The language of equitation can be a hurdle to novices, as well as experienced enthusiasts, who often think they know what a term such as, say, engagement, means – but also know they don’t really know-know for certain.
The language of any specialized discipline – whether technical or artistic (and dressage is both) – must necessarily develop a sort of short-hand terminology for the sake of efficiency. Without it, conversations would become painfully slow.
It is the same within trades and industry. If you work for at least a modest size company, you’ve heard the acronym “ERP”, which stands for the enterprise requirements planning system. You’ve even used it yourself. However, I assure you that if I were to ask you and one of your colleagues to write down your best description of the definition, you would be surprised at how few words your two different definitions actually have in common. And something like “ERP” should be relatively easy to define because it is, after all, an objective, technical term, right? But, no.
The problem is amplified as we depart the objective technical realm and approach the artistic arena, where things become inherently more subjective. Try “natural horseman”. Or “dressage”. Or “impulsion”. Or “feel”. (Okay, maybe “natural horseman” was a gimme, since everyone knows it refers to someone who knew someone who bumped into at least one of the Dorrance brothers at the grocery while they were among the living – otherwise, it ain’t natural. That stuff you do. With your horses).
It’s obviously a time saver to tell a student: “Try to increase his engagement“, vs. “Try to get him to bring his hind legs under more, such that they lift more than push as he moves.” Here, the complex equivalent (engagement) helps me employ a linguistic short-hand, enabling me to use just one word instead of many to describe a concept.
But unfortunately, it’s not a ‘real’ word – not in the sense that you may look it up in a dictionary and have any idea what I may mean by it. It’s an “industry term”. Everyone in the industry uses it casually, presuming everyone else knows what it means.
In the case of engagement, if I am speaking to a student of Romanic or Baucherist dressage, he may know just what I mean. But a devotee of Prussian-style equitation might think I mean something akin to pushing or extension versus more lifting. A novice with a “hunter” frame of reference might assume I simply want more activity and speed the horse up. The “natural horsemanship” devotee may suspect I’m just trying to use a big word for a little word, especially if I happen to be wearing tall boots that day instead of chinks.
The first problem with complex equivalents is that often their actual definition is transient: its meaning, roughly following prevailing usage (which is foggy to begin with), is constantly morphing. Thus, more often than not, the speaker envisions an apple, while the listener envisions either a question mark (and is usually too embarrassed to ask for clarification), or envisions a different sort of fruit altogether.
When this happens, the term – the complex equivalent – becomes more destructive than productive. The speaker’s intent has not been communicated more efficiently than it would have been using more words – his intent has been miscommunicated altogether, which is worse than no communication at all.
And if you don’t understand what a human is asking you to do with your horse, how can either of you expect you to properly ask your horse to do it?
Misinformation is cheap, with zillions of websites (just like this one), which may represent informed opinions, or not. I only have to know a little more than you to seem I know a lot more. The devil is always in the details.
If you’re investing your time and money to learn an equestrian discipline, you’re presumably paying for a transfer of truth. You may not agree with your trainer’s definition of “engagement” – or impulsion, or dressage. What’s important is that you and your teacher use terms you both understand in the same way, in pursuit of a common dressage ideal.