Collection is the ultimate scale of training, but is the most often misunderstood. Because the steps in collection are shorter, many inexperienced riders try to collect by using the reins to shorten the strides.
This, of course, is completely wrong. The shorter steps of true collection come about by changing the horse’s balance so that his steps become taller, which results in them covering less ground, i.e. becoming shorter.
In the process of collecting the horse, his frame will also shorten as a result of his hindlegs moving more forward beneath his body (engagement) and lifting his forehand, all of which is only possible if the earlier scales – and his strength – are well enough developed.
Understanding more about what collection actually means, in a physical sense, is key to understanding how to create it.
What exactly IS collection?
The FEI states collection is when:
“More intensive bending of the hind legs leads to the centre of gravity being shifted further backwards. This results in the increased lightness of the forehand.
The steps and strides become shorter, but activity/impulsion is sustained and makes the horse’s movement appear more cadenced.”
Put simply, collection is contained power. The rider must generate energy and impulsion from the hindquarters, while employing a momentary soft restraining contact followed by a release – in other words, a half halt. A series of several short half halts, rather than one or two longer ones, will help develop a more sustained collection.
The horse’s frame in collection, as well as his steps, will become taller and shorter, with the neck more raised and arched, and the face slightly in front of the vertical. As with everything else in training, developing collection is an ongoing process, and the degree of elevation of the forehand should reflect the level of training.
This elevation cannot be achieved by bringing the head and neck up artificially with bit and reins. Any attempt to do so will stiffen and drop the back, which blocks the hindlegs from moving forward – the exact opposite of true collection.
What is the aim of Collection?
- To further develop and improve the balance of the horse, which has been compromised by the additional weight of the rider.
- To develop and increase the horse’s ability to lower and engage his hindquarters to increase the lightness and mobility of his forehand (self-carriage).
- To add to the ‘ease and carriage’ of the horse, so making him more pleasurable to ride.
Collection is needed for all the higher level work, and conversely, the higher level movements help to develop collection.
As the horse achieves more collection, so he will become lighter on his feet and more ‘uphill’ in the way he moves, finding greater cadence (spring off the floor with pronounced rhythm), with his natural gaits developed to their full genetic potential.
How much collection do you need?
Like all the other scales, collection is continually developed. It can be seen even at early stages during correctly ridden downward transitions, such as a well achieved trot to halt by a Novice level horse.
In British Dressage tests, collection is first asked for in Elementary tests, but the guiding principle for both riders and judges is that the degree of collection should be sufficient to perform the movement with ease.
In other words, if your horse can perform, for example, a 10m circle with ease (correct bend and alignment, with no stiffening or loss of activity) , then he is sufficiently collected for that level.
How do we develop collection?
Collection is a process of gradually developing the horse’s understanding of, and ability to, carry more weight on his hindquarters, by education and strengthening exercises:
- In hand work – useful for developing strength without the rider’s weight
- Half halts
- Transitions, especially downward
- Voltes (small circles)
- Rein back
- Lateral work, including shoulder in, travers, renvers, and half pass
All of these do, of course, require the first 5 scales to be in place and fairly well developed.
Developing engagement in hand
In hand work can be used to help develop a horse’s understanding and strength without the added burden of the rider’s weight. Exercises, such as half steps and piaffe, can be addressed at an earlier stage in the horse’s training, before he is strong enough to do the same movements under saddle.
As ever, the first 5 scales need to be fairly well established to make this work possible.
Once he has enough strength, he will find it easy to understand what is being asked of him with a rider in the saddle, and the trainer on the ground using the same aids as he has become accustomed to during his in hand training.
Examples of collected paces
A good collected walk is difficult to achieve, and is totally dependent on the development of the earlier 5 scales. Without them, the walk sequence (scale #1 rhythm) is easy to damage, and once lost, almost impossible to recover.
A damaged (lateral) walk comes about as a result of the back stiffening (loss of #2 suppleness/resistance to #3 the contact), with tension in the two long back muscles causing incorrect firing of the neuromuscular sequence.
A correct collected walk is characterised by a clear 4-beat sequence, and shortening of the frame and steps only possible with a supple body, with no loss of activity in the hindlegs.
Even as simple an exercise as a volte displays whether the horse is sufficiently collected for the level – able to perform the pattern with all the scales of training in evidence.
BD Medium is the first level where the horse’s ability to collect is first tested, with all the lateral work asked for.
At Advanced level, you start to see the final product, with movements that are not possible to produce without a fair degree of collection.
- Collection is about the increased ability to lower the hindquarters to raise and mobilise the forehand – in other words, to find that ‘uphill’ carriage we are all looking for.
- At the earliest levels of competition where collection is requested, it need only be sufficient to perform the movements of the test with ease.
- The gaits become taller and shorter as a result of collection – never be tempted to try and shorten the strides in the mistaken belief this will produce collection.
- The final result of collection is a powerful, engaged horse in a good self-carriage, able to perform the highest level of movements with ease – a thing of true beauty.