The United States Dressage Federation (USDF) defines engagement as “increased flexion of the lumbosacral joint and the joints of the hind leg during the weight-bearing (stance) phase of the movement, thus lowering the croup relative to the forehand (‘lightening the forehand’).”
Engagement is a prerequisite to impulsion (thrust): the “releasing of the energy stored by engagement. The energy is transmitted through a back that is free from negative tension and is manifested in the horse’s elastic, whole-body movement.” Engagement is carrying power, whereas impulsion is pushing power.
Many people who ride horses have no idea what the technical terms mean. Although Cowboy Dressage tries to avoid confusing language, engagement and impulsion are such important aspects of forward motion that they need to be understood and recognized, and so they are explained in the book COWBOY DRESSAGE by Jessica Black with Eitan and Debbie Beth-Halachmy.
In simpler terms, engagement refers to the manner in which a balanced horse brings his hind legs under his belly to move forward off his hindquarters efficiently. Engagement is the basis for a horse’s impulsion–the energy with which a horse moves forward. The true lightness of Cowboy Dressage can only happen when the horse is engaged and moving with impulsion, with his weight over the hindquarters rather than on the forehand.
The hindquarters are the energy source of the horse. At the same time, he carries most of his weight on his forehand thanks to the head and neck. Engagement helps the horse achieve balance under these physiological conditions. To better bear the weight and enable balance, the horse must round his back and bring his hind legs well forward under him. This is called tracking or tracking up (USDF). Tracking is a necessary component of engagement, but it should not be confused with reach (how far the hind leg reaches forward).
Nor should engagement and impulsion be confused with speed. A horse that is rushing will often be strung out and hollow-backed, the opposite of being engaged. The front and hind end may appear disjointed or unconnected. Conversely, a horse that is engaged will move from behind in a balanced, energetic fashion at any gait and any speed.
Although the Cowboy Dressage horse may not have the length of stride or suspension that a traditional dressage horse has, he should show engagement and impulsion. All four feet should be working together in a rhythmic fashion.
To achieve impulsion and engagement, encourage your horse to round his back, stretch and lower his neck, and move forward actively. The energy has to flow naturally through your hands at a free gait. Much of the time spent on the horse’s foundation should be dedicated to encouraging forward motion. Good horsepersons make engagement and forward motion a prerequisite to every maneuver.
Again, remember that energetic forward motion requires strength and endurance: the horse must be conditioned slowly until he has the ability to meet the physical and mental demands of Cowboy Dressage or any other equestrian discipline. Much of the cadence and beauty of the finished gaits comes from long hours simply moving forward at the walk, jog, and lope.
Find out more about developing beautiful gaits in your horse in COWBOY DRESSAGE, available now from the TSB online bookstore, where shipping in the US is FREE.
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