Welcome to our training series, Three Takes on Training, featuring training tips and exercises from Canada’s top trainers. Follow this series as we take you through the basic fundamentals of horse training and see how different disciplines share common training principles.
By Jess Hallas-Kilcoyne
“Impulsion is the desire to move forward with more energy than is required to just ‘go forward,’” says Karen Brain, a former international level eventer and Equine Canada Level 2 Coach. “It’s an eagerness of energy being offered by the horse within each step while still in easy control of the rider.”
Dressage coach, trainer, and FEI level competitor Karen Pavicic describes that energy as a cycle that is generated by the rider’s legs and flows through the horse’s body into the rider’s hand. “A horse moving with impulsion will be relaxed, swinging through the back, and attentive to the rider,” she says.
“Impulsion is the motion that comes from a horse’s hindquarters and back,” says Jonathan Newnham, a top reining and Western pleasure rider and trainer. “A hollow-backed horse will not be soft on your hands and/or legs without the maximum use of his hind end, back, withers, and neck.”
The question follows: how do we encourage our horses toward this “maximum use”? How do we create a horse that swings through the back, a horse that demonstrates “eagerness of energy”?
Three top Canadian trainers, Karen Brain (jumping), Karen Pavicic (dressage), and Jonathan Newnham (reining) show you how to improve your horse’s impulsion with the following exercises.
EXERCISES FOR JUMPING HORSES
During the course of her eventing career, Karen Brain trained with such coaches as Olympian Nick Holmes-Smith, represented Canada in the 1998 World Equestrian Games in Rome, Italy, and was shortlisted for the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games until her horse became unsound. After a fall in 2001 left her an incomplete paraplegic, Karen took up dressage and won individual and team bronze medals in the 2004 Paralympic Games and finished tenth individually in the 2008 Paralympic Games. Now an Equine Canada Level 2 Coach based in Victoria, BC, Karen focuses on teaching lessons in jumping and dressage. Visit www.karenbrain.ca for more information.
Photo: Robin Duncan Photography
A horse jumping with impulsion will exhibit square, tight knees, proper use of the neck with his nose in front of the vertical, upright balance through the body, a keen, enthusiastic expression, and the appearance of momentum through the air.
“Impulsion is what makes the best hunter jump beautifully round with square knees, the jumper explode on take-off on a steep angle over a square oxer with a foot of air to spare, and the eventer to gallop through the up-bank bounces coming out of the water complex with an abundance of energy while being tight with his knees,” says Karen Brain.
“A ‘flat’ horse who moves without impulsion has limited scope in his stride and minimal to no engagement, and won’t be able to jump clean,” she continues. But, she points out, “a jump horse without impulsion has more serious consequences; rails down, stopping, and bad judgement on take-off can result in an accident. For the rider, jumping without impulsion can be likened to driving your car through Death Valley in the summer with only half a tank of gas, hoping you don’t run out. Jumping with impulsion is like having a full tank of gas in your hybrid and only driving to the corner grocer. The former makes you feel unsafe and vulnerable, while the latter provides you with a sense of security and confidence.”
Both of the rider’s legs, and sometimes the seat, create impulsion. “Your outside leg activates the horse’s outside hind leg,” says Brain. “Your inside leg equally balances the drive of the outside leg to also direct the inside hind leg and create the same desire to push or thrust.”
A horse jumping without impulsion often demonstrates the low-hanging knees (as in photo) associated with over-jumping, low shoulders, a flat back, and a laboured, unconfident expression. A lengthening appearance in the air is also indicative of a flat, unadjustable stride on take-off.
Brain’s Figure-8 Exercise helps develop the horse’s natural impulsion and shows the rider how to gage the need for impulsion, and how to create impulsion when the horse does not automatically offer it.
