Positive vs. Negative Horse Engagement

Engagement simply means that the horse’s hindquarters have become activated and all the power, speed and agility mother nature intended for the horse is now available, ready to use. Positive engagement is important for the long term health of a ridden horse.

Horse attentive and calm with engagement

Positive engagement means that the horse is calm, supple and confident while shifting a majority of its body weight to the hind legs and engaging the power inherent in the hind end. A positively engaged horse is not fearful, tense or anxious but has developed physical balance in conjunction with emotional and mental balance. This horse makes a great, reliable partner and working feels as good to the horse as it does to the rider.

Tail shows struggle with balance. Expression shows calm attention

Negative engagement is still engagement, making the horse very powerful – but the horse is in fear, using the instinctual part of its brain with tension in the muscles and adrenaline in the veins. This natural ability to engage is what a horse uses for fight and flight.

Instinctual engagement with adrenaline - with or without a rider

The horse can rapidly load the hindquarters with weight by throwing its head very high. The high head also allows the horse to see for a greater distance. The horse is ready to “high tail it out of there” or “stand its ground” with all its power available for defense and survival.

Unfortunately a negative type of engagement is much easier to achieve with a horse than positive engagement. A rider can manipulate the horse’s fear with leverage to manage negative engagement. This does allow riders to do more things sooner rather than having to take the time for the horse to learn how to engage in a relaxed way.

A negatively engaged horse is not as safe to ride as one that knows positive engagement, but lots riders like the idea of being a “good” rider by being able to direct and stick on anything. The glamour of being a rough stock rider with a little element of danger appeals to people but is not so great for the horses. Some gaited horse riders even mistake this fear for “brio”, meaning energy or vigor. But often what people consider lively and exciting is really just fear in the horse with a lot of leverage to contain all that emotion and use the engagement for a dramatic ride.

The skill and even the art of horsemanship requires taking the time to develop a positive state of engagement with solid basics while building the horse’s confidence and having a friendly relationship with the horse during the process. This is what Xenophon wrote about in ancient Greece that revolutionized how riders thought of their horses and planted the seeds for horsemanship as an art form during the Baroque period.

Good horsemanship takes patience and discipline on the part of the rider to cultivate positive engagement and consistent balance in a horse. Riders that are in a hurry to prove their brilliance or seek glory through riding a horse often find they don’t have the time to do things with quality. For riders that do take the time to find balance and quality within all their work find that not only do they accelerate past mediocrity but that the process becomes its own reward.


One Response to “Positive vs. Negative Horse Engagement”
  1. dayers says:

    The process has become the reward for me. I had to start riding when I met Diane (my wife), but the process of bringing balance to our horses is also bringing balance to myself, making me a better man.


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Quote Of The Day

"A good rider can hear his horse speak to him, a great rider can hear his horse whisper, but a bad rider won't hear his horse even if it screams at him"
~Unknown Author