Collection: the pinnacle of the pyramid

Originally posted on Academie Duello’s blog in October 2011

In previous posts I have talked about the dressage or training pyramid and its first five components: rhythm, relaxation, contact, impulsion and straightness.

The top of the pyramid is collection, and it’s something very few of us are privileged to experience fully with a horse.  Collection is felt when the horse’s frame is coiled, his weight has shifted to his hind legs, and, most importantly, he has elevated his forehand (that is, he is raising his withers relative to his croup, using the muscles of the back and neck).

A horse moving at a slow jog or western-style lope is often mistakenly said to be performing a collected trot or canter.  However, these gaits in and of themselves do not require the horse to shorten his frame and elevate his forehand, and therefore are not collected.

Collection requires the horse to drive with his hindquarters into the yielding contact of the bit, and is necessary for advanced dressage moves like passage and piaffe. 

Notice how the Lusitano horse in the above video seems to be almost sitting on his haunches, so elevated is the forehand. 

The power of collection also leads into moves such as the levade and capriole.

How does this relate to the average rider on the average horse?  While you may not be striving for such extremes of collection, you can use moments of collection in your riding to improve your horse’s way of going. 

Whenever we give a half-halt command, we are actually asking for a moment of collection.  We are telling the horse “wait and listen” which, when done correctly should have the effect of him gathering himself for our next command.  When you want your horse to move up a gait, say, from trot to canter, give him a half-halt first, then cue your canter.  You will find your canter depart is smoother, thanks to that brief instant of collection he has given you.

Lateral movements also help collection.  The Duke of Newcastle in his New Method suggests using a leg yield prior to the canter depart.  De Guérinière recommends the shoulder-in, but effectively both masters are using the same technique of lateral movement to gather the horse, getting his inside leg reaching farther under him, to improve the quality of the canter depart.

If your horse is not yet up to leg-yielding begin with an even simpler concept:  teach him to turn on the forehand.  A turn on the forehand is one where the horse pivots on one front foot, while the back legs turn him around 180 degrees. To begin with, start with a quarter turn.  Face the horse towards a fence and, holding him lightly in place with the reins, use your lower leg, slightly behind the girth, to push his hindquarters till he is in line with the rail.  Once he’s mastered that, you can begin to teach a full half turn. 

Both leg yielding and turns on the forehand teach the horse to move his hind legs in response to your lower leg, which is the first step toward that holy grail of dressage, true collection.


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