by Anne Wilson
The exercises we have covered so far in this series, are all designed, amongst other things, to build up the horse’s strength, suppleness and ability to take weight back onto the haunches. The strengthening of the back and hind leg joints, as well as muscles and tendons, are all important to this aim. This is the key to collection. Some of the lateral exercises previously described cannot actually be executed properly without a degree of collection; so one helps the other.
Collection is often a very misunderstood term and is often badly achieved and incorrectly ridden.
The Push and Pull (Incorrect) Method
In the worst of one extreme there are those who believe that to collect the horse the rider should literally ‘pull it together’; sometimes incorrectly using the term ‘having the horse between leg and hand’, which in a classical sense does not mean pulling the horse together. People who adhere to this cruel principle seem to think that by pushing the horse on, sometimes with harsh leg aids, and holding with the reins, and sometimes even pulling with them; the horse will become collected. Nothing could be further from the truth. True collection can only come from behind the saddle; never in front of it.
The Washing-Line Reins (Incorrect) Method
When we look at the other extreme; there are many people who believe that lightness is the key to collection. However, it is truer to say that lightness is a result of collection. The horse who is truly collected will become light in the hand, but by constantly giving with the hand and allowing the horse a loose rein, he is never likely to be able to collect. A horse only becomes light in hand and able to work in ‘self carriage’ when he has been prepared correctly and taught how to take weight back onto his haunches. He is never likely to be able to do that if the rider does not give suitable support and guidance with the reins during training. There is the world of difference between pulling back with the reins and giving the support the horse needs. No-one can tell you how much weight you should feel in your hands; it is dependent upon the horse. A big, strong horse with a heavy neck and shoulder is going to feel heavier in the hand in the early stages of training than say an Iberian breed who is bred lighter in the forehand to begin with. Of course during the training process the rein should be given frequently to allow the horse to stretch and rest before being asked to work again. At the beginning of training the rider should be content with just a few seconds of collected work, before allowing the horse to take a break. Then gradually the time will lengthen when the horse is capable of working in collection, with his hind legs coming further underneath him, lifting his forehand and transferring weight onto his haunches. A good trainer should be mindful of the fact that this is strenuous for the horse and build up this work very gradually, allowing the horse to stretch and take a break as previously described.
So people who allow the horse a loose rein all the time in the belief that they are being kind, are sadly misled. They are merely encouraging the horse to work with more weight on the forehand, and the horse is almost sure to suffer for this way of going sooner or later. We have to find the happy medium and give the horse the framework in which he can best work at that particular stage of training. In true collection the head and neck should arch upwards out of the wither, with the nose just in front of the vertical. It would be futile to expect a green horse to be able to do this, as his muscles would not be sufficiently developed. However, what we can do is to show him a way of going which does not leave him leaning so much onto the forehand.
Being on the Forehand is Natural but not Desirable
Moving in an ‘on the forehand’ outline is quite natural for horses when at liberty and may not be so damaging out in the field, but even the ‘au natural’ horse would benefit from being able to lighten his forehand to relieve the weight from his front legs. Once we add the weight of a rider and the added demands that the different disciplines put upon him, the horse who is never physically conditioned, prepared and taught to collect is most likely to suffer physical breakdown at an early age. Therefore, whilst it is ‘natural’ for a horse to move ‘on the forehand’, it is not necessarily desirable from the horse’s point of view; apart from other considerations such as how much easier and more pleasant it is to ride a horse who is correctly trained and lighter in hand.
Here’s what Arthur Kottas, former Chief Rider at the Spanish Riding School of Vienna says about collected trot, in his latest book ‘Dressage Solutions – A Rider’s Guide’:-
“Collection requires the horse to be able to bend the joints of the hindquarters more markedly than in working trot, so that he is able to transfer weight from his forehand, and carry around 50 per cent or more on his haunches. This demands strength, suppleness and balance. It is not expected of a young horse, yet to develop physically and mentally under the added weight of a rider.
In collected trot the haunches will sink lower due to the greater flexing of the hind leg joints. Correspondingly, the forehand will seem to rise, creating an ‘uphill’ appearance which in turn leads to a lighter, more manoeuvrable horse, because he carries less weight on his forelegs.”
He goes on to say:-
“A rider who tries to collect only by shortening the neck will not experience this lighter forehand. It is a false collection.”
What Arthur Kottas means is clearly shown in Photo 2 of The Pas de Deux performed by the Spanish Riding School. Here we see the two stallions performing Piaffe (the ultimate collected movement at trot) during the Pas de Deux. The raising of the forehand, lowering of the haunches and flexing of the hind limbs can be easily seen.
How to Build up Collection
To build up collection in trot, it is a good idea to ride a few strides of trot Shoulder-in, then ride straight. The rider should have think of lifting himself up from the waist, with a feeling of arching through the chest, with a very slight bracing of the lower back.
The rider should then give impulsion leg aids with the inner calf muscles; quick, light taps are normally most effective.
The rider indicates to the horse that speed is not what is being requested, by closing the knees and inner thigh muscles – a feeling of ‘holding’ the horse with the body. The feeling on the reins should be one of containment, not of pulling back. If the horse begins to move faster, then a very brief check on the rein is advisable, followed by a more constant, contained feeling.
To begin with this collection should only be ridden for a few strides, when the rider should release the horse with the knees and thighs and slightly open the fingers on the reins, allowing the horse to move more forward.
This can be practiced by intertwining lateral exercises with upward and downward transitions. Say halt to working trot, then collect a few strides, back to working trot, back to walk and stretch and relax.
In this way the horse will become more and more physically able to collect and more than likely very willing to enjoy the experience again. Gradually the feeling of lightness on the rein will naturally be felt. When the horse is fairly confident in his collection, the rider can give with the rein for a couple of strides, whilst retaining the other collection aids of torso and legs. If the horse remains in the same frame then this is proof of his self carriage in collection (see Photo 1); but he may not be able to remain in this self carriage for too long in the beginning; everything takes time to build up, but what a wonderful journey it all is!
Anne Wilson is a freelance classical riding trainer, based in Bedfordshire; trained with Sylvia Loch and holder of the Classical Riding Club Gold Award Certificate – Phone 01234 772401 or email:- firstname.lastname@example.org
See Anne’s book ‘Riding Revelations – Classical Training from the Beginning’ available from www.blacktent.co.uk