“You don’t need a stronger leg, you need a stronger response to the leg. “ Philippe Karl
Do you often hear the words… "More forward"? With more forward impulsion, we can also find more balance, more relaxation and more straightness. But more forward doesn’t mean more leg. It means the horse needs more understanding from our legs.
It's our responsibility to teach the horse to respond to light leg aids. Further, it's our responsibility to ensure we remove leg pressure in a timely way – i.e. immediately the horse starts to go forward. In ‘pressure-release’ training, it's the timing of release that trains the horse, not the pressure. The clearer we make the release – the faster we train the horse.
As riders, it's our job to help the horse work out how to get rid of pressure, not how to put up with it. We don't want to habituate or desensitise the horse to our leg aids. So, if we want to improve responsiveness – we need to improve our timing.
Let's remember – that a horse can feel a fly land on its coat and flinch to get rid of it. So, we cannot say any horse is insensitive. Though some are more sensitive than others – they are all sensitive enough to feel a fly on them. And, they can all feel a light leg aid.
Niggle & nag
If the horse can go forward from light leg aids – while we keep pressing the legs every stride – they will try to switch off and 'habituate' to that nagging background noise – but it will remain as a constant bothering annoyance, obscuring any other aid we may use at the same time. So, we will instead be teaching the horse not only to ignore our legs, but to not 'hear' our other aids.
Similarly, if we are in a habit of urging or pushing the horse forward with the seat, again we teach the horse to ignore the seat. I see it a lot in the walk. Riders think this is
required. It's not, and surely must be a most annoying thing for horses; constantly pushing and rubbing the seat bones into their back - disturbing the balance, and then when we need the seat for more subtle weight aids – it's impossible - no chance of fine communication.
It's not helpful to think of our horse as ‘lazy’ or ‘naughty’ without taking a good look at our own habits. Are you aware how much pressure you use with your legs, how often, how evenly you touch the horse with your legs, and where your legs touch? Sometimes it only takes a little effort to be more disciplined with our legs and do less for a greater response. Sometimes we need a year of yoga or Pilates to get our legs and seat bones to rest evenly on the horse. Often our ho
rses are also not straight, and need their own version of Pony Pilates.
What is impulsion?
Impulsion = increasing re-activity from the horse via less activity from the rider. This means clearly educating the horse to specific meaningful aids. Teaching the horse – in a kind and timely way – how to react to precise aids.
Illustration from Philippe Karl Twisted Truths of Modern Dressage. Cadmos.
Pestering the horse with vague or nagging legs and seat is neither useful or graceful. It is a tiring and thoughtless habit that destroys lightness. And… often it is appearing together with blocking hands. So best is first to be attentive, be aware of what your body is doing. Check that you are not urging forward ahead of the horse's rhythm, or squeezing the legs while holding or pulling at the same time.
The lesson of the leg
In École de Légèreté we teach the horse the leg lesson – to instil the habit of immediate reactivity to light leg aids. It means we must also have the confidence to follow through - to ensure the horse does react quickly, but you must also give the reins: open the fingers and go! The door in front must be open if you want to improve reactivity to the legs. You may need some light touches/taps of a whip straight after the leg until you get take off. Then no more whip or leg. But if the horse slows, touch with the whip again, not the legs. Repeat this from halt into trot several times on a straight line – praising each time you get an improved response. Its a little 'wake up' call for the horse and for you to remember to keep light and responsive.
Never give one hard or unexpected whack with a whip. Horses don't like surprises and this is unfair punishment that the horse will not understand. Pressure aids should be incremental, and always start with the lightest softest cue possible. Otherwise we never give our horse a chance to be light. A stronger aid should always be preceded be a lighter aid. This way we can teach the horse to predict that a light aid will be reinforced by a stronger aid (if the light aid is ignored.)
Predictability gives a sense of control
Predictability creates a sense of control for the horse to choose to be light and responsive. With good training, it is amazing how light and willing a horse can be. Being precise, kind and clear, finishing what we start, and not starting what we can’t finish. For example, if you ask the horse for trot to canter, but then don't have the balance or confidence to let him canter - its not going to work. He must be convinced that you are serious. You may need a forward/light seat for a short time to help your horse to really go. Leaning back in an armchair position is not helpful. Go! Feel the wind in your mane, and enjoy the freedom to really go. Your horse will thank you. :)
The aids we use are the aids we teach – good or bad.
If we are heavy legged and heavy handed or with poor timing – we make a heavy lazy horse or a fearful confused horse. And more work for ourselves – then, because its hard work - we may unfairly blame the horse for being lazy or stupid, when it can be us creating the issues for the horse. It happens often with many riders - we are only human, none of us perfect– if we are day dreaming, inconsistent, upset, nervous and gripping, maybe we are using a lot of constant little pushes because we are afraid to be clear and precise, or afraid of what response we might get. Will he go too fast, or shy or buck? Will I lose my balance or hurt his mouth? If you have this uncertainty, it's a question for you to decide if you need help, or another rider to work the horse with you to show you what to do. Otherwise if the little issues are not addressed, they can quickly become bigger.
Naturally, if the horse starts rushing, running, pulling or carting you forward – you will then have a balance problem rather than a forward problem. You could do more circles and less straight lines – to help slow the legs and regain a good rhythm. Counter-bend or shoulder-in are also very good remedies for rushing horses. But now that's a nice problem to have.
Dressage is gymnastic training... not boring drilling
Horses are built to run as a flight animal. Going well forward – in a natural outline is what they evolved to do – it helps them to relax. Its most frustrating for a horse when it is unable to express its natural paces or held in a restricted frame. Some riders spend an hour's ride jogging around too slowly in endless boring circles – pushing and holding the horse with contradictory aids between hands and legs, with the horse often leaning on the hands, overloading the forehand – tiring without gymnastic benefit. This 'kilometric' style of drilling does nothing to improve self-carriage, lightness or balance.
In the working paces the strides need to long and active, the horse needs to cover ground free to stretch its neck and shoulders so it can go forward. In the collected paces the strides are higher and shorter, cover less ground but still with activity, free to lift with an open gullet. Changing the gait, the stride length, the posture, the rhythm, the balance, the pattern and line make a useful and interesting gymnastic program.