, then surely he will not have great elasticity of steps; and from the previous chapter, we remember that if we have to fight to keep him from running away, we certainly would not have “soft” contact. But there is more to elasticity of steps than just suspension. Even a horse that has no great suspension can have elasticity of steps, if all his joints are moving freely in rhythm and harmony, swinging nicely—again, moving like a dancer. The next item asked for is relaxation of back, and so we go back to our second chapter, which was on relaxation, and there it becomes very clear now that a very hot horse, while having great desire to move forward and with that looking like he has lots of impulsion, will not have his back relaxed but will be very tense. And, finally, we have “engagement of hindquarters,” which is perhaps the hardest of these concepts to understand, so we will need to get a bit deeper into this.

The “engine” of the horse is in his hindquarters. That is where he has the strongest muscles, and that is from where the forward thrust and force must come. Most of you probably have heard the phrase “that horse is too much on the forehand.” What is meant by that is that, basically, the horse uses the energy of his forelegs and pulls the rest of his body behind, the hindquarters not engaged, as if the front end is a tractor pulling his hind end like a trailer behind. But since his hind end has all the muscles, we want it the other way around; we want him to use his hind end with all those muscles to not pull his body with his front legs, but to push his body forward with his hind legs, which should “dig in” and do the work. But for that, we must engage the engine, throw it into gear, step on the gas pedal, and then contain the energy.

Let me try to explain it with some pictures. When we were young males, we tried to impress each other and females with our cars (so now we do it with our horses). So we were sitting at a red traffic light next to each other and were ready to move off when the light changed to green, like drag racers. We would keep one foot on the brake, and with the other, start pushing the gas pedal so the engine would run up; but since we kept the brake on, the car could not move yet so the drive shaft to the rear axle would pull it down behind, the car would hunker down, building up all this energy inside, ready to shoot forward the moment our foot came off the brake. (I am not talking about front-wheel drives here, OK?) Actually, in my days, it was even a bit more involved, as we also still had to work the clutch, but the effect was the same, right foot on the gas, pushing that gas pedal, and keeping the other side of the same foot on the brake pedal, also pressing that down firmly so the car would not move yet, and then the left foot carefully letting the clutch come ever so slightly, so that the engine started to engage; and with that, also the hind end of the car would hunker down, ready to shoot forward the moment the light changed to green, and we would let the clutch and brake come and press down fully on the gas: Right, guys, you all remember that? Then, we had our engines engaged, and up to the moment that we shot off and forward, we were containing all the energy that the engine already produced, we were collecting energy to have it at our ready use the moment the light turned green.

We had built up great desire to move forward, and the car hunkered down in the back because that is where the energy was being contained right on that rear axle, ready where the rubber hit the road. And, really, we want to do this now, a bit similar with our horse, only a bit more carefully; after all, in our engine, we had many horsepower (32 in my VW then), where as our horse only has one (or four if you are driving a team). But as we needed to feel our clutch carefully, we need to do the same with our horse. Our clutch (and brake) is in our reins; with those, we contain that energy. Our gas pedal is in our forward-driving aids, our voice and whip, all of our aids to be applied very carefully, as our horse is a living being and wants to be handled in harmony, not like a tough drag racing machine; rather like a delicate antique car. So no beating him up or yelling at him, just a careful cluck here and there and a careful touch with the whip should be all that is necessary to encourage him to use his desire to move forward and then contain it a little with the contact in front through the reins. So, ask him to move forward and keep a little of that energy in your hand; collect it there. Do that in each corner of the dressage arena, where we said before to give him a little more support by a little more contact, so that then, when you go straight again, you can use some of that energy that you collected in the corner, release a little, and then go forward with great energy and engagement, especially so when going into the extension on the diagonal.

And, as our car hunkered down behind when we built up that energy, we want our horse also to use that engine behind; ultimately, we also want him to “hunker down” there a bit, but we will come to that when we reach “collection” because, that is really the ultimate goal in this. Then, in the collection we have the ultimate impulsion. But we are not there yet. We are just starting on that road. When the horse uses his hind end, we want the hind legs, his loins, to “coil” a little, like springs coiling and pressing together, so that on release, they can be “springy” with energy. After all, a compressed spring has a lot of contained energy that will be released as soon as we let go of it. Accordingly, we want our horse to compress his hind legs and then release the energy for great forward propulsion, thrust, the swing of the golf club.

