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Forward Movement comes from Behind, by Richard Winters

leading horse thru gateI recently picked up a vintage horsemanship magazine from 1968. One of the articles described the training required of reining horses. The author wrote the following, “One of the key elements of performance horsemanship is impulsion. A lot of young people don’t know what impulsion is. I am simply referring to forward movement.” Although styles and techniques have changed, in the last 40 years, the writer is as correct today as he was in 1968.
Without impulsion (i.e. forward movement), we’re dead in the water. This idea escapes some riders who are continually thinking, “Don’t go too fast. Slow down. Be careful. Quit moving!” Whether you are a novice rider or professional, your horse is a pleasure horse or performance horse, every rider needs forward impulsion.
Here are some things that I look for during the first ride when I start colts: I need my colt to step forward as I encourage him with my voice, body, and legs. Once he is moving forward he can become more comfortable and confident with his new rider. Without forward movement, I might go from stuck feet to getting bucked off in short order. If my colt is moving forward there is less likelihood of bucking, rearing, and other negative behaviors. Here are two common scenarios, when a horse lacks impulsion:
– The Seasoned Trail Horse – What happens when the rider tries to leave the barnyard to go on a ride? The barn sour horse lacks impulsion and refuses to head out on the trail. The rider kicks and clucks, yet the horse quits moving forward and starts backing up.
– Negotiating Obstacles – When you try to cross a creek, or anything that your horse might be unsure of, the horse locks up and refuses to move forward. He was happy to walk along the trail, until he saw something in his path that he didn’t like and then he loses all of his impulsion.
These two preceding examples are not the time to teach impulsion. These are times to remind your horse to go forward when asked. Whether it’s a colt or a seasoned saddle horse, they need to understand how to start moving their feet when we ask through our voice and body.
One common mistake that riders make when attempting forward movement is that they are actually pushing on the brake and gas pedal at the same time. In an effort to direct their horse over the ditch, they are pulling too much on the reins. Sometimes when a horse loses impulsion it starts backing up. A rider will inadvertently pull on the reins in an effort to stop the horse. It’s just a reflex on the rider’s part, but it only compounds the problem, and can even be dangerous. Horses have flipped over backwards on their riders because of this poor rein management.
To avoid these negative behaviors we need to learn how to push our hands forward when asking for impulsion from a colt or sticky, sour horse. Learning how to give positive lateral direction with our hands and reins, without restricting forward movement, is an acquired skill we need to master. Without this clarity our horses receive mixed messages. They hear us saying “Go, don’t go,” at the same time we are kicking with our legs and pulling with our hands on the reins. Needless to say, that’s not going to promote forward impulsion.
One effective tool for forward movement is to spank rather than continually kick with no result. Impulsion and forward drive comes from behind. That’s why jockeys spank their horses along the hip rather than attempt to kick them incessantly to speed up. I like my aids to be progressive. I want to ask before I promise. I will begin to cluck or kiss with my voice, push my hands forward, bring up life in my body, and begin to use my legs with a squeeze or tap. If nothing happens I will increase the intensity with a spanking of a whip or rein. Now my horse knows that I am not just offering idle threats, I am going to ask him, but I will not beg him. If I am consistent with these escalating cues my horse will begin to take me seriously and recognize that it’s in his best interest to move forward.
This technique of spanking will have to be developed and practiced. Learning how to take one rein and spank your horse on the hip while still directing, and not inadvertently pulling, requires coordination and timing that only come with experience. As funny as it sounds you might want to practice while sitting in a chair or in your saddle, on a stand. If you are not very handy with your tools and techniques, some type of simulated practice can make a lot of sense. Remember, forward impulsion is absolutely essential to anything that we ask our horse to do.

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