Developing a horse’s engagement is fundamental to progress up in the dressage levels, and it is a term often used by judges.
When horses are engaged, their balance improves and your transitions are smoother, as your lateral exercises are more fluent. But, what does engagement really mean?
The term engagement is used to describe the horse’s ability to work with self-carriage and collection. Self-carriage means the horse maintains its frame, rhythm and balance while collection teaches a horse to re-balance their weight and to carry more on his hind quarters than on his shoulders.
Depending on the horse’s level of training, his hind legs step further forward underneath his body to carry more weight instead of relying on his shoulders. At the end this helps a horse feel light and uphill, finding transitions easy and doing everything with ease.
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If a horse feels as if he is disconnected, unbalanced, falls through his transitions or moves with his hindquarters in or out instead of following a track, then he is not engaged.
Developing engagement should feel for horse and rider as if the horse propels without effort, and his back and loin should be free of tension.
There are three components that make up engagement when horse training: moving forward, suppleness and straightness.
When moving forward with young horses, it might seem as if the horse is running away, but you must resist the temptation to slow the horse down. When the horse understands the half-halt, you can improve his balance without compromising on energy.
If the horse does not want to go forward, you need to be careful not to push the horse out of his rhythm and balance. In this case you can encourage a horse to move forwards with walk-trot transitions, large circles in the working canter or large turnos about the forehand.
Regarding suppleness, the horse must have an increased pelvis tuck and extra bending of his hind leg joints. In order to do this, the horse must be supple. You can improve suppleness of the joints for dressage by starting the track bending uniformly around circles and turns.
Finally, straightness involves a horse must be straight in order to be engaged. This allows horses to take more weight on their hindquarters. When moving along a straight line, his footfalls follow only one track, and on curved lines the horse’s hind legs follow precisely the track of his front legs.
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