Many instructors mention the need for “activity” in the horse’s hind end. What does that mean? How does one achieve it? I will explain what correct activity is and how the rider can use her aids to activate her horse’s motor.
Activity and Balance
Demanding activity is one way for an instructor to guide a rider toward finding correct impulsion. Think of the horse’s hind legs as the motor. The motor naturally pushes the horse forward in motion. When you add activity to the hind legs with your leg aids, you increase the RPMs (revolutions per minute) of the motor. At the same time, you must give the horse a waiting aid with the rein. You will feel an increase in the power but not the speed. The tempo should stay the same or become slightly quicker, the rhythm of the gait should stay pure and the ground cover and miles per hour should not increase.
Impulsion is part of a correctly balanced horse and is one of the most important qualities I help riders focus on finding in dressage. If the horse is in the right balance for a certain level, every exercise and movement at that level should be easy. Activity behind is necessary to achieve longitudinal balance because the horse needs an increased amount of push, reach and engagement of the hind legs to keep them underneath himself. When the horse’s hind legs are energetic and in the right place to carry his weight, his back can be relaxed and the energy can move through his body over the topline to the bit. If the horse lacks activity and his hind legs stay out behind him, he cannot carry his weight on the hind end and his energy will not make it to the bit.
Before you can ask for activity, make sure you have the following:
• You can ride in a regular rhythm and correct tempo at each gait.
• The horse is supple and you have control of his lateral balance.
• You feel an even connection in both reins.
If you try to add activity to a misaligned horse, the energy you create in the hind legs disappears out the crooked body part instead of passing through the back and connecting to the bit. Use the contact you feel in the reins to monitor the lateral balance because the weight in the reins reflects the weight on the shoulders. In other words, if you feel the horse stronger on one rein, it is almost always because he is leaning on one shoulder; he is unlikely to be stiff only in the jaw or neck. If the horse is even in the contact, it means his shoulders are in the right place and carrying even weight from left to right. To help the leaning horse become more even in the contact, use the leg on the heavy side to move that shoulder underneath him so the shoulders are even. The rider’s leg can also align one or both hind legs to give the horse better ability to carry the weight behind and therefore lighten the shoulders.
When I teach a rider to add impulsion to the horse’s motor, I say, “Tak tak!” to correspond with the correct leg aid to activate the horse. The idea of “tak tak” helps the rider find the right energy in her own legs. The aid is not a kick, but is a quick tapping with the ankle, heel or spur. The rest of the leg is relaxed, allowing the horse’s energy to move through the horse under the seat and leg. Because every horse and rider are different, you may need to experiment. Some horses respond better to a whisper of movement, some need to feel the boot leather and some do better with a tickle of the whip at the same time. The timing and energy of the activating aid is more important than its strength. Sometimes riders use their legs like glue, which causes the horse to slow and become dull to the legs. The rider should use the “tak tak” leg aid to teach the horse to activate in response to a lighter leg aid. Then the rider can do less with the aids and the horse offers more.
You must incorporate a waiting rein aid as you use the activating leg aid to make sure the horse does not speed up. Speed causes the horse to push the hind legs out behind him and compromises the longitudinal balance. Use a quick aid—one stride or less—when you close the hands on the reins without coming backward with the arms to ask the horse to wait. Immediately afterward, the rider releases and allows the horse to go on his own. Repeat the waiting rein aid as needed as you activate your horse’s hind end.
When done correctly, activating the horse’s motor gives you the power you need to improve the horse’s longitudinal balance and therefore achieve collection. Riders of all levels can think of the activity behind, whether they add enough for First Level or for Grand Prix. The rider who masters activity behind learns to channel the horse’s energy and creates power in the work.
João Miguel Varela Torrão is a trainer and instructor at Monte Velho Equo-Resort near Arraiolos, Potugal. In addition to being a Level I certified trainer through the Portuguese Equestrian Federation, he has competed and placed internationally in the FEI 5- and 6-year-old tests.