Jumping Exercise #1: Figure-8
Set up the five bounce uneven verticals on the 25-metre circle, the two square oxers on opposing diagonals, and the cavaletti or low vertical at the far end of the ring as shown in Figure-8 exercise diagram. The uneven verticals should be set with the outside of the rail set higher than the inside, which can either rest on the ground or be set to the lowest hole on the inside jump standard.
Beginning with the bounces, ride a figure of eight over the jumps, and after each obstacle ask yourself the following questions: Can I sit quietly, letting my horse carry me with his current stride to the next jump? Or, has my horse lost his impulsion and now I need to recreate the impulsion before the next jump?
Jumping Exercise #1: Figure-8 over Fences
Enter the Figure-8 with the bounces. “Develop the canter lead of your choice on the 25-metre circle, riding outside the bounce jumps until you feel you have established the correct step and impulsion required for the exercise,” Brain instructs. Then, ride through the bounces, aiming for the centre of each uneven vertical.
“Does your horse slow down through the bounces?” asks Brain. “Does he have to reach toward the last couple of bounces? Does he try drifting to the inside toward the shorter distance and the lower height? These are all indicative of a loss of impulsion.”
“Ideally, your horse will maintain the ‘jump’ in his canter stride after the bounces and you can just steer him down to the first oxer,” Brain says. “If the canter stride becomes short and flat or long and strung out, you’ll need to use your half halts combined with your driving aids to recreate your horse’s impulsion.”
After the first oxer, reevaluate your horse’s impulsion and adjust if necessary through the turn to the cavaletti. “The cavaletti’s purpose is to provide the rider with a focal point to ride to, and a jump effort, however small, which enforces the need to maintain control of the step and the impulsion within the step,” explains Brain.
“The flow to the second square oxer should be just that – flow,” she continues. “You should feel a round, active stride with a comfortable press into the bridle from the horse signifying his desire to go forward and jump, while allowing the rider to control his step.”
On landing, reevaluate your horse’s impulsion before riding through the bounces again. “The purpose of constant reevaluation is to remember that your horse is always providing you with valuable feedback,” says Brain.
The Figure-8 exercise can be modified to suit young horses or novice riders by lowering the height of the bounces, removing one or two of the bounces altogether, turning the square oxers into cross-rail oxers, or trotting into the bounces (in which case the distance between the bounces should be shortened to nine to ten feet).
The exercise can also be adjusted for more experienced horses and riders by riding through the bounces on the inside or outside tracks (requiring shortened or lengthened strides), raising the outside end of the rail on the uneven vertical bounces (raising the height also tightens the set distances which requires better balance and impulsion), and raising or widening the square oxers.
EXERCISES FOR DRESSAGE HORSES
Photo: Genia Ply Photography
Karen Pavicic is a National Coaching Certification Program Level III dressage coach who trains at Centre Line Stables in Richmond, BC. She has successfully trained numerous horses to the FEI level and won many accomplishments in national and international competition. Highlighting Karen’s 20-plus year career at the international level is her nine years as a member of the Canadian Equestrian Team, during which time she was a member of the Canadian silver medal-winning team at the 2007 Pan American Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Karen continues to train and compete, representing Canada in the international dressage arena riding Don Daiquiri, co-owned by Jayne Essig, and London Z, co-owned by Lynda Hol. Visit www.centrelinestables.com for more information.
Impulsion is all about energy. “It is not possible to shape energy that you do not have, so riding your horse actively forward is essential,” says Karen Pavicic. But, she is quick to note, “Forward does not mean fast!”
Photo: Sheri Scott
Forward does not mean fast! here, Karen and Don Daiquiri demonstrate the true impulsion that comes from the activation and engagement of the hind legs.
“Impulsion means that the horse has more carrying weight on the hind legs,” she explains. “The rider’s leg activates the horse’s hind legs to track up underneath his centre of gravity to better carry the weight of the rider. The cycle of energy flows from the horse’s hind legs stepping under, then up over the back, through the neck, poll, and mouth, and into the rider’s hands. The energy is then contained or shaped with the use of half halts.”
