Collection is generally defined as having a horse’s body rounded, face vertical, neck rounded, back rounded and rear engaged – moving his weight to the rear and lightening his front. He will look more attractive, his physique and muscles in his back will improve, his attitude will be more engaged, and his ride will be smoother. It is beautiful to see if you are sure that the horse is actually comfortable, muscled, and light on his feet through fitness and understanding.
Collection becomes more extreme as Dressage maneuvers become more complex.
Jumping horses must be able to use their rear muscles and raise their fronts precisely, lengthening or shortening their stride as jumps change heights.
Collection also makes it easier for a horse to make sudden changes of direction, such as those required by western performance horses. Cutting horses are excellent examples, as they crouch low and back on their hindquarters so they may quickly move side to side to mirror the movements of the calf. Their face is not vertical (in fact is it usually forward and out), but their uplifted body is collected in every sense of the word.
Many horses exhibit “false” Collection, rounding only their neck to bring their face down in response to a tight or harsh bit. The hind legs will usually be “strung out behind,” rather than coming up under the body with each stride to support it, and the back will be dropped rather than properly raised upward. This type of horse is not dancing freely, but exhibiting a type of bit-aversion masquerading as good form. This type of horse is neither comfortable nor agile.
The use of a Waterford bit (which is a snaffle with a multi-ball chain mouth discourages leaning because of the little balls) might help this type of horse, as he is probably leaning on the bit to carry his front instead of carrying his own front end using skeletal muscles.
A new perspective on Collection:
The fear is that if the bit disappears, the horse will stretch out and get sloppy. However, many expert trainers have found that holding a horse in correct position with a bit is counter productive. Although it is counter-intuitive to remove the bit pressure to encourage Collection, you would notice that your horse’s Collection begins to improve as your leg cues become more precise and his performance gets easier. That is because he must lighten up his body, rounding his back to “dance” quickly to and fro in response to your requests for direction changes and gait transitions. (Test this theory on yourself. Actually dance with a partner yourself. Notice that as your partner begins to change direction quickly, you must lighten up on your feet, use more core muscles, bring your body up to change direction to follow your partner’s lead. The stiffer you are, the less agile your movements, the less core muscles you are using.)
Take the challenge and try getting rid of constant “contact” with his mouth while asking for sideways movement – first left and then right. Then transition up and down from walk to trot and back repeatedly. Mix it up. Cover some ground. He will begin using his back and rear end to make the changes quickly enough. His front will lighten and his neck will start to naturally bend at the poll as he controls his changes using muscles instead of leaning on the mouth.
This takes muscles. He needs time to develop those muscles, so practice in small sessions first, then lengthen the time you work. Over time, you will see his physical body actually changing as he muscles up his back and rump.
There are books and books written on collection in horses. This introduction barely scratches the surface. However, the softer your horse is to lateral flexion (the easier it is for you to change his direction laterally) the easier it is for you to teach him to flex vertically without leaning on the bit. Start at soft lateral flexion. Then train vertical flexion.
Then practice transitions, transitions, transitions. Walk-trot, trot-walk, up-down, down-up. As he anticipates that you will change the gait nearly as quickly as he gets there, he will have to get himself together to respond quickly enough, Now you have Collection.
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