My horse, Lily, and I have been investigating the concept of impulsion. This word is part of the “Training Scale” and seems to have different meanings to different people. It is possibly one of the most disputed terms alongside “On the Bit”.
So, beginning on this journey, I have taken a deep dive into the interpretation. I am not wrapped up in FEI Dressage and therefore what is judged in that discipline does not have any particular allure to me. My focus is on training a working and pleasure horse that is nice to ride and uses their body musculature and movement in a way that is beneficial. In Working Equitation impulsion is also judged. My confusion in the term really came from the departure between the FEI Dressage concept of suspension as the interpretation of impulsion and the more literal concept in Working Equitation dressage somewhat more aligned to thrust. In the latter dressage definition it is described as the “desire to move forward, elasticity of steps, suppleness of back, engagement of hindquarters.”
Previously, I have used the word “spring” to describe impulsion. This may be one interpretation under the suspension concept but I’m now revisiting the use of that word as perhaps being too narrow. Literally in English, an impulse is a thrust, a push; a sudden force that impels, an induced motion. It implies that the stored energy (which is also gathered in suspension) is used to provide the thrust of the motion.
Now the big question. Can you have impulsion in walk?
Nuno Oliviera says that impulsion is necessary at all gaits. The German Training Scale implies that it is only present at the suspensory gaits, trot and canter.
“If your horse goes from walk to trot without changing the head and neck position, the walk had good impulsion.”Nuno Oliviera
Looking from a perspective that is not a judging concept, it would seem that walk can have impulsion. We want the thrust to be carrying rather than just pushing, and therefore in an upwards forward direction. Walk steps can store energy and have a variable thrust power.
Is “power” a good idea to carry around in regards to impulsion?
The limited exposure that I have had to a feel of “impulsion” or my idea of “power” is recognisable in the walk. It also then seems to translate into the upper gaits. To me, at walk it feels more bouncy. That does give an idea of springs and suspension, but more like the suspension on a vehicle that is dissipating the energy rather than taking off into flight. On a horse that energy seems to be moved into the back and wither area. Classical concepts suggest that the energy goes through the riders body as well as into the neck of the horse to provide lift. The energy travels through the riders hands to the reins and bit/jaw of the horse and then back in a circuit to be released in the next step.
I am noticing some change in this area in Lily, by experimenting with this concept of impulsion. As Nuno Oliviera described, the transition from walk to trot is getting smoother, and she is placing her hind feet down a little longer to initiate the thrust. The change in her wither and neck position is visibly moving toward carriage therefore she has less tendency to lift herself by leveraging her neck and shoulders, instead letting the hind quarters provide the power.
I must admit that working on impulsion has been the most frustrating concept for me so far. At one point, I felt like I was ruining the relationship with my horse because I didn’t know what I was looking for. I had to drop it from my agenda for a few weeks, rethinking a strategy for approaching it. When I came back to it again, I put some goals into my riding, to initiate a lighter feeling with my seat. I also found information from the Ritter Dressage online sessions to be useful for techniques in keeping the horses feet on the ground longer in order to generate more uphill thrust.
Here are some of the latest clips of where we are currently in this journey with working equitation obstacles. We are still needing more flow in our trot transition (this may not be the best example that I have taken) but the walk steps have become a little more bouncy and upright as opposed to shuffling her feet. It looks a bit less obvious here than it feels riding her. Lily is starting to “get it” and that is a great feeling.