Impulsion Revisited

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.

Virtual Working Equitation Competition 3

Online Competition

October 2020

2 phases
Dressage and Ease of Handling

for the lower levels

Lead-line or In-hand class (walk/trot),Preparatory (walk/trot) and Preliminary (walk/trot/canter) and new to this competition will be a Novice level with walk, trot, and canter in some obstacles and between obstacles.

All you need to enter is:

  • A camera with tripod or friend to film you
  • A dressage size area with access to items for creating simple obstacles (no construction required), e.g. barrels/buckets/cones/tyres and jump poles, or similar items
  • Internet connection to upload videos to YouTube

Follow the facebook page for updates.

The competition is running under the New Zealand format with NZ judges using WEDU (Working Equitation Down Under) rules from Australia. Open to competitors worldwide. See you there!

Register your interest and see course walk videos for competition 3 (without any obligation to enter). Entries are closing on October 19th 2020 11:59pm NZT. You will be added to the mailing list for notification of competitions.

Injuries and Irritations

I usually teach a lesson on Saturday morning but this morning instead I am at the computer reflecting on the up and down world with horses.

Four out of five of the horses at our property have either a lameness or injury type of irritation. Our little pony, Toby, who is normally the lesson pony has decided that he’s not entirely happy with a request to trot with a rider on the lunge, and even less so to canter. He has been making this clear for quite sometime, but being an ever hopeful human as many of us are, I just wanted to put it down to attitude. I mean he’s always had a very firm mind of his own and has really taught us the most about horsemanship. That is, getting the horse to buy into your ideas. It seems that for a small minority of horses, operant conditioning is not enough. From observing his manner over years, Toby has higher than average intelligence for a horse and he is a true blue opportunist. It’s a constant teaching cycle with him.

So, I wasn’t seeing with 100% accuracy what he was letting me know, that is, until I noticed with my own eyes the back muscle atrophy. After a ride the muscle would sink into a dent in his back from supporting the rider either with or without a saddle (ridden more often in a bareback pad than in a saddle). The muscle needed to be gently worked with exercise in order to recover, so I continued lunging without a rider and long reining asking for a posture over his back that would support the muscle. However, a couple of weeks later he didn’t want to bend to the left and seemed a bit stiff in the body on the right rein as well. Not lame and happy to scream around the paddocks. But in circle work he was irritated. What could be wrong with this hardy little pony?

Looking back, he’s always been tender in the lumbar region. He would buck at the canter transition originally when we first got him. He objected with a buck if he took a tight corner (such as barrel racing) or the rider placed weight in the lumbar region. But for the most part he has been quite pleasant to ride, especially for someone who knows him well and has enough strategies to encourage his willingness. The muscle atrophy and difficulty bending however is a new development.

After palpitating his back, it is the area around the ribs close to the flank where he is sensitive. The muscle atrophy is difficult to see with a heavy winter coat.
We played around with using wraps to see if that helps him engage the hindquarters. I really did not notice a difference when lunging with the wraps on (whereas for another horse it has been useful). He seemed to enjoy chilling out while I fussed over him giving some gentle massage and Masterton method ‘wiggles’ for help with his tight areas.

My suspicion is that he is irritated by a gelding scar which is now, at 14 years of age, causing imbalances in connective tissue and musculature his body. The severing of the nerves during that procedure has been found to produce neuromas when the nerves attempt to regenerate into scar tissue. Since there has been irritation there ever since we have had Toby, this makes sense as an avenue to investigate.

In the meantime we will continue exercising in a manner that is less irritating with straight lines and good posture and I will report back on his progress. In my next blogs I may delve into some of the other issues that I am in the midst of rehabilitating with the horses. These can also be found on Facebook under pages created for each horse if you are interested in following our progress.
See the following pages on Facebook:

Virtual Working Equitation Competition 2

Online Competition

July 2020

2 phases
Dressage and Ease of Handling

for the lower levels

Preparatory (walk/trot) and Preliminary (walk/trot/canter) and new to this competition will be a Lead-line or In-hand class (walk/trot)

All you need to enter is:

  • A camera with tripod or friend to film you
  • A dressage size area with access to items for creating simple obstacles (no construction required), e.g. barrels/buckets/cones/tyres and jump poles, or similar items
  • Internet connection to upload videos to YouTube

Follow the facebook page for updates.

The competition is running under the New Zealand format with NZ judges using WEDU (Working Equitation Down Under) rules from Australia. Open to competitors worldwide. See you there!

Register your interest now (with no obligation to compete) for the course walk videos with Maree McAteer. The entry form is submitted after you have filmed your videos and uploaded to YouTube (by 27th July 2020 11:59PM NZT).

