Correct collection is a based on correct training and well-prepared exercises which result in good, balanced movement with a calm and active horse.
The idea of collection is important to keep in mind already when training a young horse, as the foundation of good collection is laid there. The young horse needs to learn how to move happily forward in the best possible balance, and learn to understand the language of the rider’s aids. If everything goes well and the horse is trained well from the beginning respecting the idea of classical horsmanship, the principles of good movement and balance remain the same even when the level of difficulty gets higher through the levels. An active and balanced horse thinks forward in a good way – reaching towards the bit with a soft contact and giving the rider the feeling of moving in front of the leg, symmetrically and slightly uphill.
When we introduce the horse to the idea of collection, we should use exercises that help the horse to find its balance and a proper posture. This makes the steps towards collection easier and collection becomes a tool, not a trick or one of those far away goals that are hard to reach. Every half halt, every transition, every turn, and lateral exercise prepare the horse towards better collection. From the early stages it must be clear that the aids are as small as possible, but clear. At the same time we need the horse to understand and really listen to the rider. We can´t allow the horse to push against the hand or the rider pulls at the reins and thinks he can fix that later. This would quickly ruin balance as well as posture.
Some horses need longer preparation towards collection because of their conformation or because of other individual reasons. Proper collection is built slowly, because the body needs time to become strong enough to be able to take the load that comes with the raising difficulty level. It´s a game of preparing the tissues of the musculoskeletal system to be as relaxed and yet as effective as possible. We can learn the nervous system to respond quickly in a good and bad way, but other structures need time and good repetition. Elastic power comes from muscles, but also from the fascial system, the connective tissue that helps with loading and transmitting the forces in the body. If we don´t give the body time to develop different structures and if we do too much too early, the risk of injuries becomes higher. If we move too often with too much tension or in a static way or are very stressed, the body starts to react with the fascial system, which leads to more stiffness between the different structures as the loose connective tissue starts to glue them slowly together which again changes how the movement feels. This can sometimes cause the difficulty to change posture between collection and for example extension or forward downwards movement.
Balance is Both, Mental and Physical
The horse needs to be available for the rider and for that we need good physical and mental balance of both horse and rider. We need all these 4 elements for real collection, and this idea of quadruple balance that I have learned from Colonel Carde has been very helpful in my own work as a trainer. It´s not always an easy task to take care of all 4 parts at same time, but it is necessary that both the rider and the horse are in best possible mental and physical balance when training.
As we train, we also build a mindset that defines how it feels to move. This has a huge impact on the quality of the movement and the rideability of the horse. The confident and positive mindset makes a real difference when exercises become more difficult. Because when the horse is trained well and is therefore confident, it seems that it is enjoying the work, being excited and happy to do whatever is asked. In the best case it feels and looks like there is joy in the movement and both horse and rider seem to read each others minds, instead of the horse doing everything like a robot that just obeys. The competition arena or any other new place could be a spooky place for horses that are ridden to be explosive, but not for horses who have that positive mindset I was just talking about.
The horse needs to move happily forward with a soft and light contact. This is only possible if the horse is calm in his mind and trusts his rider. For that, we need a rider that is calm in her own head. Only when the mental state is balanced, positive and calm, the body is able to move in good physical balance. That makes sensitive aids, and invisible nuances of communication possible. Here we also get access to proprioception and that helps developing the horse’s movement with a high level of precision.
It is a beautiful and important idea to be soft and kind to the horse, but only thinking of softness is a trap. If we don´t ever correct the situations where a clearer aid is needed, the problem usually gets bigger or there will not happen any progress. We need to use aids that are as light as possible, but at the same time clear and effective enough. With time, the horse will learn to respond to smaller aids and the softness becomes a default setting. Being calm, clear and quick to relax are skills of the rider that make progression possible.
Mental balance is as important as the physical balance. We can´t force a frame, put a horse in a position and add a lot of movement without consequences in both mental and physical balance. Such riding creates a horse that is worried and stiff, ready to react and possibly escape. Alternatively it would become very slow to the riders aids. Tension makes smaller aids difficult or impossible to understand. Mental balance is extremely important, and for that the horse needs to be free to move forward in a good posture. Bad postures, rough aids or fear raise the sympathetic nervous system activity, that prepares the horse towards flight response, which compromises the welfare of the horse if this happens often. It is also then results to use stronger aids to control a horse in such mode.
Dressage Rules Define the Frame
In correct collection the horse remains slightly in front of the vertical or is approaching the vertical. The vertical is a clear definition, and this fine line is there for the good of the horse. There is a very important reason for remaining in front of the vertical, both in the show-ring and in the daily training: The horse needs to breathe.
If the throat area becomes tense, short or overbent, the breathing is no longer working normally and the horse may try to move the tongue over the bit. An open frame allows free breathing and a normal function of the airways. It also makes relaxation of mouth, poll, and neck possible, which again results in better rideability of the horse. Tightness in throat area results quickly in a very unpleasant feeling, which can result in flight response and explosive behaviour. The frame affects the balance and defines how well the rest of the body can function. How the body works in turn also affects the frame. But if the frame is blocked or too round, it blocks the body and the flow of the movement because the whole ribcage becomes stiff. It often also results in a bouncy hind end and a low front end if the horse has learned the idea of collection in a too round frame. An open frame helps to find a good posture with lifting of the ribcage, and it allows a proper force transmission from the hind-legs through the body.
Forwards and upwards movement becomes more challenging with the horse behind the vertical, and it leads to a variety of compensations. Some horses try to become very short in the frame when collecting, but this is not correct, and the rider needs to help the horse to relax and lengthen and open the frame. We need to teach the horse to remain open in the throat latch, especially when collecting because it´s hard work and it shows if the horse is trained correctly. In collection the horse becomes higher in the frame, and at this point the conformation and muscle tone really matter. When we collect the horse in front of the vertical, the horse can also use his vision normally, which is important for the balance. To remain slightly in front of the vertical or in high level collection becoming close to the vertical is repeated in the international dressage rules very clearly and this rule really should be respected also in the daily training.
Text by Niina Kirjorinne - Photos © Silke Rottermann
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Meet Niina Kirjorinne, Classical Dressage Rider and Physiotherapist
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