Now, for those who are less inclined to follow my car example, let me try to explain this with another picture—the garden-hose example. When I water the garden with a hose, and I put my thumb on the opening, the water pressure builds up behind it; that pressure is energy, and if I keep my thumb tight on it and enough pressure builds up, then the hose starts to coil as well. When I release just a little of that with my thumb on the hose opening, then I can use that built-up energy and spray for quite a distance across the lawn as I have all that built-up energy at my disposal, and then I have a nice arch of water. But when I take my thumb off completely, the water just gushes out at my feet; there is no pressure built up, no energy, and I just get a big puddle at my feet. So similarly, we need to build up that energy in the horse and then keep some contact (that thumb on the hose) in front, then we can use the energy, the horse gets round, flexes at the poll, shifts some of his weight behind, uses his rear end, and goes forward with greater thrust and sparkles. If we let go of the contact, he will stretch after it, but with that stretch all the energy will gush out and be gone. We also will talk more about this when we come to the chapter about collection.

Naturally, in both my examples, there must first be the desire to go forward, the gas pedal, or the water pressure coming from behind. If that is lacking, well then with the foot on the brake, or the thumb on the hose, all we will get is nothing, no energy build-up. So desire to go forward must be there first. Also, when we go back to our last chapter, seeking the contact, naturally that will also only happen if the horse has the desire to go forward. If he is lazy and hangs back, there will not be any seeking the contact and no forward energy that we can collect with which we can build thrust, and thus no impulsion.

It is all interrelated: Finding that careful balance that we talked about in the last chapter. Too much desire to go forward will create tension, and we will not have any relaxation and no free “dancing.” Too little desire to go forward, and all we will have is a lazy horse. We can help the horse a little with our forward-pushing aids, voice and whip, but he also must be ready to volunteer his energy; he must be willing to cooperate with us. We cannot force this. He must be as in all of our work, our willing partner, we being the leader, but he providing the labor. As the professional trainer Jeff Morse explained it so nicely, it must be a proper division of labor and management—the horse providing labor, and we, management. And only when labor and management are operating in harmony with each other, and each taking care of his part properly, can we have a good result. When we take over part of the Labor (carrying his head for example when the horse leans on us), or when the horse takes over part of management (making his decision where or when to go) then in both instances the end result will not be proper. But proper division of the job does not mean that management just gives labor a command and then leaves it up to labor to do the job, while management rests in the executive suite. Management must stay with labor through the job, every step of the way, providing help and guidance through the reins. Naturally, this does not only concern this chapter on impulsion, but our entire relationship.

But let’s go back to impulsion and take a look into the ADS Rule Book, as we have also done in the previous chapters, to see the requirements there. Again, we look into Part V, the pink pages with the Rules for Dressage Competitions, which really apply likewise for any dressage test in Combined Driving Events; only the pink pages explain dressage more in depth. We had quoted Article 97 already before. Under (b)3, we find as one of our goals: “The lightness of the forehand and the engagement of the hindquarters, originating in a lively impulsion.” And under item (e): “Because the horse has impulsion and is free from resistance he will obey without hesitation and respond to the various aids calmly and with precision.”

We will note that under Article 99, which explains the walk, we do not find impulsion mentioned at all! The reason is that although we want a forward-marching walk, like a good soldier, still that does not mean that there is any real impulsion in the walk because at the walk we will not have any suspension, none of the springy coiling action of the hindquarters, none of the swinging back—all these are part of impulsion, and all these criteria are not possible at the walk. So yes, we still want to have desire to move forward at the walk; we want to march, but that is not impulsion. We can have impulsion only at the trot and at the canter, when the horse pushes off with great energy from the ground with his hind feet, coiling his loins, with a relaxed back and soft contact. The hocks need to be carried well-forward under the body to carry the weight of the hindquarters. They need to come up and forward with great energy, propelling the horse forward. If the hocks only go up and down or even are left behind, then we do not have impulsion. The up and down movement without the forward reach usually is a sign of a tense back, a sewing machine action, which will not give us impulsion. The feet should move like riding a bicycle, coming up behind and reaching forward to the front. But if the horse has too much desire to go forward and goes too fast, then he rushes, and we do not have suspension anymore as he rushes forward and puts his feet down faster, not remaining in the air for any suspension. That is also not real impulsion. That is running, not dancing. The same, of course, happens when we ask him to go too fast, so trying to get more impulsion does not mean to drive faster, not more speed, not a quicker rhythm. All that would not get us any engagement.