The Working Horse

There are many visions of the “Working Horse”.

The working horse has a job to do. The basis of training the horse is to perform their job. This gives a sense of purposeful training to developing the working horse.

The sport of Working Equitation honours the working horse. In every stage of training, there is a purpose organised towards building an improved ability to do the “job”. Horses in the field need balance and precision in their movement for working cattle, opening gates, and other tasks. The ability to work at speed and also at immobility is required. Bravery and trust are desired qualities in a horse that must pass through and over ditches, bridges, and objects in the field. The horse must face other animals with confidence, as well as allowing the rider to lift and carry objects with a calm demeanour.

The three or four phases in Working Equitation are designed to test the qualities of a working horse.

The first phase, Dressage, primarily shows off a horse to be calm and rhythmical with a willing response to the riders aids. At higher levels, balance and maneuverability are tested in movements that would enhance the prowess of a working horse. The higher level horse has greater ease in speeding up and slowing down, as well as refined coordination to move in all directions and turn quickly in balance. The horse is developed to complete these movements using one hand on the reins for the greatest ease of handling in the field.

The second phase is Ease of Handling. This is a test of the ability of the horse to carry out field work. Obstacles that are derived from challenges that a horse would face in their work are completed with an element of style. Again the lower levels are showing the horse to be confident and responsive to the riders aids with a calm execution of their tasks at walk or trot. At intermediate levels, the horse is able to move between the gaits of walk and canter with ease, showing more precision and progress in lateral and reverse movements. At the higher levels, the horse is tested on their abilities in balanced execution and advanced control of movement with canter pirouettes and flying changes. At the very top level the rider must do all of this one handed.

The third phase is the Speed test around the Ease of Handling course. This adds the element of being able to quickly execute the tasks as well as speed up and slow down with ease.

Photo Credit: Hortense Geninet https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5/legalcode

The fourth phase is the cattle test, which is completed as a team, is included where possible to show the skills of the working equitation horse in a practical setting with live cattle stock. The exercise is completed within a large yard where a rider must separate an animal from the rest of the cattle and with the help of their team then drive it across the yard into a pen.

The horse and human partnership aspect and progressive training in Working Equitation has made me a huge fan of this sport. It is elegant and pleasant to watch, drawing from the old traditions where knowledge has been passed from generation to generation – keeping a purity of horse training at the core.

This growing worldwide discipline is more than just a sport. It is an education in developing your horse and your riding with finesse. It is a also a challenge in patience and discipline to ask no more of your horse than their current level. It will give you a great appreciation of the fascinating journey in producing an excellent working horse.

Virtual Working Equitation

Online Competition

2 phases
Dressage and Ease of Handling

for the lower levels

Entries for the first competition are now closed. Follow the facebook page for updates on the next one.

All you need to enter is:

  • A camera with tripod or friend to film you
  • A dressage size area with access to items for creating simple obstacles (no construction required), e.g. barrels/buckets/cones/tyres and jump poles, or similar items
  • Internet connection to upload videos to YouTube

Details of the first New Zealand based virtual Working Equitation competition – closing on June 1st 2020 – are on the competition website.

The competition is running under the New Zealand format with NZ judges using WEDU (Working Equitation Down Under) rules from Australia. Open to competitors worldwide. See you there!

Register your interest now (with no obligation to compete) for the course walk videos with Maree McAteer. The entry form is submitted after you have filmed your videos and uploaded to YouTube (by 1st June 2020).

Coping with Change

The current world crisis (covid-19 virus) has forced almost everyone around the world into a mandatory break from busy life. Although my life has hardly changed at all, I have to admit that the pandemic has affected me, bringing more uncertainty and some level of worry about what life will be like in the future.

At first, I carried on as per normal with the horses. Lily was training to go to a Working Equitation competition, so I just carried on with what we were doing. This lasted for a whole week of lockdown! In the video below we were doing well. It was actually a great place to leave our training. Breaks, when the timing is done well, such as at a peak point, are highly productive.

The last riding session with Lily before a break.

After this session, I noticed that something had changed.

I took Lily into the arena to work on in-hand classical training and she seemed to have statue-itis (could hardly move her legs). I felt like I was forcing her to comply and there ended the joy in our training sessions.

I pondered this change in enthusiasm from my horse. I am mindful not to push onwards and create a backwards trend. Certainly the lockdown and having no outings to motivate my efforts is having some effect. But also we are going through a change in season too. Suddenly the weather went from warm and sunny to rain and wind. If I were a horse, I would probably be conserving my energy too. Lily is going into survival mode to cope with the next season, and it might be a while before she gets comfortable with the new temperature and weather outlook.

