Impulsion - Essential but Often Misunderstood
By Paul Kathen © 2006
Like with so many other terms in dressage, “impulsion” is the translation of a German word. That word is “Schwung.” It has several aspects. For the purpose of dressage it describes energy as well as a positive attitude. It’s the kind of energy like the person needs who wants to jump a wide ditch. This person steps back a few yards to get a good run at it and thus develops the energy necessary to span the distance. The Germans would say that he has to step back to gain enough “Schwung” to make it. The positive attitude is shown by a person tackling a task with a great deal of enthusiasm. A German observing this person would express it as working with much “Schwung”. It does not, however, translate as “speed,” and most certainly not as “momentum.”
I have always defined impulsion to my students as a horse’s desire to go forward with energy, yet with obedience to the rider. It seems to me that it is necessary to add the part about obedience. Without it impulsion is nothing but raw power and that would not satisfy the demands of the fourth step of the training scale. It is through the influence of the rider that impulsion is directed to create either collection or extension. Neither one is possible without impulsion. One can look at the training scale and realize that the first three steps are designed to gain control over the horse while steps four through six then form it. Control and impulsion set the stage for straightening and collecting the horse.
It is important to understand why momentum has no place in dressage. Momentum controls the horse that it affects and the horse, therefore, can not obey the rider. It is also not the product of muscle or mind, but a force that influences a body without any direct action of that body. It is, or has become, an outside influence. Imagine yourself jumping off a moving vehicle. The momentum created by that car’s speed causes you to have to run or fall on your face. You have no control over your body until you can stop the momentum from carrying you forward. The same dilemma faces the horse that has shifted its weight forward onto its shoulder in the medium trot across the diagonal and then is asked to return to a collected gait before the corner. The rider clearly feels the imbalance in her hands and the judge has no problem seeing the disobedience and the lean through the turn. Momentum has caused the horse to lose its balance and it is, therefore, unable to obey. In the effort to regain its balance the horse must first stop momentum before starting over again to regain impulsion. Again, momentum has no place in dressage! Sportscasters often refer to momentum as being with one team or the other. It can shift during a game to either team or even back and forth. What they mean is the confidence with which a team executes its plays. Here momentum has influenced the mind of a team. One might say that such positive influence is a good thing except that it is not under the team’s control and one bad movement may turn it against them and in favor of the other team. “Schwung,” however, is an attitude we have developed deep within our and our horse’s mind and body and is not easily changed.
In order to further define the term, “impulsion,” I will divide it into its three components: desire to go forward, energy, and control. The talented horse is born with one, two, or all three of them. The higher the degree of natural impulsion, the more attractive it is for the rider. We must not assume that horses are blessed with equal amounts of all three aspects of impulsion. It is easy to imagine that a horse with a great deal of desire and little interest in control can be a handful in its initial training. All three aspects must be developed and shaped during the years of training. Young horses that are gifted with much impulsion and a great mind (control) will take care of their breeder’s finances for many years. Unfortunately, not many of them compete at the Olympics later on. To me it shows that such a horse must be matched with a rider of equal talent for training promising young horses in order to give the horse a chance to blossom into the champion it was designed to be. That means that the ability to desire forwardness and the willingness to have it controlled by the rider can and must be developed in a horse. How far we succeed in this effort is determined by the horse’s genes and our skill. The same holds true for the physical aspect of impulsion, namely, strength.
