Engagement – tracking up – ‘underneath behind’.
by Colleen Kelly
What is engagement?
Engagement is ‘sitting’ and carrying more weight on the hind legs. A simple and easy way to explain engagement to your pupils might be: “as if the horse ‘sits’ so the tip of their tail is closer to the floor”
(which is, indeed, a reason why tails are trimmed, so the horse doesn’t step on their own tail in rein-back. An overly-long tail dragging on the ground is not natural – as the forest, sticks & twigs would naturally pull hairs and keep it short – and it’s not safe, therefore if a coach is giving a lesson with a tail that touches the floor it should be bound up in a polo knot or similar – or trimmed – for fear of lawsuit for negligence in not warning the rider and the horse stands on the tail rears & flips. Don’t think it can’t happen because it has, and at a World Championships at which I was Key Note Speaker. I was watching the judging of a carriage event with several horses with long tails that were not bound and the judge, asked for line up, then one by one rein back – step backwards – with long tails dragging – carriages! With hindsight, of course she should have eliminated every horse with a dangerous tail as being ‘unable to present rein-back’, but she did not, and the inevitable catastrophe that is now so famous occurred).
Engagement is when the hocks bend and get lower to the floor. The cannon bone of the back leg is at a steeper angle. The back feet carry more weight and the front feet become lighter.
The advanced rider never ‘lightens the front end’, they ‘sit the back end down’ through:
- their seat and position
- exercises such as shoulder in and especially shoulder in to the wall
- riding downhill
- downward transitions and
It is a false balance if you are trying to lift the front end unnaturally, which is why “high hands” are marked down in dressage. The rules have become even clearer in the past few years where it always said: “the hand must be low”, it now says: “to draw a straight line from the elbow to the bit”, so they are even more precise at penalising ‘false lifting’ ‘vs’ true ‘sitting & carrying’.
Why is engagement good?
1. More ‘sit’ to lighten front end
The advantages of engagement are a bit like a kangaroo. A kangaroo ‘sits’ on his little butt, heavy on his back feet so he can balance the weight back so the front feet are light, and he can move around and use them. Exactly like a reining horse in a spin, sitting so deep and heavy behind that the front end is so light they are free for the animal to use them and move the front end around easily making any kind of turning & lateral work easier for the front end.
2. More ‘bounce & jump’
Engagement is all about getting the horse, just in front of the big Badminton or Rolex style fences to ‘sit’ in front of the jump so their spine is very ’round’ over the fence, and they get maximum height, and maximum ‘tuck’ in front. The engaging steps, just before the fence, get the horse to jump more like a ’rounded dolphin’ going through the hoop – almost thinking ‘fin first’, rather than ‘run at the fence – chin out’, hollow & flat.
3. More ‘stop & slow down’
Engagement tends to slow horses down, therefore if you do want to stop, instead of riding from the front to the back like we’re taught as a beginner (i.e. pull the reins), a more advanced way is to use additional engagement to stop the horse. That is a much higher level of training, being able to stop a horse with no reins at all – just a shift in the rider’s seat, position & balance creating the engagement that slowed the horse down.
How can you get more engagement?
These are some great ways to start downward transitions. You want to see how tiny and invisible you can make these to get the best results, and the highest marks. Can you use these to get your horse slow down using ‘sitting & engagement’ not the reins:
- Eyes up
- Nose up
- Chin up
- Make sure your Adam’s apple is visible
- Chest up (not to the point of over-arching and looking crazy!)
- Hands down
- Thumbs on top
- Toes up (no, not heels down, but that’s a whole other article)
- No more kicking! Reiners don’t kick to get the horse to sit. The rider might use the leg to get the horse to bring his hind legs more forward, but that’s NOT engagement…that’s TRACKING UP! And, if you’re going from extension to collection – you do not want to track up – you must undertrack as it’s a smaller, higher collected steps…but there’s more on tracking up below
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
- Start again at 1 if the horse hasn’t stopped, and eventually “squeeze and release” on the reins until you get stop.
- If you are really having stopping problems – then you need to fix this fast! If your only way of stopping is a one-rein stop, that is incredibly dangerous! You need to think about a Policeman doing a one-rein stop into traffic. Or, riding down the Grand Canyon, or along a barbed wire fence on the road…you cannot turn!!! And, downhill on ice or in snow, it can flip your horse completely over by turning at speed. So, please you need to urgently learn how to stop a bolting horse on a straight line!
