Anyone at the competitive edge, English or Western, is seeking that feel of the horse being an extension of their mind. The truth, though, is that very, very few achieve it. When you see dressage at its finest, or reining, or cutting, here is where you might see the goal in action. But that’s not where it ends. Even cowboys who approach their horsemanship as an art seek that connection and refinement.
The Elusiveness of Collection and Refinement
Why do few achieve true collection and refinement? I think it’s because:
a) The art of obtaining horsemanship naturally has been lost and replaced by mechanical horsemen.
b) Becoming good in the specific sport has become more important than becoming a horseman.
c) A fashionable frame has become more important than a fabulous feel through the reins.
d) People ride with vertical flexion too much. I use a rule of thumb of 80/20, Eighty percent of the time you should ride freestyle and only 20 percent of the time with finesse. Of course, that’s only if you want a horse that continues to improve.
Everywhere I look I see people trying to get their horses to keep their heads in and down. They think they are working on collection. This is what we ultimately want. But the way most people try to achieve collection is what ruins more horses and more riders than anything else.
At the risk of sounding harsh, forcing a horse’s head in and down mechanically is artificial, even cruel. It makes the horse carry a head set that mentally and emotionally it is not willing or ready to do.
From a horseman’s point of view, collection as the ideal is the result of respect, impulsion and flexion properly combined. If you don’t have a horse’s respect, you won’t truly get his impulsion. He’ll be either sluggish or racy, non-responsive or over-reactive. If you don’t have his impulsion, you’ll have to resort to force to get his flexion.
Over the last three articles in this series, I have discussed getting a horse’s respect. This means respect without fear, a “Yes, sir, yes, ma’am. I would love to. How far? How fast? How high? When would you like me to quit?” And with a smile.
If you don’t have this from your horse on the ground, or with a loose rein, then gathering him up on short reins is asking for trouble. Your horse will start tossing his head, cranking his tail, opening his mouth, pinning his ears or fighting the bit. Vertical flexion puts power to the hindquarters like a strung bow. It gives power to whatever you ask the horse to do and whatever it is he does to oppose you. Just because his head is in and down does not mean he can’t run off with you, rear or buck, and do it very well.
The Purpose of Finesse
While some people think that finesse belongs only in the dressage arena or the show ring, its origins and purpose are actually very practical. In ancient times, horses were used for work and warfare. At work they were pulling plows and vehicles or fighting bull and gathering cattle. In warfare they were executing brilliant maneuvers to assist their soldier in wiping out the enemy. In all cases, vertical flexion was important because it helped the horse be powerful in the hindquarters.
These days, vertical flexion is highly desired but the concept of why it’s needed at all is lost. When do you want a horse to be powerful? When he is upset, scared, resisting or disobedient? Of course not. Vertical flexion is a submissive head position used for communication and engagement of the hindquarters, and it takes one rein to do this. One of my sayings is, “Two reins for communication, one rein for control.”
So, let’s look at where we want the horse to be powerful and where finesse and collection with vertical flexion will be valuable:
• for the piaffe • for extensions
• for cutting a cow • for suspension of the paces
• for sliding stops • for spins
• for jumping • for improving the horse’s gait
• for roping • for getting around the barrels
• for pulling • for control when racing
• for “airs above the ground”
There are over 600 activities world-wide that people focus on with their horses: team roping, team penning, cutting, reining, cow working, dressage, jumping, eventing, gymkhana, barrel racing, polo, driving, you name it.
If you cannot excel in the precision and refinement of finesse, you will not be able to produce the results that you and your horse are really capable of.
Could you do any of these with just a piece of kite string for reins? If not, there’s something missing in your horsemanship. This is why the failure rate of horses and people in competition is so high. If you cannot see that loading your horse into the trailer has anything to do with collection, vertical flexion, precision and achieving your higher goals, no matter what your discipline, then maybe it’s because you have not learned the importance of getting into a horse’s mind and understanding how he really thinks.
Go back to the other three articles in this series – On Line Logic, Liberty and Freestyle Riding. There you will find the preliminaries for reaching your goals in finesse.
How Do We Get Collection?
The first thing you have to get out of your mind is that collection means having your horse’s head in and down. As long as you think of it this way you will lose the plot and every direction you take to achieve it will bring you only resistance or resentment.
Start thinking of three different types of collection: mental collection, emotional collection and physical collection. Now think of it this way and in this order:
1) Respect is mental collection
2) Impulsion is emotional collection
3) Flexion is physical collection
You need to know these in order because if you have flexion problems you need to address the impulsion system. And if you have impulsion problems, you need to address respect system. These are the roots.
So where are you and your horse at checking out each of these systems? In the system I developed, these are just some of the preliminaries that I teach my students so that by the time they ask their horse to concentrate on finesse with them, at Level 3 of my coaching program, the horse does it – willingly.
Mentally, emotionally and physically both horse and rider are ready. The first two levels focus on gaining a horse’s mental and emotional connection and in eliminating opposition reflex, the automatic resistance that prey animals have for predators (people).
Refinement and the Bit
While common practice finds people buying shanked bits for greater leverage – a bigger set of brakes – I’d like to tell you the purpose of a leveraged bit. It is so you can use greater refinement to communicate your message to the horse, not for greater force when all else fails.
With a curb bit, English or Western, the mouthpiece is best when it is not jointed, so that the mouthpiece is steady and true in its transmission of signals. Tongue relief in the form of a port is important too, so the horse never feels claustrophobic and can move his tongue comfortably. With the shanks, the communication from the reins tells the horse to adjust in and down, thus enhancing the vertical flexion. Lastly, equal contact on both reins is essential. The leveraged or shank bit is not meant for independent rein communication and lateral flexion. It is for straightness and sensitivity.
When people ask me, “When is my horse ready for the shank bit?” I tell them, he will ask for it. It will be at a time that the horse feels like an extension of your mind and that it takes only the slightest suggestion to communicate your wants. He will no longer tolerate the baby talk of a hackamore or the unsteadiness of a snaffle. He will want refined communication and steadiness in the mouth for subtle and infinitely clear messages.
From a people point of view, riders should earn the right to use such a master’s tool. They should become horsemen first, in the true sense of the word. They’ll be brilliant with horses on the ground, on the line and at liberty. They can ride without contact, even without a bridle and get the horse to willingly do what they want. They’ll have a truly independent seat, a strong focus that means something to their horse, and their horse will be at a level of development where his is, in fact, an extension of their mind. Now the precision of riding with finesse completes the circle in the pursuit of becoming a horseman through PNH.