The ultimate goal is that the horse learns to move with impulsion on his own, but in the beginning, the rider will need to repeat the process of initiating the energy cycle, allowing the horse to carry himself in between. “The length of time that the horse is able to carry himself should gradually increase,” Pavicic says.
Strengthening exercises, such as riding over ground poles or cavaletti and hill work, develop the hindquarters, making it easier for the horse to move with impulsion. Be sure to introduce this work gradually to avoid overworking the horse and making him sore. Exercises that engage the hindquarters, such as leg-yielding and frequent transitions, are also excellent for developing impulsion.
Dressage Exercise #1: Frequent Transitions
Beginning in a forward, active working trot, ride a transition to walk, walk for two to three steps, and promptly trot on again. Similarly, in canter, ask for a downward transition and ride two to three steps in trot before picking up your canter again. When riding canter-trot-canter transitions, always maintain the canter for at least half a circle before riding another transition to trot.
Photo: Christina Handley, www.ChristinaHandley.com
Impulsion is about the cycle of energy flowing from the horse's hind legs stepping under, up over the back, through the neck, poll, and mouth, and into the rider's hands.
“Transitions are my favourite way to increase impulsion,” says Pavicic. “Repeating transitions multiple times fairly close together results in a better response to the rider’s leg and hand, thereby increasing [the horse’s] engagement.”
“Some horses will respond quite quickly when you start riding the transitions closer together, and that can lead to the horse anticipating the transition,” she warns. “If the horse starts to get tense or nervous, regroup, reestablish your rhythm, and start again making sure the horse is relaxed, swinging through the back, and attentive to the rider.”
Don’t forget about the importance of rider position when it comes to developing your horse’s impulsion. “I often see riders sitting behind the vertical to try to increase impulsion,” says Pavicic, “but this prevents the horse from being able to lift his back and use his hind legs correctly.” Without a soft, centered seat for the horse’s back to come up into, the cycle of energy is interrupted.
If you have any doubts over whether your horse is moving forward with impulsion or just rushing, check with Pavicic’s Counting over the Cavaletti exercise.
Dressage Exercise #2: Counting over the Cavaletti
Place two cavaletti, or ground poles, about 40 metres apart (the precise distance is not overly important) down the long side of the ring. Ride over the cavaletti in a working trot or canter, counting the number of strides your horse takes in between. The next time around, ride over the cavaletti in lengthened trot or canter, and count the strides again.
“You can also count the strides between two letters in a dressage ring,” says Pavicic. “If the horse is truly lengthening his stride, the number of strides will be fewer.”
If the strides are not fewer, your horse is likely moving faster rather than with impulsion. “Going faster means that the horse will take short, quick strides because the weight is on the forehand,” Pavicic says. “When the horse has impulsion, the strides are actually longer and he gets more air time. He’s transferring that energy forward in a more positive way.”
“The engagement and propulsion of the hind legs creates suspension in the stride and increases the lightness of the shoulders, thus enabling the horse to lengthen his stride,” she continues. “Impulsion refers to the thrust of the hind legs and the more thrust the horse has, the better the horse will be able to do a lengthened stride. Then, later on, the medium and extended gaits are developed out of the lengthened stride.”
EXERCISES FOR REINING HORSES
Jonathan Newnham lives in Hagersville, Ontario, and operates an elite show horse facility in Brantford, Ontario, specializing in Western events. Jonathan’s program focuses on open and non-pro/amateur riders and horses, and, showing in Canada and the USA, he consistently produces champions and top contenders at AQHA and NRHA futurities and events. For more training and showing information, visit www.jonathannewnham.com.
“All reining horses must go forward powerfully,” says Jonathan Newnham. “Good impulsion is necessary for a horse to effectively use the power in his hindquarters and back.”
