There is a lot of misunderstanding about collection – what it is and what it is not. First we will identify what it is. Collection is when a horse lightens his front end and changes his posture by engaging his hind quarters. Impulsion is essential so that the horse is pushing forward with the hind end instead of pulling forward with the front end.
What Collection Is Not
Collection is NOT flexing at the poll, rounding the back, and raising the withers. All those things happen as a result of collection, but they are not collection itself.
Others wonder why collection is important for a horse that is not in a discipline like dressage.
Collection is useful no matter what the particular riding discipline. It improves longevity, balance, and the overall comfort of your horse. It also makes any maneuver you want to teach much easier on both the rider and the horse.
The average horse carries 58% of his weight on his front legs and 42% on hind legs. Most horses are front-endy. One goal of collection is to have all four feet evenly loaded. This sets the horse up to easily go in any direction.
Collection For Longevity
Without a collarbone, the horse has no solid connection between its front limbs and trunk like we do. Instead, strong muscles connect the inside of his shoulder blades to his rib cage, and act like slings to suspend the chest between the horse’s two front limbs. So a high headed and hollow backed horse can not travel optimally. This posture causes their muscular system to bear the weight of the saddle and rider. When the back is more neutral or arched (as it is when the horse is collected) the weight of the saddle and rider transfers to the legs and skeletal system.
Dressage Pyramid Of Training
When I first started riding, I had a strong desire to do it in a correct way that was most fair to the horse. Knowing that vaquero horsemanship and dressage are very closely related in many ways, I began to study and practice the dressage pyramid of training. It has helped advance my horsemanship to new levels.
The USDF Guide To Dressage details all the technical definitions of the training pyramid. You can dive into it pretty deep, but I have simplified it down to my own personal definitions.
Rhythm – the feet travel in a fluid motion with cadence.
Suppleness – all the mental and physical braces are gone.
Contact/Connection – you are in communication with your horse’s mouth (or nose in a hackamore) and every single part of the horse is moving together because it is connected.
Impulsion – the horse moves the hind legs underneath him to push himself forward.
Straightness – the horse is moving along a straight line and his footfalls follow one track only. On curved lines and around circles, the horse’s hind legs precisely follow the track made by his front legs.
Collection – the horse shifts some weight to the hind feet to become balanced, and then travels forward with impulsion.
Teaching a horse collection requires that the first 5 elements of the pyramid are somewhat in place. Use your seat and legs to ride the horse forward up into your hand. The face will be on the vertical and there will be light, springy contact on the reins. You must be able to feel when the horse moves into a collected frame so that you can reward that change.
Watch my video about collection here: Collection: A Simple Explanation
Misconceptions About Collection
It’s always a mistake to try to add form (collection) before you have a good foundation. The horse must first know that the reins are connected to his feet. That is taught early on in any horse’s education. It does no good to soften the face if the feet are not responding as well. A horse can be soft in his poll but still carrying the majority of his weight on his front end. That is not collection.
For example, in stopping. If the horse gives you his face, but his feet are not also connected to the reins, he will dump down onto his front end and the stop will be choppy and sloppy. The reason you teach a horse to form up / bridle up / be on the bit, is to add form to the stop you have already built.
Ride your horse forward when asking him to soften. Keep life in your body and legs. Now get him soft in the poll and quit riding with life to ask for a stop.
For more riding tips, go here: How To Ride A Horse
As a horse drives up from behind his back HAS to round. When a horse collects, he will naturally get an arch in his neck, and his nose will come down and in. This happens as a result of collection. It doesn’t cause collection.
The goal is to have the horse stay in a collected frame, keeping his weight rearward while traveling forward.
Balance And Variety
Always riding a horse with constant contact on the bit can get him sour pretty quickly. For every 10 minutes you spend riding with contact, spend at least 10 minutes riding on a loose rein. Even as your horse progresses to the more advanced maneuvers, the more variety you provide him, the more cooperative he will be.