There are videos available here. There are ways to get all of this training for free. You can download the free 2016 Program here
The opposite to engagement – on the forehand
The opposite to engagement is on the forehand, and where a reininer or dressage rider might both ‘cringe’ at the thought, the race jockey in the Kentucky Derby sure does not choose to sit like a reiner.
Those two extreme positions give you an idea of what happens when you change your seat and position. No jockey in the world is going to get a sliding stop riding in that position, and I’m pretty sure the reininer won’t be first past the post on the racetrack.
Reining – an example of “engagement, slide, sit & spin” position.
Jockeys – an example of “on the forehand & fast” position.
However, dressage riders have a belief that at all costs the must not use their body, only their hands and legs, where in fact the FEI Rules clearly state the exact opposite: the more you use your legs – the less marks you get. The more you use your hands – the less marks you get.
The more you use just your seat & posture (plus of course with impulsion), the less you need your hands and legs any more that you needed back when you were at Pony Club to get fluffy the stinky pony to stop eating clover and jump that puddle you’ve been trying to kick him over for 15 minutes.
On the Level 2 DVDs we show you how to use the inside leg being heavier & away from the horse (rather than using the outside leg to push) to get the most amazing bend & performance in movements like half pass.
Engagement inevitably brings with it loss of impulsion & power and that’s when we start kicking. Here’s a way to get the horse forward like paralympians do – without any leg at all…now that’s a master. That’s invisible, and that’s when a rider mark might go up to a 10. “See free article: My horse won’t go forward“.
Regularity comes before engagement
Great engagement, at the expense of regularity (tempo + rhythm) is a falsehood, and will not receive higher marks. It’s the same as riding a corner that is too deep. Yes, you got to stuff your horse in the corner, but you will lose marks for losing rhythm & tempo (regularity). Regularity is more important than the corner.
(You might also lose marks for using your inside leg which made the horse’s outside ear raise (head tilt) and jack-knife through a bulging outside shoulder – which also causes crossover of the hind legs which any judge can easily see. Crossover is never permitted in corner, circle, loop or serpentine – so you may as well have just left the horse alone and got the same marks rather than stuff him in the corner and lose the regularity).
It’s also the same as extension – you shouldn’t extend past the point of losing the rhythm & tempo. Regularity is more important than extension.
It takes a true master – and truly glorious when we see it – to be able to ride a pirouette at the same identical tempo as an extended trot. It is a thrill for audiences to see it as it is so rare! Normally rider’s ‘cheat’ and have several different tempos, several different musics for trots – faster trot for extension, and barely moving for pirouettes. It is so bad at Olympic Level the Society has been tracking over many Olympics to see if the regularity & tempo has actually become better, in fact it is becoming worse. See the Society’s initial data here
Technically, the horse should be able to do 100% full extension, and 100% full collection to the same music. But it’s so difficult we all explode with joy on the rare times we ever see it done. This is one of the reason that Olympic marks are so low. Compared to other sports which are similarly marked…receiving a ‘6’ in gymnastics or ice-skating would be devastating, but is common in dressage – mainly because no-one has even attempted to present 5 trots to the same music – and step in time to it. But, one day, it will happen. And, then, finally, we will see the 100% test, which other sports long ago achieved.
But, until piaffe, passage, collected, medium & extended are presented in the same test, step by step, not missing a beat through all the movements that test the trot: shoulder in – half pass – pirouettes – with both lengthening & collecting to the same music. And being able to maintain it through the warm-up, and more than 5 minutes in front of the judges, not losing a step. Then, you have your 100%.
Once people dream it possible. It will happen. 100%. I hope it happens in my lifetime! That would be truly historic, and has never been done before, not to lose one beat in a 5 min test! But as the sport becomes more technical, we certainly expect to see it more and more in the future.
How can I tell if my horse is engaged?
If the three main purposes for engagement are to create more
c) slow down & control – without the reins.
Then there certainly should be ways to measure all three.
Therefore, a downward transition that is completely done by the rider invisibly changing their seat, position & balance, and not even touching the reins, and going from extended canter right down to the ultimate collection coming into the canter pirouette – and not touch the reins – that is one of the most prized and highly rewarded arts in dressage. There’s your submission of “10” mark!
People might think submission is just “on the bit”, but it’s a true submission of mind, and to be able to go from a full on extended canter with maximum head nod, to a full on collected canter with barely any head nod, but not do it with your hands at all, not use the bridle or the bit at all, but using the 8 points above: Eyes up, nose up, chin up, chest up, hands down, thumbs on top, toes up (at which point the horse should have slowed down as much as you want – even to a stop if you wanted), then finally remind yourself “how do reiners have their legs for maximum “sit”?
