Reader Question: How do I know if my horse is engaged enough with his hind end? Can I tell from how much he tracks up in walk, trot and canter? How much should he track up? I am a lower-level rider and my horse is a Friesian cross. —Name withheld by request
Gretchen DeMone: Your question provides an opportunity to clarify two important aspects of our sport. The answer is “no”—you cannot tell whether a horse is engaged solely by how much he tracks up in walk, trot and canter. Tracking up or overtracking is explained as “the hind feet touching the ground in front of the hoofprints of the forefeet” in USEF Rule DR 103, and is required or expected to various degrees in free, extended and medium walk. Engagement is the bending of the hind-leg joints, specifically articulation of the pelvis, stifles, hocks and fetlocks, enabling the horse to shift his weight off his front end and carry more weight behind. For clarity, impulsion is the ability to spring out of engagement. To determine if your horse is engaged, look at the articulation and the activity of the hind end and whether that energy is transmitted through an elastic back toward the bit.
Engagement should feel like the horse propels you without effort. His back and loin should feel free from negative tension and should feel lifted to support your seat. As his lumbosacral joint, stifles, hocks and fetlocks flex to shift the weight and carry more behind, the croup lowers and the forehand lightens. A mental image would be a drawing of a horse with the hind-leg joints bent, and the croup lowered as a result and there would be a pillow under the rider’s seat between the saddle and the horse’s back, extending to the loin area.
When a horse is engaged, the downward transitions are smooth, as he carries himself into the new gait from behind instead of falling onto the front end. You will also be able to release the inside rein for a few strides without a change in balance, tempo or the outline of the horse.
Conformation can play a part in the ability of the horse to engage. For example, straighter hind-leg joints versus joints with more angle or hind legs that move in a manner that puts them out behind the body of the horse will have difficulty coming under to engage. “Out behind” means hind legs function behind the horse’s body instead of pushing and carrying underneath. However, focusing solely on overtracking in the trot and canter may lead someone to put the horse on the forehand and actually inhibit engagement, or the bending of the hind legs. Asking the horse to step larger than what his balance can maintain while still being able to engage the hind end will push weight onto his front legs. Thus, the horse’s base of support should become neither too short nor too long.
To increase engagement, progressively build the musculature of your horse to enable him first to push in the forward thrust required at First Level and then over time, to carry more weight behind. Gymnastic exercises, transitions within the gait and transitions in/out of the gaits are productive ways of developing and creating engagement. As the horse builds his musculature, he will develop the ability to sit more and more behind and spring off the ground in lively impulsion, which should feel springy, developing collection to various degrees as he progresses through the levels. During all the work, focus on producing an elastic back, swinging hips, articulated hind-leg joints and activity with a true desire to go forward.
Gretchen DeMone is a USDF Certified Instructor, a USDF silver medalist and a USDF “L” judge. Judging throughout New England as well as giving clinics, she operates DeMone Dressage and travels to instruct and train facility owners, managers, instructors and their students throughout Southeastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island.