After the first two blogs about the training pyramid we now arrived at the last part, the development of carrying strength. As a quick reminder, in the first part of this series, we talked about the acclimatization phase with rhythm, looseness and connection to the bit, and in the second part we explained the development of propulsive force, again covering rhythm and looseness, then accompanied by impulse and straightness. At this point we are ready to take the next step and develop carrying strength, taking the prior points as a given, now again focusing on straightness, this time accompanied by collection.
One continuously talks about collection in the context of dressage, but especially schooling a young horse, collection is mainly important for the well-being and health of the horse. By nature, the weight of the horse is distributed rather unfavorably with 60% of the horse’s weight on the front legs and only 40% being on the hind legs. This is even more negatively influenced by the rider’s weight being placed directly behind the horse’s shoulder. A collected horse will carry more weight on the hind legs. The hind legs will step further under the center of gravity with increasingly flexed joints. The back of the horse is arched upward and the neck and head naturally come up higher, giving the appearance as if the horse would grow.
For a dressage horse, the more weight on the hind, the more freedom will be developed in the shoulder, meaning the better the collection, the better the extended gaits. A jumping horse will be able to collect itself, take a tight turn, and immediately develop speed out of that since none of the strength and power has been lost in the turn. The opposite is the case: strength and power have been collected in the hind legs, then almost serving like a jump start. For a trail and pleasure horse, at least the basic knowledge of all the points of the training pyramid, including the collection, is necessary to keep the horse healthy and further a more equal weight distribution. Done the correct way, riding keeps a horse healthy longer. This can almost be seen like exercise for a human. People are told to work out on a regular basis to increase their health. Done the wrong way they will injure themselves, done the right way, it will increase health and well-being.
But now to the actual topic: Collection
The collection is the top of the pyramid. We ensure that all the prior points of the training pyramid have been reached as explained in earlier articles. I want to dive back in at the second phase, development of propulsive force. Out of this propulsive force, which led to the horse taking the hind legs further up and forward under the point of gravity, carrying the movement through the whole body, equally into both hands of the rider, we now develop the collection. The prior point, straightness, has been part of the development of propulsive force, and is also part of the development of carrying strength, because as already said last time, only if the horse uses both sides of its body equally and keeps the hind legs in line with the front legs, will the rider be able to encourage the horse to increase the weight in the hind quarters versus the front. Without straightness, the horse will always escape to one side.
Teaching the horse to be collected is actually done through very simple exercises: Half holds, transitions and tempi changes. Riding forward and then re-collecting the horse, done the right way, is the best exercise to develop the muscles the horse needs to carry itself. By riding my horse forward, I ensure to have impulse, connection and straightness, which I can then take back, using my seat and my leg to encourage the horse’s increased use of the hind legs during the collection, with a light hand that allows the head and neck to come up so the horse seems to grow under the rider when taking it back.
Notice that the focus of the aids when collecting the horse, meaning in every downward transition, is on the rider’s seat and legs. I still want the constant and equal connection to the hand, but at this point, it will naturally become lighter. Unfortunately, what we often see in the arena are riders operating backwards with their hands and using less leg and seat in the downward transition, which then leads to the horse falling on the front legs while the hind legs stay further behind the center of gravity and are not taken under the horse’s body. This does not only apply to the dressage rider. The jumping rider has to use the same aids, even though the seat is lighter in general, but this increase in weight that is put in the saddle is a relative increase depending on the usual seat of the rider, not an absolute increase.
Furthermore, riders that do give the right aids sometimes tend become too ambitious. Being collected is tiring for the horse and especially getting started, two or three more collected steps at a time are absolutely sufficient. Then I need to ride more forward again to ensure impulse and straightness. It is very similar to going to the gym and lifting weight or doing squads. Doing that for the first time is very exhausting, and while a trained athlete can push through some of that exhaustion, a beginner should not because the body naturally tries to get out of this position, leading to develop a wrong movement. The horse at this point will start “cheating”. When this happens, the movement does not look sublime anymore, it just becomes slow. A slow gait is the opposite of a collected gait. Transitions between gaits and within the gaits help to develop the right muscles needed for the collection without overstraining the horse. Furthermore, they help increase suppleness and looseness and make the horse more and more respondent to the rider’s aids.
The training pyramid forms the basics of a horse’s education, and in this notion, going back to the basics improves everything later on. This is a constant process as all the single points build on and interact with each other. Following this path of the training pyramid will lead to a balanced supple horse that easily and willingly reacts to the rider’s aids. Horse and rider become one.