The Dressage Scales of Training: Impulsion (Part 4 of 6)
Welcome to our fourth article in our six-part series on the scales of training. Parts one, two, and three covered rhythm, suppleness, and connection respectively. In this fourth installment, we’ll look at impulsion, what it is, and how to get it.
If you haven’t yet read the first few articles, it’s easiest to go back and read them in order. This will give you a better understanding of how the pyramid works and how you can build a strong foundation for the training of any horse.
Before we look into impulsion in any further detail, here’s a quick reminder of how the scales of training work, where they originated, and how the principles work in tandem when schooling a horse.
What Are The Scales Of Training In Dressage?
The scales of training originated in Germany. Initially, they weren’t used as a basis for schooling competition horses, but instead were used in the training of the German cavalry. As you may know, dressage schooling started off as a way to make horses rideable in battle. Nowadays, most horses who undergo schooling aren’t used for cavalry purposes. But equestrian sports, and dressage specifically, still incorporate a huge amount of these training principles. The end goal is the same – a horse who is responsive, easy to ride, supple, and able to be controlled with very small aids.
As a result, the scales of training (often called the pyramid of training, too) are used around the world as a reference point for educating horses under saddle. When you think of the pyramid of training, you can look at the first scale as the base and the sixth one as the peak.
The six scales are:
However, thinking of a pyramid gives the impression that one level must be fully completed and established before you can build the next. Otherwise the pyramid would collapse, right? Wrong, in this case!
The six scales are more like a set of interrelated principles. That is, you don’t have to establish or perfect one scale 100% before moving on to the next. Which is good, because as we all know, nothing is really ever “finished” in dressage.
A horse with basic schooling doesn’t “finish” working on connection at any point. If you considered connection or rhythm to be finished once you reached first level, for instance, then the connection would be the same at first level as at PSG. And of course, that isn’t the case. So, each scale can always be worked on and improved.
The scales are also interrelated in the sense that by improving one, you also tend to improve another. For example, improving collection will also improve your horse’s connection. And in the opposite direction, improving the connection and contact will allow your horse to take more weight on the hind leg and develop his collection. So each scale can influence the other scales.
However, the scales of training are useful for understanding the general progression of a horse’s schooling. For example, it is typically the first three scales which form the beginning stages of a horse’s training. These bottom three scales are the foundation for the top three, and establishing them to a reasonable degree is essentially putting basic schooling onto a horse. So until your horse has at least a basic understanding of rhythm, suppleness, and connection, it’s very difficult to add impulsion and collection. Straightness is debatable though, as you do want to teach young horses to travel relatively straight from early on. As mentioned, the scales aren’t linear so they can sometimes be a bit confusing!
Remember that once a horse has basic schooling, the need to continue improving on the first three scales doesn’t disappear. As with everything dressage, it’s a constant process of improving and refining the little things. So a first level horse would still work on connection, as would a Grand Prix horse – but what they display and how you work on it would differ.
With that in mind, it’s now time to have a look at the fourth scale – impulsion. It’s probably a term you’ve heard often in the horse world, but how exactly does it impact a horse’s schooling?
What Is Impulsion?
First thing’s first: impulsion and speed are not the same! We’ve all been the person (or seen the person) who is trying to add impulsion by simply going faster. All this does is make your horse rush, upset their balance, and make them fall onto the forehand. A horse who is moving with impulsion doesn’t necessarily have to be going fast. On the other end of the scale are horses who are very heavy in the contact, not being ridden forward, and behind the leg.
Impulsion is generated when the horse moves the hind leg underneath him, keeps the balance uphill, and bends and flexes the joints more. The legs will usually move slower, but not by lessening activity or sacrificing engagement.
For instance, if you think of Olympic dressage horses doing a collected trot, they aren’t going fast at all. But do they look lazy or lethargic? No, not at all. This is because they are moving with contained energy and power.
A horse without impulsion might:
- Look lazy (with obvious leg aids needed to keep the horse moving)
- Display flat paces without cadence or suspension
- Be reluctant to produce lateral work or extended/medium paces
- Be sluggish and unresponsive to ride.
A horse with too much impulsion may:
- Appear tense or tight
- Display hollowness and resistance
- Looked rushed, hurried, and/or out of rhythm
- Show contact issues and a short neck
When a horse has the right amount of impulsion for their level of schooling, they will look energetic and lively without being tense, show fluid paces which can be easily adjusted, be able to move forward with power from the hind leg, and remain rhythmical throughout all the paces. As the horse progresses, impulsion also helps them to develop cadence and expression.
As you might imagine, getting impulsion without speed while also keeping the connection and rhythm is a tricky balance which comes with feel and experience.
How Can You Improve Impulsion?
What is one of the best ways to improve impulsion? You guessed it – transitions! Because impulsion stems from the hind leg activating, pushing off the ground, and coming further underneath the body, transitions of all kinds are crucial to developing it.
Initially, you can start with basic transitions such as walk-halt, walk-trot, trot-canter, canter-trot, and trot-walk. As you progress, you can use direct transitions which skip a gait such as walk to canter and halt to trot. Adding transitions within the pace, between collected/medium/extended paces is also very valuable to developing impulsion. The goal is for the horse to move freely forward and backward without showing resistance or losing rhythm, while staying light and responsive to the aids.
Developing strength in the hind leg is also important, as the horse won’t be able to display impulsion if they don’t have the physical strength to use their hindleg. You can help speed up this process by doing some work over raised poles, incorporating trail rides up and down hills, and even doing some small jumping exercises such as bounces.
Impulsion, which shouldn’t be mistaken for speed, is one of those key elements which is hard to define and even harder to feel. Once a horse has basic schooling in place, the rider can begin to add impulsion, always working within the horse’s current abilities and level of schooling. As more and more impulsion is generated, the horse becomes more powerful and will eventually be able to convert this impulsion into collection.
The next article will cover the fifth scale, which is straightness.
Have some ideas on how to improve impulsion? Let us know your favorite exercises by leaving a comment.