So, I said to myself – don’t be a greedy human! We can leave it there and come back to Lily’s training a bit later. I channeled some gratitude for all the work that she has put in to our sessions and the great progress that we have made since August. She is now having some well deserved time off.

Luckily, I have a few horses on hand that are still keen to participate. My geldings have been under lower expectations recently, and they are perfectly happy to continue training. Toby, the pony, is especially fun to train, with his super intelligence, but also his feisty attitude if you cannot motivate him in a way that pleases him. He brings my horsemanship skills up to par, as he tests me constantly.

I have picked an exercise to teach Toby from Working Equitation – a difficult one. This is the side pass over the pole. I love training in Winter because you have so much time until next season that you can be detailed and unhurried.

This video shows the first session that we have attempted riding the Side Pass over pole in quite a long time. We have upped our game in getting the balance and bend into the direction of travel more correct with plenty of ground work preparation over earlier weeks. Riding a Working Equitation course should look effortless if it is done well. There is much finesse and fine detail in making it look this way. A slow approach in small parts achieves more accuracy. You can see how Toby is figuring out his balance and stepping across the pole as we make each attempt. At the last attempt, he has achieved a nice couple of steps in balance, so we walk forward and leave it there for the day.

Loose and Relaxed

Have you ever noticed how difficult it is to concentrate when you are anxious?

On the other side, have there been days where you are relaxed and focused and have been able to learn and achieve more than usual?

If you do yoga, then this is a great analogy to feel what it is like for a horse that needs to stretch into a physical position in order to develop their strength and flexibility.

Relaxation improves your ability to isolate muscles and stretch. Anxiety, a threat response, shuts down the thinking capacity of the brain to reserve energy and tightens muscles ready for working hard, which makes flexibility difficult. This is why breathing is so important in yoga!

This concept of relaxation is perhaps one of the most underused techniques in horse training! This step is often skipped straight to getting the horse “on the bit”.

My daughter was at a major horse exposition one year having a riding lesson with a very prominent trainer. “Get his head down”, the trainer instructed my 10 year old daughter, as her pony was ridden around on a light contact with his nose unrestricted to poke out.

Looking back on that video of the riding clinic, I thought to myself, is that how the majority of young riders are instructed to get their horse “on the bit”? No wonder there are a great many problems between horses and riders as they dutifully take on board that advice. The same showjumping trainer also introduced the class to a technique to get a flying change in canter by heading on the diagonal towards the corner of the arena and blindly praying that the horse would automatically change the canter lead by default in order to avoid a counter canter as they turned the corner. A method that also now makes me wince.

Another year at the same horse exposition, I was pleased to see another prominent international trainer taking a different approach to the standard teaching method. The clinic was meant to be a jumping demonstration. But there was going to be no jumping until the horses had become more relaxed and the riders were able to lighten their contact. All I can say was that there was very little jumping in the demonstration.

We’ve all seen horses with a bulging partoid gland (near the throat latch), and have perhaps become used to that being the norm. That bulge is an indication of stiffness and tightness in the poll. It is not a good thing. The atlas (the first cervical vertebra) needs to be supple in order to have flexibility and relaxation. Any pain or discomfort in this area is a “lock down” event for your horse. There can be no good progress in their biomechanical development without easing the tightness in the structures around this area.

Sometimes we have to go right back to the basics and start again (or start off this way right from the beginning would be even better!).

Let’s look at the stretch down exercise as way to loosen the all important structures of the atlas and poll. It is absolutely fundamental to training a horse to be relaxed and supple.

Stretch down exercises on the ground at standstill and walk.
Stretch down exercises while riding.

Bringing the Mind into Balance

In these hectic times many of us are suffering to some degree from anxiety and/or depression. These types of afflictions are generally brought on by running ourselves on empty for too long or personal trauma and then a prolonged period of fearful thinking which rewires the brain and makes recovery difficult. Certain personality types are more susceptible to anxiety and depression and environmental factors during childhood can also influence the patterns of thinking installed in our minds.

To understand anxiety and depression we need to know how our brains work. This is a subject that humans have been fascinated with since the beginning of time! We are an evolved species, having additional capacity to our brains than our fellow animal counterparts. However, that makes things complicated for us and vulnerable to problems not experienced by those with more simple brain functions. All other animals on earth are primarily survival focused and regulate their nervous system to react to threats and deactivate quickly when there is no threat. They have an innate capacity for mindfulness and awareness. They are also masters at reducing stress through naturally built in systems activated within nature.

Person with anxiety

As human beings move more out of nature and natural systems, we have lost our capacity for mindfulness and awareness. Our brain stays in the processing mode of logic and reason (the evolved part of our brain), triggered by the subconscious parts of our brain that process survival instincts and emotions (the same parts of the brain that most animals contain). Prolonged triggering of a threat response rewires those neural pathways to activate automatically. Running on empty and personal trauma is a threat to survival and no amount of logic and reason can convince us otherwise!