Downward transitions – a test of engagement (the famous ‘gap’)
There’s three major ways to stop horses & slow them down:
- Beginners & young horses we use the reins
- More advanced – we use exercises (e.g. shoulder in to the wall)
- More advanced again is seat, position & balance only to bring the horse back to collection – and no reins at all!
If a rider comes in and uses the reins for a downward transition they will only get an average mark, but they also risk losing additional marks for the horse raising their head either in protest, or in basically losing their balance, and possibly associated loss of rhythm & tempo.
However can do a downward transition through their seat, position & balance, firstly you receive higher marks for using engagement instead of the reins to get the transitions, plus the additional risks of resistance, raised head, loss of regularity are virtually eliminated.
So for the judge to KNOW that you haven’t pulled the reins, that the horse really did come back through the use of engagement, not through the use of your hands, the simplest way to know is to watch the back of the saddle.
Normally the back of the saddle, right under your tail bone, sits on the pad underneath, and the pad sits on the horse’s spine and back. However, during the transition when the horse ‘sits’, that back lowers away from the saddle and creates a ‘gap’ which is very easy to see.
A lot of the lower level downward transitions are done going away from the judge, towards the other end of the arena. This makes it a good way to see the back of the saddle & the sudden appearance of the pad. Or as the horse goes away from you, you might not be able to see the saddle at all, but then in the transition, from behind, the saddle suddenly becomes visible as the horse “sits” and gets his croup & hind quarters out of the way for you to see the saddle.
The judge should be able to see more of the saddle in a downward transition, which proves that the transition was done through ‘sitting’ not ‘pulling’.
When this lowering of the croup is done in a reining sliding stop, the larger gap might be 6 or 8 inches of ‘sudden space’, as the horse engages/sits – a gap between the back of the pad and the spine, where you could reach back and stick your hand in between the pad and the horse, feeling a great gap where the pad does not touch.
In dressage sometimes, sadly, that change at the back of the saddle, the sudden ‘gap’ underneath the pad is barely noticeable – and very rarely a true ‘gap’…One might then question the aids & position of the rider that would be best to create this ‘gap’ that we can measure.
Bottom line – which technique creates more ‘pad gap’? Instead of guessing, we’re measuring – as you can see by the green arrow on the photo of the saddle above: it’s an actual measurement, in inches. It’s not a ‘feel’ that is highly unlikely to be the same for all your clients, and for some clients impossible to ever feel.
It’s a measurement, and it’s in inches, so we can measure, we can repeat, and we can increase higher level performance through consistency.
And of course experiments in quantum mechanics & quantum physics show the simple act of measuring, even without any other effort, changes the thing being measured!
Measuring engagement in the downward transition
- No pad lift/’croup sit’? = no extra engagement. If there is no gap at all, no change, then this is 100% proof that the horse is being stopped through the reins. This should be lowest marks, because the purpose of the transition (i.e. to test if engagement -vs- the rider’s hand created the transition & test the horse’s ability to accept additional weight behind without resistance) has not been fulfilled.
- Little bit of a gap = a little bit of engagement, a younger horse just starting. Only if there was very little use of the reins would there be a good mark.
- Huge gap = if the gap appears without any loss of regularity: rhythm & tempo, and without any raising of the head in resistance to the additional weight behind, and the horse takes shorter steps, not just slows down, and the reins were light, nowe in front of the vertical, and the rider’s hands not involved at all…this is where you get your 10’s for a transition, and a 10 can never ever be given when the hand is used for a downward transition.
Measuring engagement “side on”
Engagement can also be seen ‘side-on’, comparing the wither to the croup.
If you see on the photos, we’ve drawn an imaginary line across from the wither to the croup – and you can see one arrow points down (on the forehand) and one arrow points up (engaged).
When that line changes, it’s said to be a ‘change in balance’. We build more and more engagement every year, more and more ‘sitting’ as the horse is able to do it – but never at the expense of the regularity. Losing regularity is a sign you’ve asked for too much engagement for the horse’s ability.
Regularity is the No. 1 thing that is judged in dressage. Not engagement! So, if you want to continue on high marks, when you start to feel the regularity being lost, then ease off! It’s too advanced for just now. Your horse just told you ‘too much’, and the judge will sure confirm it marking down loss of regularity as the No. 1 thing they will ‘catch you’ on!
