There’s a lot of jargon when it comes to horse riding, especially where dressage is involved. One concept that you’ll come across quite early on in your riding development is the difference between speed and impulsion. They’re both related to making sure your horse is forward—but where does speed end and impulsion start? And how do they play into the bigger concept of forward going?
The first place to start is with the scales of training.
The Scales of Training
The scales of training are the building blocks which are used in the training of a horse. It’s also what dressage judges worldwide use to judge tests.
You’ll sometimes see slight variations on the scales of training. This is due to small differences in training methods and more commonly, in terminology. The scales of training were developed in Germany but are now used worldwide. However, some German terms and phrases don’t have an exact translation into other languages, hence the occasional variations in terms.
That said, the scales of training are normally considered to be:
They are designed to be worked through in order, with number one forming the foundation of a horse’s training. When followed methodically, the scales of training will eventually culminate in the ability to collect the horse. You can view these as a pyramid, with rhythm forming the wide base and collection forming the point. If at any point the training starts to “fall apart” then the rider can go back a level and re-establish that scale.
Occasionally, you might work on two scales simultaneously or work on a higher scale in order to develop something specific. Straightness is one of the scales which often appears in conjunction with others. But you can’t entirely skip any of them!
As you’ll see, impulsion is quite far up the scale of training. So, a rider shouldn’t be expecting impulsion from a horse who isn’t yet supple and accepting of the contact.
First Off: Forward
It’s essential that your horse is in front of the leg and going forward into the bridle. But many riders mistake the concept of forward for a certain speed.
In reality, forward is a mindset. Your horse can be going very slowly and still be forward. Forward just means that the horse is ready to respond to a light aid, is going on his own steam, and the rider isn’t having to constantly create more energy.
Teaching your horse to move forward from the leg forms the part of the first scale; rhythm. This essentially dictates that the horse should be going forward and should remain relaxed with an even rhythm and tempo at all gaits.
The Time and Place for Speed
Once you have a horse who has good rhythm, is supple longitudinally and laterally, and who goes forward into the bridle and stays connected over the back into your hand, you’re ready to start thinking about impulsion.
This is where many riders make the mistake of adding speed and simply going faster. But speed and impulsion are very different concepts and have very different results.
Is there a place for speed? Certainly. Winning a jump-off will require speed. Going for a gallop on the beach requires speed. But to develop a horse who can perform advanced dressage movements and show true collection and extension, you need to add impulsion.
So, What is Impulsion?
If instead of impulsion, you add speed, then what will you get? The horse’s tempo will get faster, he’ll lose balance and may become hollow or drop the connection. The energy which you aimed to create won’t be contained, but will instead cause the horse to fall on the forehand.
When the horse has impulsion, however, the picture is very different. The horse’s hocks come more underneath him, the balance is uphill, and the horse creates the impression of being energetic and lively but still relaxed.
So simply put, impulsion is a term we use to refer to the movement of a horse when they’re going forward with power, engagement, and control.
Think of a passage or canter pirouette at the Olympics. The balance is back on the hindquarters, the back legs come off the ground energetically showing power but control, and the shoulders and withers are lifted. A horse performing passage or a pirouette has very little forward movement, and definitely no speed – but certainly doesn’t lack impulsion.
How can you tell you’re creating actual impulsion, not just speed? The horse’s legs move slower and the joints bend more, but without losing any energy or activity.
Hopefully this has helped to explain the difference between speed and impulsion. What other dressage terms do you want demystified? Let us know in the comments.