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.
Straightness is the most difficult of the scales to place in terms of order. Although it is ranked #5, (after Rhythm, Suppleness, Contact and Impulsion), it cannot be totally ignored at the earlier stages.
Try to think of straightness in the following terms:
‘Straightness’ is rather a misnomer – a better word to use is ‘alignment’.
The forefeet must be aligned with the hind feet on straight and curved lines.
The horse should have equal bend (and hence, alignment) on both reins.
So you can see that this sounds a lot like scale no. 2 suppleness, and is also integral to gaining equal contact (no. 3) in both hands, and developing impulsion (no.4), which depends on both hind legs thrusting with equal power and in the same direction.
However, prioritising straightness too early is a mistake, because without the earlier scales in place you will not have the necessary tools to address it . Any attempt to straighten the horse too early will rely on rein aids, resulting in backward riding and consequent stiffening and blocking the hind legs from stepping forward under.
All horses are born crooked, and straightening them is a never-ending task; without monitoring, their natural crookedness will reassert itself.
Straightening natural crookedness takes months and years of persistent work, and although you should not prioritise it until your horse is working well at Elementary level, you should start chipping away at it as soon as your basic controls are established.
Why is straightness important?
Through developing even weight distribution on both sides of the horse, we help him to maintain health and soundness for ridden work, by promoting equal wear on the muscles, tendons, joints and ligaments of both sides.
Increased straightness will further develop suppleness and throughness. (Conversely, only a supple horse can be genuinely straightened.)
Impulsion will be limited if the hind legs push to one side, instead of forward, or the horse predominantly carries weight on one hind placed under the centre of his body, while the other always avoids carrying by stepping out to the side.
Balance is more difficult when the horse does not work the same way on both sides.
To prepare him for collection (scale #6). Only a straight horse using both hind legs equally, and taking even weight in both sides of the contact, can engage his hind quarters sufficiently under his body (assuming he is correctly supple over the top line and working ‘through’), to transfer more weight carriage to his rear end, and so lighten his forehand (i.e. collection).
Very often, even at high levels of competition, horses swing the hind quarters out on small circles (and in shoulder in). The inside hind may even cross out, over the track of the inside hind. This totally avoids the point of the exercises, which is for the inside hind to step under the body and carry more weight, thus increasing engagement and leading to collection.
Asking for impulsion before the previous 3 scales (rhythm, suppleness, contact) are established is a recipe for disaster. Only once your horse can maintain his rhythm, and is supple enough with a responsive contact, will his body physically be able to manage the demand for impulsion. If asked for before these training milestones are achieved, impulsion will only produce running, and not the controlled power of engaged hind quarters.
Too often, judges find themselves making the well-known comment: “Do not confuse speed with impulsion”, and yet many riders continue to do so.
So what IS impulsion?
The FEI defines impulsion as: “The transmission of controlled, propulsive energy generated from the hindquarters into the athletic movement of the eager horse. Its ultimate expression can be shown only through the horse’s soft and swinging back and is guided by a gentle contact with the rider’s hand.”
In a nutshell, impulsion = power, but this only translates into a usable feature when your horse’s body is supple enough to permit the energy to flow through it, and comes with the controls you need to direct it.
Achieving an acceptable contact depends on the previous scales (rhythm and suppleness) being relatively well developed.
Contact is the easiest of the scales to see and feel whether it is good or not, but is the most difficult to achieve. It is a complicated and divisive topic about which there is much disagreement: how strong/light should it be? What is a ‘correct’ contact?
Contact varies. It will be slightly different between different horses, at different ages, at different levels of balance and development, during different movements and even different moments within an aid. Contact is a vast topic, and you should always be seeking to expand your knowledge, and discover what works for you and your partner.
What IS contact
The FEI defines contact as: “the soft, steady connection between the rider’s hand and the horse’s mouth. The horse should go rhythmically forward from the rider’s driving aids and seek the contact with the rider’s hand, thus going into the contact.”
This sounds confusingly as though you need to be addressing impulsion (Scale #4) to achieve contact, but this is not true: an acceptable contact can be achieved without a great deal of impulsion provided the horse is reactive to the rider’s legs (i.e. thinking FORWARD, which is not the same thing as having impulsion or, indeed, speed).
In fact, contact is not just about the hand and the bit -aids are given by the seat, legs and hands – all three form contact points between horse and rider.
Suppleness is #2 on the training scale, and as such will always be one of the earliest focuses when training a horse. Even when #1 rhythm (see my previous article) is maintained, a horse’s movement cannot be considered to be correct unless he is also working through his back without tension.
Like everything else in the training scales, no single scale can be worked on in isolation from the others, and you will find that as you work on suppleness, your horse’s rhythm (#1) will continue to improve, and a reasonable contact (#3) becomes more possible.