As I stated earlier, control is established at the beginning of the horse’s training. The trainer needs such influence to be able to first direct the horse through the arena or on the trails. She must be able to start and stop the horse and establish the idea of the rider being in charge of the ride. The next need is to gradually change the direction of the movement from forward-downward to forward. Once the horse has found its new balance under the rider it usually is confident enough to also regain its natural desire to go forward. This daily work on the basics also increases the strength of the horse so that it finds the rider less of a burden and begins to once more display its talent. The rider now must start to form the horse. Exercises to improve suppleness and to change the direction of movement to forward-upward alters the training from developing natural tendencies in the horses to creating this somewhat artificial direction of moving. The best approach is the work on bent lines or on two tracks. This tends to restrict the inside hind leg a little and the rider finds herself having to push in order to maintain the same forwardness she enjoyed on straight lines or large circles. Please remember that we want to keep the hind legs active but not to run. Also, balance and control must be maintained so that the horse can obey at all times. A little more energy under control helps to improve impulsion, while a lot just barely in control or even out of control hurts. Transitions within the gaits or between the gaits also encourage forwardness and sharpen the reflexes of the horse. This sharpness allows the rider to lighten the aids or achieve more with the same strength in her aids.
Imagine yourself standing on the sidelines of a dressage arena with a person who had never seen a horse before and try to explain impulsion to that person. As long as the horse in front of you moved in medium or extended gaits it would be fairly easy. But even here exists the danger that this person would think of impulsion as speed. It will prove to be much more difficult to help your co-spectator to recognize impulsion in the pirouette, at the canter, at the piaffe, or at the passage. You will be talking about power and energy. You might mention length and height of stride. You will point out the time of suspension and you will indicate the increased bend in the joints of the hindquarters. All of these factors do actually make up impulsion. That then serves to explain why the walk is a gait without impulsion.
Ideally the well trained horse works with a great deal of energy and the trainer does not have to create it at all times with driving aids. She uses the aids to control the energy by regulating the length of stride and the direction of movement. Again, I am speaking of the ideal horse. This horse works with a great effort every stride. It is willing to change from carrying power to pushing power or a mix of both at the command of the rider without becoming tense. The result of this absence of tension combined with the energetically working muscles is a suppleness in the joints that brings about spring power. This is the additional bending and straightening of the joints as an effect of that elasticity.
To best explain the pushing power, the carrying power, and the spring power, look at the position of the hind leg under the body of the horse. It is attached to the spine about at the position of the hip. As long as the foot of the horse is located in front of the hip or directly under, that leg carries weight. Once the hip moves in front of the foot, the leg now pushes the body of the horse forward. This is clearly visible in the piaffe where the hind leg stays under the hip and only pushes the body upward, while in the medium trot the hind leg moves well behind the hip using the pushing power for forward locomotion. The difficulty many horses show in the carrying phase of the motion is the increased bend in the joints that is caused by the weight of the horse resting on the leg during the relaxing time of the muscles. Straightening from that bend is much more difficult than moving the straighter leg backwards as is done during the pushing phase. In order to demonstrate that fact to yourself, you must jog first on bent knees and then on straighter knees. I believe you can feel the difference in your thighs.
When in the rhythm of stretching and contracting, the muscles have reached the end of the stretching phase. Before starting to contract there is a brief moment when the weight of the horse pushes against a muscle that will stretch a bit more just because of the elasticity of its fibers. This is most obvious in the pastern joint when at that moment it almost reaches to the ground. The recoil from that stretch is not an active contracting of the muscles, but the muscle fibers returning to their original position. This is called the spring power. This action of the muscles is like that of a bungee cord that is stretched and exhibits a great deal of power to return to its normal length.
In its natural mode of locomotion the horse either moves leisurely grazing along or is in a full run trying to survive. In either case the horse moves with its joints straight while pushing or carrying and bends the joints in order to move the limbs forward. At that moment there is no pressure on the leg and, therefore, it does not take much strength to fulfill that task. Dressage requires strong muscle action at a time when the joints are bent and that is the change horses struggle with. It is the same muscle as is used in running but it must act at a different time. This action must first keep the joints from collapsing and then straighten them while they are loaded by the weight of the horse before it can further contract the muscle. It will now move the straight leg backwards and by that action propel the horse forward.
It is easy for the horse to stiffen the hind leg and escape the strain and it takes, therefore, a very positive attitude toward the task of moving with gracefulness and beauty under the rider without looking for evasions. This, I believe, is what the German masters considered when they named the fourth step of the training scale, “Schwung,” instead of “Power.”