Impulsion: A Destination in Itself
by Parelli Natural Horsemanship on Jan 11, 2023
By Neil Pye—Instructor Emeritus
Impulsion is just one word, but it's not a simple word. In a way, it can be a confusing word. Impulsion is not a word you regularly hear in the English language, but it is a word you often hear in the horse world. It's one of those terms not many people truly understand, or there are a variety of definitions and opinions as to what it means. A common definition for us in Parelli World is Impulsion is when Go = Whoa.
Although it's only one word, it's a profoundly broad subject worthy of spending time with, not only for the horse's sake but for the human on their journey to becoming horsemen/women.
When you look at the Parelli Program, Pat's done a great job of creating an architecture. With Levels specifically guiding us through the learning pathway. The overarching architecture, the four systems, is what you are always looking at, even before you get into the granular side, and detail of things. Rapport, and Respect, Impulsion and Flexion. So anytime you look at a horse, you think, "where is that horse?" If you can plot where the horse is, it tells you what areas need work. So, although it's only one word, it indicates where your horse is in the big picture.
You are forever working on building rapport with your horse, but not so much you lose respect. The nature of a horse is always to try and see if he can move up in the herd. So, rapport and respect are always things you are balancing. Rapport is needed to help build their confidence in learning situations, but you need respect when they start to get overconfident.
No matter where you are on your journey, whether with a new or established horse, you are constantly working on rapport and respect. Then comes the topic we are talking about today, impulsion, and that's an ongoing thing too!
As I mentioned, many people have busy lives and not as much time as they would like with their horses. Sometimes understanding rapport, respect, and impulsion is a destination for many horse owners.
Although we would like all our members to get to Level Four, which looks at understanding rapport, respect, impulsion, and flexion, it is not always practical for the everyday horse owner in the modern-day world.
Impulsion is a huge destination because another way to describe it is emotional collection. Which sounds nice, but what does this mean? Well, as I have mentioned before, it's the Go = Whoa. In real terms, emotional collection means you have taught the horse through the Levels to be calm, smart, and brave in most situations, both on the ground and under saddle. You can be confident, stretch yourself, and look at flexion on this horse. If you do not have a calm, smart and brave horse, it's tough to teach them much.
Impulsion is a real test of a human's emotional fitness. Rapport and respect lay the foundation for your horse to become a good citizen and handle all slow-moving activities like picking up feet, tying, and loading into a trailer.
But can they be calm in a walk, trot, and canter?
In most situations, you have a very emotionally collected horse if you can walk, trot, and canter your horse on a loose rain. To achieve this, you must delve into Levels Two and Three and understand how to stretch your horse's comfort zone. If your horse is comfortable on a loose rein at the walk but gets scared in the faster gaits, this is where you need to stretch him. When your horse begins to accept that he is safe, you can remove the pressure.
Learning how to stretch a horse and get them emotionally braver is one of the biggest learning curves for people in their horsemanship journey.
Only one word, but impulsion is a vast, rich, rewarding subject and requires a lot of effort from the human.
What kind of barriers can get in the way for people?
The most obvious barrier arises when you are riding, and you feel your horse is not naturally calm, smart, and brave. You can fall into the terrible trap of "Giddy Up - a little bit." This is when you ask the horse to go forward, but because you’re not confident, you tend to pull back as much as you ask them to go. This is very frustrating for your horse. Although you don’t mean to, your desire to keep you and your horse safe is making things worse.
Another example is when a horse is good at the walk and the trot, but his head goes up and braces as soon as he goes a bit faster. Many people, being empathetic, believe they scared the horse or did something wrong and back off. This is good. You retreated.
However, if you retreat too often, you are training them that the faster they get fractious, the faster you retreat.
Instead of creating an emotionally calm horse, you develop an emotional horse. This scenario often locks you into Level Two hell. You cannot speed up your horse without them losing it. This is the biggest barrier to impulsion.
You must remember the instincts of a prey animal. When their feet are moving fast, they start into prey animal thinking. The real sign of a partnership is even with their feet moving and their blood up a bit, they use the thinking side of their brain, not the prey animal side.
If you can't get to this stage with your horse, don't consider compression or use collection to achieve flexion. It will go wrong if you try to put flexion on an emotionally unstable horse. That's why we have the prerequisites before introducing flexion in the Levels program. If you can't walk, trot, and canter your horse on a loose rein, they are not ready to be put into flexion.
It's a self-evident rule, but one often broken by most normal people by putting them in a frame without those prerequisites. You can see why Pat came up with the program we know and love.
From a student's perspective, how do they know they are on the right track?
I think any time you know you can put the energy in comfortably, bring your energy up, and the horse walks or trots with effort or just lifts into the canter, and as you drop your energy, you can take the energy out, which comes back to the expression with Go =Whoa. That's the sign!
That's a short answer, but this can take anywhere from a year to 5 years, especially if you have a highly emotional or stubborn horse. When you get to impulsion, one of the more dangerous horses is often a “bombproof” horse because he only wants to walk or trot. This is good for Levels One and Two, but when impulsion is required in Levels Three and Four, the horse won’t go. When you ask them to put more effort in, they get furious, and what you thought was a bombproof horse is one that says, "Listen, when I say No, I mean No!" These are the horses who buck when you ask them to go forward, which is anything but impulsion.
Is it worse to have a horse that runs, and you want to slow them down? Or one that doesn't want to go, and you must put life in? They can be challenging, but either one tells you the journey you are on, and you must balance those two.
It's a tremendous journey, and I think the crux of what Parelli Natural Horsemanship is about.
Over the years, many people have talked about physical collection. Still, one of the reasons Parelli Natural Horsemanship has changed everything is because we deal with the emotions of the horse, not just the physical side. The physical won't come unless the emotional is taken care of, which is the strength of the Parelli Levels Pathway.