Our question for today: What is real, true collection anyhow? Some people view it as merely a headset, but they could not be more wrong. I define collection as having the horse engaged, rounded and elevated.
Now, that 'elevation' does not necessarily negate the long-and-low traditional daisy cutter open Hunter horse or the stock breed Western pleasure horse from ultimately being able to properly collect, it is in my view simply a more difficult task for those horses, not because they lack any specific physical trait, but because of how they tend to be trained. We can ask that the horse 'elevate' by using and raising his shoulders and that does qualify as elevation.
To achieve that real collection we'll look at and implement elements of the traditional training scale (most often discussed in terms of Dressage, but compatible with all disciplines) and seek to put all of the pieces together while focusing on engaging the horse from behind. What does that mean and how do we go about it? "Engagement" is actually the flexion of a horse's lumbosacral joint. Getting that engagement of the hindquarters is paramount to collection.
Our first task must be gaining a steady rhythm through relaxation. With some horses it's easy, others take more time. We have already discussed how to supple your horse as well as how best to plan and prepare for your training sessions. But getting to the heart of the matter, how is rhythm best accomplished? I use the same lateral flexion exercises described earlier, beginning at the halt, moving into the walk, then the trot and eventually to the canter. When the horse relaxes, he will find his rhythm. We begin with bending and flexing when standing, advancing to circles and figures of eight while moving forward ~ which is yet another key term.
By this time, you will have gained the necessary suppleness as outlined previously. Then we need the horse to learn to seek contact. Contact. That word perplexes many, and has been undermined by too many re-writes of even the most basic of rules. Case in point the language which allows for an extreme draped rein in a Western pleasure horse of most any breed. Yes, there is a difference between the expected contact in a Western pleasure horse and a Dressage horse, or a flat saddle English horse, however the concept remains the same.
It is necessary to acquire contact through driving the horse forward, not taking hold of the horse's face. Nothing positive will be accomplished by trying to work front-to-back, though a great many riders and trainers do just this. To me, it is nothing but a shortcut and creates far more issues that it might solve in the short term. I want my horses to seek my hands as opposed to me pulling on them, I liken it to the difference between playing tug-of-war versus pedaling a bicycle. You use your legs to propel the bike forward, instead of getting into a pulling match.
We are now seeing the the beginnings of impulsion, when the horse steps up under himself and moves off freely forward with full compliance. Some equate impulsion with speed, but they too would be incorrect. Impulsion might infer that the horse is traveling faster, however what you actually see is a lengthening of stride (generally accompanied by a lengthening of frame).
Often people get stuck on the speed versus lengthening and believe pushing the horse to move faster means they are showing greater impulsion. Here is a tip I've mentioned before, which will show you if you're getting that true impulsion ~ using the short sides of the arena, ask your horse to shorten his stride; then push him to extend down the long sides. By using your seat as well as your legs, independently of your hands (the horse must come to you), the level of impulsion will become evident.
Finally we get to straightness and balance. One myth is that a horse must be traveling in a straight line to be considered straight. The trouble with that is, we need the horse to be balanced and "straight" no matter if he's going down the rail, giving us a leg yield, circling or performing any maneuver. What does straight mean? Quite simply that the horse is balanced, his body is in alignment with his nose and his hindquarters are in alignment with his forehand.
To create and maintain that straightness, it is necessary to determine the horse's "bad" direction, all horses have one way they prefer (and are better at) than the other. I compare this to being right-handed versus left-handed. For me it is incredibly difficult to write with my left hand, though thoroughly natural with my right. All my horses are worked longer on their bad direction than their good, in order to gain strength and even out their performances.
Which brings us to collection. It is said that when you have all of the elements of the training scale present, collection will happen naturally. In effect, the horse's weight will be shifted back, he will drop his haunches (flexing that lumbosacral joint mentioned above), his steps will become shorter, lighter and higher and ultimately he will appear to be traveling...even if ever so slightly, as in the case of a Western horse...uphill.
You must connect each element and put them together. They are all equally important, no skipping or leaving things out ~ that will only lead to holes in your horse's training big enough to drive a semi through. Take it step by step, then as you progress revisit the prior steps on a fairly regular basis to be sure your horse maintains his foundation.
All of the above will bring you and your horse to gaining and maintaining true collection. Congratulations, you made it!