Engagement can be explained as forward energy, ask for and controlled by the rider, delivered by the horse without tension. The horse moves forward freely, swinging his hindlegs more under his body with each stride. This engagement is necessary for the correct contact.
A lot of times this is confused with going fast. It has nothing to do with speed. A horse can go very slow and be super engaged (collection), whereas he can run like mad without any engagement at all (as the rider won’t have any control).
Every horse can move with engagement. But it looks different. If you have a well bred dressage horse, it will look more impressive. A young horse can be engaged, but he hasn’t got the strength to carry with his hindlegs, so his balance will be different. But it is still the same thing: the feeling that the horse is willing to move forward.
To create engagement it is important to have a horse off the leg and in front of you. This means he understands what you mean when you put your legs on. A light touch means ‘go forward’. Don’t squeeze. Squeezing means ‘stop’. It’s like putting your arms around a child that tries to run off onto a road. It should be just a short touch and your horse should move forward. If not: repeat a little more firm. If he still doesn’t respond: give a tiny tickle with a schooling whip. Still nothing: whack!
Then repeat, but always in that same order. Always start with the lightest aid. If he does go forward, reward with your voice. Make sure you don’t restrict him with the reins. He has to be able to go. Don’t make him walk through closed doors. If you do this very consistent, he will go at your first light aid. But it means you have to do the same all the time and he has to give you that same response, otherwise you have to do it again. Some riders don’t trust their horse to respond the right way and therefore give him the firm aid. Or they repeat their aids over and over. If you do so, but you don’t make sure he does give you an answer on the first light aid, he will go numb. And how will he know you do mean it when you kick him for the umpftiest time…? You should mean it the first time. And always, so also when you are tired.
This consistency is very important for engagement. It might seem easier with very sharp horses, but actually it is not. Engagement is also about control. If they run off all the time, it is not good. With those horses you should be able to hold your leg on without them running away. Think about what aid you want him to react to.
Even very lazy horses can be engaged, as long as you are consistent. If he knows you will demand an answer, he’ll give it straight away. My former GP ride Davy was very laid back and relaxed. But he knew I ment business, so once on board he was sharp and awake. Good engagement is more a matter of determination as a rider. But always be fair. Think about your aids, he has to understand them. And always work towards the lightest of aids.
A good way to practice engagement is riding transitions. From one gait to the other or within a gait. He has to move forward, but stay balanced on his hindlegs. Don’t storm off, don’t chase him off his hindlegs. Downward transitions should feel like an airplane landing, or a duck in a pond: hindlegs first. Don’t let him drop on the front end.