Accordingly, in Article 100 where the trot is explained, the rule book looks for suspension: “elasticity of steps originating from a supple back and well-engaged hindquarters. In the collected trot the horse is expected to move with more impulsion and engagement than in the working trot.” So we see, we are building the foundation here of what we will need more of later when we come to collection two chapters further in our Training Scale. So a lot of what we say in this chapter will apply even more so in that chapter. “Therefore, his haunches must be more compressed, his loins more strongly coiled…” Under working trot, we find: “A regular and unconstrained trot, in which a horse, even if not yet trained and ready for collected movements, shows himself properly balanced and remaining on the bit, goes forward with even elastic steps and good hock action. The expression good hock action, here means a free and energetic forward swing of the hind legs with hocks brought well-forward underneath the horse’s body, aiding in his free forward movement.” The “bicycle” movement! Under extended trot we find: “He lengthens his step to the utmost as a result of great impulsion from the hindquarters.” So we see that we need the most impulsion in both the collected as well as the extended trot, while in the working trot a moderate amount of impulsion is sufficient. So collection and extension have that in common, utmost impulsion; and with that, we now also realize that extension is not running fast, the same as collection is not just trotting slowly. The impulsion is what makes it collected and extended! It takes a great amount of time to build up more impulsion in the horse as he must learn to use his body properly for it, and like a good athlete, he needs to build up his muscles for it. Accordingly we have extensions and collections only in the higher-level dressage tests, collection above intermediate level, and extension only in the advanced level; whereas, in training level we only have working trot and do not expect much impulsion yet. On preliminary level, we want to see a little more impulsion and have the lengthened trot but not yet an extended trot. As the lengthened walk is a long stretched walk, thus the lengthened trot also does not need the impulsion of an extended trot but has the stretching element for which less impulsion is sufficient.

But not only in our dressage rules do we find the need for impulsion. Our pleasure driving rules really have it similarly. Article 28 requires under slow trot: “The horse should maintain forward impulsion...” Under working trot it says: “…engaging the hind legs with good hock action…” and also, “The degree of energy and impulsion ...denotes clearly the degree of suppleness and balance of the horses.” So running fast and strong against the bit is not supple and balanced and thus not impulsion! And under our CDE rules Article 2035.1 states: “The object of the dressage test is to judge the freedom, regularity of paces, harmony, impulsion, suppleness, lightness, ease of movement and correct bending of the horses/ponies on the move.” Article 2041 describing the movements requires under Collected Trot: “…the hocks being well-engaged. Impulsion is maintained…” For working trot: “The horses/ponies must go forward freely, unconstrained and balanced, engaging the hind legs with good hock action and maintaining impulsion on a light rein.” Under extended trot: “…with greater impulsion from the quarters…” So we see throughout our rule book, impulsion is required at the trot!

So now we know that impulsion is required and that we get it through engagement, which ultimately should result in the lowering of the croup which then lightens the forehand as the center of gravity of the horse shifts backwards. All of this takes a long time—usually years of proper and correct training—and during our daily training, the minimal results are often hardly noticeable. However, if we understand properly our goal, then we have a much better chance of making some progress towards it. But our horse must also understand what we want him to do. Otherwise we only get a tense horse. We cannot simply push from behind and hold in front. The horse could become very frustrated, being asked to go forward and then be kept back. We could get the opposite effect; his center of gravity would not shift back, instead when he leans on the bit and we hold too much, the front end will get even heavier. So we must be soft with our hand, helping him with give and take, watching him carefully and encouraging him each time he gets it right.

In our next issues we will cover the last three items:

including Bending
including Roundness
including Confidence

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