What is tracking up?
Tracking up is totally different from engagement. Tracking up is how big your steps are. Little tiny high steps are the opposite and called collection. Big, long, flatter steps are called extension, and all extensions ‘over track’.
In walk and trot, most people would know to watch for the footprint that is left in the sand by one front foot. Then, as the hind foot comes through, it will either step in that foot print – that is tracking up.
If it steps even longer, right in front of the front foot print, that’s over-tracking or extension.
Then, after a year of training additional engagement (through shoulder in, shoulder to the wall, rein back & downward transitions), you will find the horse naturally offers you some more ‘excitable’ steps, shorter, higher, more bouncy. The kind of steps the horse does when they’re excited on the trail, or get a bit of a fright trotting down hill, and they get real bouncy, almost feeling slow.
In fact, everyone in the world has done passage! Go out on a trail late in the afternoon when it’s feed time at home, and hold the horse back and only let him do an “excitable jog” and you’ve probably got better passage than most Olympians (take a look for yourself on youtube!).
That shorter, livelier, higher step – the collected step should be done through energy and excitement, and is taught through engagement exercises (shoulder in etc), not through shortening the reins & kicking. That is an absolutely false collection, and although seen at the highest levels, will simply never get a 10. I do remember that bringing home a 60% sure never made my parents take me out for ice-cream!
Tracking Up in Canter
“How do you know if your horse is tracking up in canter?”
What I described above for walk & trot – watching the front foot print in the sand and seeing if the hind foot is taking small steps and doesn’t reach the front foot print, or taking huge steps and goes probably 12 inches in front of the front foot print.
But…it doesn’t work in canter! And, very few coaches and even judges know how to accurately describe, and therefore accurately judge extension & collection in canter. What they often judge is how pulled in the nose is compared to how it was before the collection. Which, of course, is just poor riding not collection – which is ‘a shorter higher stride (and obviously to get a shorter higher stride you need great excitement, energy & bounce).
When we are coaching we cannot, ever, rely on ‘feel’. For a start, that rules out your ability to teach someone in a wheel chair that doesn’t feel anything. Anything that you can ‘feel’ you can accurately measure another way. Such as you ‘feel’ your heels are down, but the vision of the instructor (or a photo) measures and tests and shows you that your ‘feeling’ was indeed wrong, and your heels indeed are up, just like the coach told you before you saw the photograph.
Therefore we need techniques to test and measure footfalls in canter. On our Level 1 DVDs we explain the 5 ways of knowing if a horse is tracking up in canter which is totally different from walk and trot. Understanding this point will be certainly a question in the Level 1, Level 2 & Level 3 theory exams.
The opposite to tracking up is under tracking.
Can tracking up occur without engagement?
A quarterhorse on a race track is taking huge strides – they are over-tracking or extending. They’re are not sliding like a reiner, sitting. They are extending, and probably on the forehand.
The Spanish Riding school have a movement called levade. It might look like a rear to the crowd, but it’s actually a very very difficult ‘sit’. The ultimate ‘sit’. And, of course it’s in halt, because there’s so much sit the horse literally cannot move. There is no tracking up, but there is the ultimate in engagement.
Therefore, yes, all the time, tracking up can occur without engagement, and vice versa, engagement causes tracking up to be less and less. More engagement = more shorter/higher strides.
This is a term I try not to use myself as a coach, because would I mean more sit? Or would I mean a longer step. In either case one can occur without the other.
I hear a lot of coaches saying “underneath behind” is when the hind feet are taking bigger steps, so the hind leg is coming well underneath the body. However, they will often ask for this same “underneath behind” coming into the downward transition for the corner.
What the mean to say is actually “more sit”. Not, more step. Because, as you know collected steps do not track up! They must not track up, or they are considered working, and therefore at a lower, easier level. We don’t want long steps for the corners or collection, we don’t want the kind of ‘underneath behind’ they seem to implly.
What we want is more ENGAGEMENT, not more TRACKING UP! So, be very very careful to use the correct terminology!
3 Things to remember for the exam:
- Engage = sit
- Tracking up = step
- It’s easy if you think of their OPPOSITES:
- The opposite to engagement is on the forehand
- The opposite to big over-tracking (extension) up is small under-tracking (collection).
- You can have big engaged steps, and big on the forehand steps.
- You can have small engaged steps, and small on the forehand steps.
- Engagement can occur without tracking up (pirouette).
- Tracking up can occur without engagement (race horse).
- Engagement & tracking up can also occur together.
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