Suppleness is a central theme throughout schooling which must never be neglected or taken for granted, but constantly checked and reinforced at all stages of training.
As discussed in my last post, the SCALES OF TRAINING form the guidelines by which you should decide which aspect of training to focus on at any given point in your horse’s training, both within a single training session, and during a training phase that may be ongoing for several sessions, or even months.
Unless you address the scales in order your training will be less than effective, because each scale underpins the ones above, as depicted in the diagram below.
Without establishing the most basic of the scales at the base of the pyramid – rhythm – anything else you do with your horse will be worthless, because a horse without a correct rhythm can never develop any of the further scales, nor will such a horse ever find ridden work relaxing and enjoyable.
I often term this first scale ‘rhythm and relaxation‘, because the one promotes the other.
First, we need to consider what (in equestrian terms) constitutes good rhythm.
First, I’m making the assumption that you have heard of the scales of training.
I’ve been astonished to discover how many people during even quite long careers in competition dressage, have managed to miss out on this aspect of their education.
SO in case you come into that category, or even if you know of the scales, but aren’t quite sure in which order they are arranged, here they are:
RHYTHM (and relaxation)
I’m sure you’ve noticed by now that I wrote a book called THE BUILDING BLOCKS OF TRAINING, so-called because it details how to build your horse’s training in a progressive, logical manner, explaining the order in which movements should be taught (as well as how to teach them).
Well the SCALES OF TRAINING are the underpinning guide to how your horse’s way of going should be built, and in which order to tackle any issues.
They are also the order of priorities used by dressage judges to determine what part of your horse’s training their comments will focus upon.
I use the word ‘underpinning’ not only to remain with the same building analogy, but also because this describes very clearly what I have demonstrated in the above picture: that each scale is dependent upon the ones beneath to hold it up.
And so we come to the final part in this series, introducing the basics of in hand work.
Half steps are the beginning of the more advanced work, leading to the ultimate goal: the development of piaffe in hand.
Why do we want to teach half steps/piaffe in hand?
Piaffe is the ultimate demand on a horse’s ability to carry weight on his hind legs (ignoring high school work such as levade, which is beyond the scope of the everyday horse and rider). It is possible to teach piaffe to any horse if you take sufficient time to build his strength and confidence.
Half steps are the starting point, asking for short but active hindleg steps which teach your horse to
close the hind leg forward, underneath himself
bend the hind leg joints more actively
lower the croup (weight carriage)
Doing this in hand as opposed to under saddle is far easier on the horse’s joints and muscular strength, as he is carrying only his own body weight, and not that of a rider as well.
As such, it can be used to not only strengthen him, but also to teach him what he may be doing under saddle at a later date.
Half steps and piaffe can be done in hand with a much younger, or less strong, horse than should be attempted under saddle.
Now you have become accustomed to moving your horse around in hand, it’s time to add a little precision. For the serious in hand trainer, this is where things start to move towards that final goal: piaffe in hand.
We aren’t going that far in this series, but all these techniques will give you the basics preparatory to taking that ultimate step, if that is your goal.
Reasons to teach squaring the halt
The first step here is to teach the horse to lift each leg individually to the light touch of the whip – this will enable you first to square up the halt, and later to activate each leg in turn to produce half steps (Part 7 of this series), and eventually, piaffe.
This work helps form the habit of halting square, helping to keep even loading (weight bearing) on both hind legs at halt, and also necessary for a good mark in ridden dressage.
Once under saddle, you can use the same technique to halt square, and to influence each leg individually to move forward with more activity – useful in all gaits as well as eventually in half steps, and then piaffe under saddle. This can be done at first with an unmounted helper with the ground work whip while you are in the saddle, and then transferring (with your ground help) the whip aid to your leg aids.
If a horse has a ‘lazy’ hind leg – one that he always leaves trailing because of a reluctance to weight bear on that limb – you can use this technique to correct this poor, and possibly damaging habit, and strengthen that leg until he is comfortable with keeping weight on it.
You do not need to be aiming to teach your horse piaffe to benefit from this work!
If you’ve achieved a measure of control of both ends of your horse while practicing leg yield in hand, you should find shoulder in fairly simple, as it is a logical progression for your horse.
Reasons to teach shoulder in
Where leg yield is largely about crossing the legs to stretch and mobilise the lower back, shoulder in is more about getting your horse to carry weight on his inside hind leg
One of the main benefits to shoulder in, is that you are only asking your horse to bear weight on one leg at a time
Because of the position your horse is going to be in when shoulder in is correctly achieved, his inside hind leg will be directly beneath his body weight. Provided you don’t let him rush, this will result in him bending the hind leg joints more acutely and lowering his croup as a result
Shoulder in is primarily a strengthening exercise
Further implications are that once you also achieve this movement under saddle (which is easier for him to understand ridden once you have introduced it in hand) it also becomes one of your major straightening tools