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Dressage Terminology: Engagement

Updated: Jul 19, 2023

In this article, we are going to be talking all about engagement. It’s another word that coaches and judges love to use but so many of us have no idea what it actually means. We’re going to look at what it means, what a judge means if they say you ‘need more engagement), how to know if you need more engagement and most importantly how to improve your horses engagement.

What is engagement?

Engagement is the use to describe a horse that has the ability to work in self carriage with collection. In normal words, its about their ability to be able to carry their weight on their hindquarters (so more of their weight should be carried on their hindlegs rather than on their shoulders and front legs), have an active hindleg that steps underneath their body and balance and move freely without reliance on the rein. Judges talk about 'engagement' a lot and as you progress through the levels more engagement is expected; we need the horse's hindlegs to step more underneath themselves, to carry more weight on hindlegs that have more activity resulting in a horse that is uphill.

What does the judge mean if they say 'needs more engagement'?

If a judge says to you 'needs more engagement', what they mean is that your horse needs to carry their weight more on their hind end, have a more active hindleg and have that hindleg step under the body more. Now all of this is achieved by going back to your Scales of Training again

How do you know if your horse isnt engaged?

If your horse feel disconnected, you lose the contact whether thats because he gets to strong or too light, if hes not straight, if he becomes unbalanced regularly, if he fells in or out on circles and corners. All of these are sigs of a horse that isn't engaged. Again, all of these things link back to those Scales of Training,

How do you improve your horses engagement?

So if you're looking to improve your horse's engagement you need to take yourself back to those scales of training. When you work on the scales of training you work on:

1. Your horses ability to walk trot and canter with regularity and taking even steps (that's your rhythm)

2. You work on your horse being laterally and longitudinally soft and flexible to be able to let the energy flow from the hind end to the front end (that's your suppleness), 3. You work on having a horse that takes the contact evenly and softly and works in self carriage (that's your contact),

4. You work on having your horse take you forward, reacting to your aids and actively pushing forward in their hindleg (that's your impulsion),

5. You work on having a horse that is balanced and even with their hindlegs following the tracks of the front legs (that's your straightness)

6. You work on having your horse carry their weight on their hindlegs, stepping underneath their body (that's your collection).

And when you have all of that and are able to do all of that within the movements you need to do at your level, you should have a sufficient amount of engagement, throughness and connection. When it comes to engagement the main focus is on that last one, collection, but to be able to collect a horse you need all those scales before to be in place before your horse is physically able to collect with quality.

What can you do to improve your horses engagement?

Transitions are your best friend. They help improve your horses impulsion, balance, collection, contact and longitudinal suppleness your horse take the weight behind more as well as reacting quickly and more obediently to your leg. Once your horse is more established you can introduce transitions within the paces where you can work between different tempos of trot like between a working trot and a collected trot.

Next thing that works really well are circles. These improve your horses collection and suppleness; they teach the horse to balance off their hindlegs and take more weight behind, lift up off their forehand but keep pushing forward around the circle, the bend around your inside leg also helps to improve your horse's suppleness and ability to bend sideways in the body and neck too.

Lateral exercises like shoulder in are also fantastic because, like with the circles they improve your horses collection and suppleness at the same time. They take more weight on the hindlegs and have to step underneath with their inside hindleg which makes it a great exercise for improving your horses strength in their hind end too.

What is the difference between 'engagement' and 'throughness' or 'connection'?

We've spoken before about what 'throughness' and 'connection' means; and engagement gets put in this group too. The reason for this all comes down to those scales of training again (rhythm, suppleness, contact, impulsion, straightness and collection). When a horse has all of these sufficient for the level you are competing at, the horse will be through and they will be engaged and be connected. So all these words work the same as the scales of training in that each time you go up a level you are required to have those scales of training more developed and of a higher quality and because of this, you should also have a higher quality level of throughness, connection and engagement.

You'll hear dressage people talk a lot about riding a horse 'from the hind end to the front end' and this is just the concept that the horse is stepping forward from the hindleg into an even, soft rein contact. And this is pretty much what 'throughness', 'engagement' and 'connection' mean. They all mean that the horse is pushing from the hindleg into the contact. But I like to think 'throughness' has more of a focus on the suppleness and freedom and lack of any tension or resistance in the body for the energy to be able flow from the hind end through to the front end and the bit. The engagement focuses more on the horses ability to be able to carry the weight on an active hindleg to be able to push that energy into the front end in an uphill manner. And the connection focuses more on the front end contact that is created from the hindleg pushing into the contact.

So if you get another comment on your test sheet that says ‘needs more engagement’ I hope you now know exactly what this means and what you need to do on your training to get more engagement with your horse.

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