Collection starts with balance and suppleness. All horses have natural balance, but when a rider gets on they have to re-learn that balance. Think of a newly-backed youngster – they are wobbly when a rider first gets on. Over time, as they get used to the rider’s weight, they carry them more easily.
The speed at which the horse learns is dictated by the rider. The better balanced the rider, the less he or she interferes with the horse’s balance.
At a basic level, a balanced horse:
Setting the record straight
Before we go any further, it is important to understand what collection is not:
It doesn’t mean sawing on the bit, or a horse whose nose is on the vertical because it has been forced there by a rider’s hands.
This puts the head in what appears to be the correct position, because the horse is trying to avoid the pain in his mouth. The neck and jaw are not relaxed and the spine is ‘broken’ at the withers, so the head and neck come back at the rider. This makes the horse’s back hollow and pushes the hind legs out behind.
In this position, the horse will be straining his back and legs. He will therefore not be able to perform any movement naturally, without force from the rider.
The rider’s legs have a lot of work to do. They:
Your legs should rest against your horse’s sides and not bounce on and off as he moves. If your legs bounce, you may surprise your horse each time they touch him, or he may not be able to distinguish between an aid and a bounce.
On the other hand, if your leg is clamped against his side, your horse will be tense, as he will not be able to breathe properly, and you will not be able to give a clear aid. This is difficult to achieve, so keep the idea of softness in your mind.
Your legs should apply a short, quick nudge. If your horse does not respond, reapply the leg, a little sharper but still quickly, or use the whip gently to back up the aid. When you use your legs, make sure that the rest of your body allows your horse to go forward – don’t use your legs to create energy and then block it with your hands or seat.
Give and take
Your hands are very important, but need to do very little. A correct rein contact is paramount – sufficient so that you can feel your horse’s mouth, but not so much that there is a pull. From this position, the fingers can ‘take’, by closing firmly round the rein, and ‘give’ by opening and releasing the pressure. Your fingers should never work in an alternate, sawing movement.
When preparing for collection, it is vital to remember the following schooling points:
Develop your horse sense
Before you start work, you need to take a long, critical look at your horse. Listed below are several factors that will affect his ability to collect.
You need to understand them and the impact they have on the way he works:
A horse’s temperament is possibly the most important thing to understand. If he is very sharp and quick, you will need to ride in a relaxed way, quietly encouraging and gently asking for what you want, with no surprises, and with plenty of rewards for doing the right thing.
Riding like this will give your horse confidence that nothing sudden or scary is going to happen, and so he will start to concentrate more on what you are asking him to do and worry less about what surprises there may be.
If, on the other hand, your horse is quiet and calm, you may need to ride a bit more demandingly, firmly asking for what you want, so he knows you mean what you say.
However, he must be rewarded, so he knows instantly when he has done the right thing and is willing to do it again when you ask.
As few horses have perfect conformation, it’s well worth taking a long, hard look at your horse’s physique so that you can choose exercises that will help him to overcome some of his limitations.
Muscular stiffness can be corrected by careful riding, but it is more difficult to overcome conformation and this will affect how far your horse will be able to collect.
For example, if he has a large shoulder, does he have the quarters to match, or is he a little weak behind? If he is weak behind, you can build up the muscles and strength in the quarters to engage them more, and lighten the forehand, but it is unlikely that he will be able go beyond shoulder-in and half-pass.
Previous and current work and training
This is quite an obvious, but often overlooked, part of assessing a horse’s current abilities. For example, a horse that has spent the past five years hunting is going to find working in the confines of a manège very difficult, so you should have lower expectations of this horse than of one who has worked consistently in a school.
Age is important and ties into the previous work and training of your horse. If he is young, you will be able to make changes to the way he goes and these should be quite evident. With an older horse, you can still improve the way he goes, but such changes will be slower and subtler.