I made a fairly bold statement in a previous article that was about differentiating between frame, roundness and collection. I said that most of us don't actually ride in collection with our horses, even when we think that's what we're doing.
I still stand by that comment, especially because there are a couple of misconceptions about what collection really means.
Collection isn't only about being slow. Many people think that if they slow down their horses (think disengagement of the hind end), that they are "collecting". It is true that upper level horses don't move their legs quickly, but the slowness doesn't come about because of lack of forward. In fact, it's quite the opposite. If the horse needs to elevate the legs higher, then he needs more time to do that. The legs move slower to allow for the increased "joint articulation" and movement required in collection.
Collection isn't about shortening the stride length either. People often think that if they can get their horses to travel over less ground, that they're collected. In fact, the leg activity increases. Although the horse takes more steps in less space, the energy goes into forming higher and rounder leg movement rather than just moving ahead over ground.
This is how I explained collection in the article:
In dressage, collection is the highest level of training for the horse. In other words, travelling while collected is difficult and requires a sophisticated level of balance, mental/emotional control, and understanding from the horse. The collected horse has developed the strength to tilt the haunches so the hind legs are far underneath the body, and the front end (head and neck included) is at the highest point. The horse moves in an “uphill” manner.
Collection is achieved primarily by the seat and legs. The hands are the last to act, and ideally, serve to “catch and recycle” the energy produced by the seat and legs. The horse is not kept in place – the collected appearance is the result of the activity of the hind end. Let go of both reins, and the horse should stay in collection for several strides.
In The Beginning
Collection is difficult for both rider and horse to achieve, especially in the beginning, because of the re-definition of aids that needs to take place. While the horse and rider are in the novice stage of riding, leg aids can be used to just move, or to perform a transition.
But when you start working on collection, you will change your seat and leg aids to mean something different. In this case, leg aids need to mean "engagement" rather than just "go". Your expectation, as the rider, is that the horse puts more energy into the movement, without going bigger or faster or longer or changing gaits. In fact, your leg and seat aids combined will be morphing into something new to tell the horse: put more energy into your movement, reach deeper underneath your body, and begin to tilt your pelvis so that you can start to carry rather than push.
There is a (seemingly) simple exercise you can use to start to teach you and your horse what collection feels like. It can help your horse begin to feel what it's like to reach under with the hind legs and tilt the pelvis (even if just a little). It basically puts you into "assuming the position" rather than trying to force anything.
These are called "nested circles." The trick with doing them is that they both should start at the exact same point. So if you start the large circle at C, but then go into the small circle three-quarters into the circle, you'll lose the purpose of the exercise. Make sure you start them at the same place.
Do the large circle first. I have it spaced out here at 20 metres, but you can adjust the size according to your riding space. The key is to make it large and evenly round. Take the opportunity here to activate your horse's hind legs.
You only need a mild bend, so although you want flexion (the horse looks in the direction of the turn), you can keep the horse fairly straight and focus on energy and activity. Make the strides large, find your ideal tempo and stay at that tempo, and then focus on the accuracy of the circle.
Then do the small circle. In the diagram, it's a 10-metre circle but again, you can play with the size a bit. Just don't make it too large, nor too small. You need it small enough to ask for a fairly deep bend, but not so small that you horse has trouble negotiating the turn in the first place.
Bend! As you approach the small circle (in the last quarter of the large circle), apply your bend aids - inside leg at the girth, outside leg behind the girth, your core and shoulders turned to the middle of the circle, mild inside rein contact for flexion, outside neck rein for direction - and bend before you hit C again. Then, move into the 10-m circle.
The horse should now have a fairly deep bend in the hind end as well as the front end. But make sure he doesn't just fall to the inside. The image of "wrapped around your inside leg" works well here. Complete the 10-m circle.
But Don't Forget!
This is where we all fall apart a bit. We tend to flop - either to the inside of the turn, or in our seat. Stay tall, turn in but don't lean or collapse, and keep riding!
During the small circle, you need to focus on more than just bend. You also have to encourage the horse to maintain or even increase his energy level. You can accept a mildly slower tempo with the legs, but you can't let the energy dissipate. In fact, you need to do everything you can to encourage your horse to stay in front of your leg especially in the small circle.
At first, you'll feel a bit like a teeter totter. You will ask your horse to go, and he'll go but fall to the forehand and begin to rush off. Half-halt and try again.
If you don't ask the horse to go and he might break gait or quit altogether. Or sometimes, you ask the horse to go and he just runs off.
Be patient through these tries. Both of you have to learn what it feels like to carry rather than to just push with the hind end. Both of you need to figure out how much energy you need to put in to maintain gait with more activity and roundness.
So listen carefully to your horse, and see how much go you need and how much half-halt you need to not let the energy just run off.
If you find yourself and/or your horse huffing and puffing after just a few tries - congratulations! You're on the right track. You'll both need to develop the stamina to keep moving in collection over a longer period of time.
If you feel like you're just going from "go to no", then you're also on the right track. Over time, you'll be able to be more diplomatic in your aids and your horse will become better at keeping his own balance.
Give this a try. Did your horse step deeper on the smaller circle? Were you able to keep up the activity level while on the smaller circle? Did you have any difficulties? Let us know in the comments below.
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