The reining horse channels that power in a number of ways. “In a spin, the horse must always be pushing forward, keeping his pivot leg still while his front legs go forward and cross over,” Newnham says. “If a horse does not go forward, he will not plant his hind pivot leg and his front legs will get tangled, his back will hollow out, his neck will come up, and he will come off the bridle and the rider’s legs.”
Even in the backup, the horse must have forward impulsion, although that impulsion is then channeled in a reverse motion. “When you’re backing up a horse, you don’t want him backing off the front end,” explains Newnham. As in the spin that lacks impulsion, in the backup, “if he just pushes with his front end, eventually he’s just going to hollow his back and lift his head up, and then he won’t back up at all. When you go to back a horse up and he lies on the bridle and won’t go anywhere, it’s because his front end is resisting and his hind end is doing nothing.”
Photo: Robin Duncan Photography
Pushing the horse's hip into the circle and squeezing rhythmically with your outside lower leg will ensure that your lope maintains a regular, three-beat rhythm.
“What you want,” he continues, “is for him to round his back, use his hind end, but still keep his shoulders up while backing up. Once you get his hind end pushing backward, his front end will be up and gently stepping backward following the hind end.”
Similarly, in the run-down to a stop, the horse must be moving with adequate impulsion that, when he stops, he is able to plant his hind legs and allow that impulsion to fold and lift his back up as his front legs walk through. In order to accomplish this while remaining soft on the bridle and with little or no leg contact, the reining horse must learn to lift his back and push with his hind end in response to the rider’s aids.
Reining Exercise #1: Establish a Frame
Choose gear that will establish and maintain your horse’s attention during the exercise. “I select a bridle and spurs that make my horse soft in the face without scaring or intimidating him,” Newnham says.
Then, pick up a jog and within the first two strides, you should expect the horse to break at the poll and withers while you squeeze with both calves to ask him to round his back. As each front leg lands on the ground, gently bump on his face with the rein and tap your legs against his belly to encourage him to lift his back even more and push with his hind end. His face should be tipped in the direction you are going.
“When the horse can hold this frame and his rhythm doing large (80 feet in diameter) and small (30 feet in diameter) circles, I then ride large and small figure eights,” says Newnham, “gradually increasing the pace and sitting deep.”
When you feel that your horse maintains the same frame while staying soft in the face, relaxed, and using his hind end, move on to Newnham’s next exercise, the Counter Canter Figure-8.
Reining Exercise #2: Counter Canter Figure-8
Reining Exercise #2: Counter Canter Figure-8
Ask your horse to lope on the left lead in a large circle and make sure he is correctly positioned on the circle line so he can lope in a true three-beat gait with maximum power and impulsion.
Each time your horse’s left (inside) front hits the ground and his right (outside) hind is at full extension, squeeze your right lower leg with moderate pressure to ask your horse to push his hip into the circle.
“The result is that the horse will be canted inward and his right hind leg will land in the same spot as his left front leg, allowing him to move with impulsion,” says Newnham.
Then, ask the horse to counter canter in a figure eight, making the pattern as large as the arena will allow. Your right leg should be placed back a little bit toward the horse’s hip, as opposed to hanging straight down, and should maintain a constant pressure on the ribcage. With your left leg, gently bump the horse’s ribcage up near the shoulder on every other stride as the horse’s left front hits the ground.
As you finish the counter canter circle and approach the centre of the figure eight, release your hands and gently cue the horse with your right leg only to close the circle on the correct lead.
“This exercise will create a soft, collected horse that is able to use his hind end and front shoulders in unison to perform the task at hand,” Newnham says.
There is no set speed for either reining exercise. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re going fast or slow,” Newnham explains. “Speed does not create impulsion – impulsion creates speed, balance, and power. Every horse has a different cadence at which he carries himself most effectively. Knowing your horse, his temperament, and his capabilities, along with consistent training, will help prepare him to move with good impulsion.”
Main Article Photo courtesy of Troxel.
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