Back to Back Issues Page
The Whole Horse newsletter No. 20 - The Mechanism of Engagement
November 30, 2012

The Mechanism of Engagement

Spotlight On Training

Are You Free-wheeling or Traction-on?

A good way to describe the phenomenon of the ring of engagement of horse and rider is to liken the horse to a bicycle. When riding a bike in gear, you are applying force to the pedals which engages the chain and turns the wheels. When a rider engages a horse they have to activate a similar cyclic system, except it is made of muscles and ligaments rather than cranks and levers.

One difference is that in riding a horse, the engine lies within the horse whereas it is the cyclist who powers the bike. This, in addition to the fact that the horses is not already straight and ready to carry a rider like a bike is, makes riding a horse such a complicated enterprise. Thinking about the difference between riding a bike in gear and freewheeling along, however, does help to define the sensation of engagement, as well as illustrating that engaging a horse is a real, physical phenomenon. Unfortunately, because it requires accurate posture and weight positioning of the rider - itself the result of a specific gymnastic development, many people never experience it when they ride.

Just as a bicycle is nicer to ride when it is prepared properly i.e. pumping up the tires and oiling the mechanism, a horse benefits hugely from the right kind of preparation before riding. This involves tuning the cardiovascular system to an extent, but most importantly strengthening the musculoskeletal system for engagement . This is so that the rider's weight does not trigger the hollowing reflex in the horses back, as well as improving the horse's ability to rebalance themselves before they are unbalanced further by the rider.

The actual process of engaging a horse is powered by the leg in the same way as a cyclist pushes the pedals. In the rider's case it is a stimulation as well as a balancing and softening effect, because the true power comes from the horse, and it must be managed as well as encouraged in each moment.

Riding with no or little leg contact is the equivalent of freewheeling. Although motion continues, the connection to the engagement mechanism is interrupted, so there is no real control of the horse's body, other than steering his mouth which can hardly be described as control. Having 'traction-on' is the key to an enjoyable riding experience (photo, below). As for modifying the speed, the brakes on a bike influence the wheels. The rider uses the seat aids, which are a combination of postural balance, weight aids and upper leg aids to influence the power coming through the horses body from his engine, mainly in the haunches.

Looking at it in this way, all of the correct aiding from a rider, which generates, maintains and controls engagement accesses the horse directly where he engages, in his muscular ring (see HHT page 'What does 'on the bit' really mean?'). This is because this is exactly where the rider touches the horse which their body. Direct physical connection is the secret to becoming 'one with your horse'.

The Parallels with Management

The same concept of direct physical connection can also be practiced on the ground with your horse (See the recent posts on the HHT blog: contact yielding). It is the way horses calm each other and groom and play. Whether you are teaching a youngster not to push into your space, or strengthening your bond with an older horse, direct physical contact is much more tension reducing than using ropes or sticks.

A new bicycle from the shop with clean, oiled chain and pumped-up tires will be easier to ride than a rusty, dirty old thing at the back of the shed. The same is true for horses. The horse which is supple from an outdoor life, balanced nutrition so his feet aren't sensitive, and barefoot so he can feel what he is doing with his feet, will give a very different performance from the horse who is shut in for most of the time making his joints stiff and inflamed, with a diet is high in cereals which upsets his gut making him feel grumpy and depressed in general.

HHT's monthly Try This At Home Tip

How To Feel Engagement

  • When moving at a forward-going pace in either trot or canter, try dropping the reins and stop asking with your leg, and see how your horse responds. The engaged horse always slows down. This is because engagement creates a kind of 'engine-breaking' in the horse which is always bringing him back to the rider, unlike the free-wheeling disengaged horse who's downhill momentum keeps him running forwards regardless of the rider's aids.
  • After you have been working on a contact, let your horse out onto a long rein. Does he stretch his head down without any encouragement from you? A horse who has been working in engagement has a lifted back and longitudinal stretch throughout his whole spine which results in spontaneous stretching down when the rein is offered. The same goes for when you yield the reins forward for a moment - the engaged horse will stay round and soft in the jaw instead of hollowing.
  • Is your horse really soft in his jaw on the rein contact? This is one of the most obvious signs of engagement, but make sure that this softening is genuine. There are many ways to create softening in the jaw artificially, e.g. 'fiddling' with the hands, using a double bridle or any bit with leverage that makes the horse automatically yield to the contact, or conditioning with auxiliary aids such as draw-reins, balancing reins and so on. This conditioning could even have been carried out before you owned the horse in question, but the artificial head-carriage that results, and the tendency to go behind the bit, is usually unmistakable. True softening in the horse's mouth onto the bit is an integral part of the engagement of the horse's ring of postural muscles. For the rider it is a precious indication of correct transmission from behind, hence why we should never try to create it artificially.