Anxiety is the metabolic body connection to our minds, regulating our system to fight or flight. Unfortunately our bodies don’t listen very well to the logic and reason part of our brains. Our metabolic system is controlled by the other two subconscious parts of our brain, the reptilian brain and the limbic (or mammalian) brain.

To reduce anxiety and depression, we have to break into our brain programming, which is more difficult than it sounds, due to the main control center operating out of the subconscious activity in our brains. Physical and mental pattern changes are necessary to break this spell. Depression is particularly tricky because we can fall into learned helplessness and lose our will to make changes.

There are many areas to make changes that will help with anxiety and depression.

Empowerment through affirmations, learning new skills, and letting go of situations that we cannot control while focusing on what we can control helps to overcome learned helplessness.

Mindfulness helps to quiet the logic and reason brain to reduce the unproductive mind chatter that adds to our stress level. Deep breathing exercises also channel mindfulness and benefits our body with a greater capacity to absorb life preserving oxygen.

Removing ourselves from psychological triggers that activate a threat response.

Person practicing balance in a playground.

Moving the body with physical exercise to reset the equilibrium state of the body after the fight or flight response. Movement is also a regulator of stress triggered by pain – injury and pain is a survival threat and becoming stronger and more agile will convince your subconscious brain of your capability to survive.

Pain can also be reduced and minimised with medication. There is evidence that pain medication can act as an antidepressant. Finding relief through altering brain chemistry to subvert the metabolic reactions can also be effective in breaking patterns in neurological wiring.

The ability to remove stress is highly related to resilience. This is two fold – reducing stress and improving the ability to bounce back. Routines and rituals can aid in reducing stress and improving resilience through the means of spiritual, social, and physical activities practiced habitually.

Writing things down can be an effective method of clearing out obsessive thoughts. Journaling may help to put emotions in perspective. Defining your goals with related small tasks then tracking progress can also aid in reducing the feeling of being overwhelmed and keep you moving forward on the things that you want to achieve.

Adequate nutrition and a well balanced diet is important for our well being. Our brain energy for the most part comes from glucose which is synthesized from carbohydrates. Protein provides the body with essential amino acids that are repairing and replacing wear and tear in our bodies. Fatty acids are our major energy source for efficient fuel use and physical endurance activities.

We hope this article has been helpful to you. We think that a body and mind connection is an important concept for overcoming anxiety and depression. Our bodies were designed to be active and agile. Harnessing this innate ability has the power to rejuvenate us physically and mentally.

This article was originally published on balancesense.co.nz and is reproduced here with permission.

Listen if you dare

Times are changing – horses are no longer seen but not heard. Just as children are now allowed to be significant and self-assured, the privilege for horses to be allowed these rights is also emerging.

Horses, as a working species, have had pretty hard times at the hands of humankind, labouring beyond reason to provide for our needs, and then abruptly discarded when no longer useful. Considering the amount of time that they have been under domestication, the welfare of horses has been lagging behind that of dogs, cats & other domestic species. We are still these days conditioned by our laws and rules that horses thrashed with whips and dug with spurs as “motivation” to comply is acceptable – a concept that would be horrendously received as a dog or cat “motivation” strategy.

One does not need to be a horse whisperer to understand that a horse will directly communicate with us. Some people, however, find it inconvenient to receive a response that is not matching their expected outcome. This is exactly the same concept that many children experienced within the authoritarian parental era. They were seen but not heard. Punishment was the reaction to an unwanted response, and fear the by-product.

Do you dare to listen? It might not be what you want to know.

What if your horse tells you “I can’t”, will you listen?

What if your horse tells you, “I won’t”, will you listen?

What if your horse tells you, “that hurts”, will you listen?

What if your horse tells you, “I’m worried”, will you listen?

What if your horse tells you, “I need my friends”, will you listen?

What if your horse tells you, “I need a moment to think”, will you listen?

What if your horse tells you, “I’m offended”, will you listen?

If you listen, your horse will begin to open up to communicating with you. Your horse will be happier to see you. Your horse will be able to bond with you. This is a truer partnership.

The shutdown horse, although agreeable, has not been heard. It is a horse that has lost their will to communicate. It suffers as that of a servant, meeting only needs not of their own, through whatever pain or displeasure arises.

Do you dare to let them show themselves, dare to let them think for themselves? Do you dare to let them have a say in the actions of their own bodies, and to be patient in your response. Do you dare to praise more than punish?

It is all about the quality of the communication, not the quantity.

Buck Brannaman