How To See Engagement

  • An engaged horse looks supple and fluid, as if every joint in his body was being used. He/she should never look rushed or tense. The eye should look quiet and focused inwards, and the ears are often turned back, listening to the rider. The mouth is always quiet, without any tight nose-band needed to hold it shut, and usually a small amount on froth on the lips
  • When watching a horse and rider combination, try to see where the fulcrum of the balance lies - that is, the central point of stability around which everything else moves. When the horse is not engaged, this fulcrum is almost always in the rider's hand, and if you look closely you should be able to see signs of holding and rigidity in the rein-contact. In engagement, the fulcrum is in the rider's seat and leg, and these should look seamlessly connected to the horse. When the fulcrum is in the seat and leg, it is actually more likely that the rein contact is not totally consistent - there may be looseness in the reins showing self-carriage, or inconsistency due to the horse's crookedness that the rider is not 'hiding' with the contact. Only in work that has perfect, even transmission from both hind-legs can the horse offer the rider a truly consistent, elastic contact. This is a lot rarer than we may expect.
  • If you are watching a video of a rider, then you may have the luxury of being able to pause it to check the diagonals of the horse. When a horse is engaged in any kind of trot work, even in piaffe and passage, the lower canon bone of the hind-leg should be at all times parallel with the upper limb of the fore-leg. Look at a few videos of competitive dressage on the internet, and you may be surprised to see how rarely this is the case, and how large the divergence is - often up to 45 degrees difference in angle between front and back. Make sure you stop the video when the foreleg is at its most raised in the stride, as this is when any lack of unity in the diagonals becomes most apparent. This is perhaps one of the most concrete and indisputable visual signs of engagement. Its frequent absence in competitive dressage is telling of a unfortunate preference for spectacular foreleg movement over quality of engagement. See What does 'on the bit' really mean for photographs that illustrate this.

Join the HHT group on Facebook!

See and share topical news, info and photo's on the Happy Horse Training Facebook group. Once you join you can take part in lively disscusion on subjects relevant to holistic equitation, and make friends with like-minded people all over the world.

Just Click here to go to the HHT group page, and then click on the 'join group' button at the top right of the page.

Sharing the Holistic Message

If you enjoy Happy Horse Training and you find the information on the site useful, please help us to share it by clicking on the Facebook 'like' and 'share' buttons (if you have a fb account) that are on each page. Any other way you can pass the site on to friends and colleagues via, for example, discussion forums, is of course also greatly appreciated.

You can also sign up to our RSS feed (blog) to be kept up to date with new ideas, pages and other information that we post there. Just click on the box that says 'subscribe to this site' at the right of each page.

The equestrian world is one dominated by traditionalist ideas and conventions, but we like to think we can help inform the growing minority of horse-owners who want to make their horses happier with progressive and holistic methods.

Happy Horse Training now has over 100 pages exploring many different areas of holistic equitation. Do have a look through our site plan to find the subjects and categories that interest you.

Available from HHT:

The first part in HHT's Training series: How To Train A Horse Without Force. This quality e-book gives you a unique holistic understanding of training horses, from the very first contact with a young horse, through to a thoroughly explained method of lunging that is beneficial for any horse, not just in preparation for first riding, but at any stage of training.

With your purchase you will receive a free bonus supplement on Horse Trauma - cutting edge insights on this subject that up until now have mostly been applied only to human trauma. This supplement shows how to recognise, avoid and deal with horse trauma, which is much more common that we realise.

These two e-books, comprising more than 75 thousand words and richly illustrated, are available for only 19.99 Euros (around $26). Click here for more details.

Other HHT Products:

The Simple Seven-Step Natural Trim eBook

Learn how to perform the ideal barefoot trim with this comprehensive how-to guide.

Click here to visit Happy Horse Training

Back to Back Issues Page