The Importance of Collection

Anne Gage explains the true meaning of collection, how to achieve it, and why it's so important to your horse's progression.

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By: Anne Gage |

My previous article (“Finding Frame” July/August 2011) described five different frames your horse can carry himself in and how each of those frames affects the development of his back, abdominal and hindquarter muscles. There are three healthy frames – long and low, level and on the bit (high headed with lifted back). This article will focus on the three important, but often misunderstood, training components that affect your horse’s ability to work correctly in these frames:

  • Impulsion
  • Engagement
  • CollectionIMPULSIONTry this simple test to see if you have impulsion. Place two poles on the ground four to six feet apart. If you don’t have poles, use visual markers such as fence posts, trees or rocks, etc. Walk or trot your horse over the poles or past the two markers and count his steps between them. Next time around, ask your horse to lengthen his stride by increasing the push from his hindquarters. Maintain contact, but release your elbows so he can stretch his neck. Increase the push from your seat and legs in time with your horse’s natural movement. Count the steps between the two poles or markers again. If you have impulsion, your horse will lengthen his stride and put fewer steps between the two points. If your horse puts in the same number or more steps between the markers, then he has not developed the strength in his muscles to create impulsion. Your training program needs to focus on developing his hindquarters.ENGAGEMENTTRUE COLLECTIONCollection done incorrectly causes training problems such as falling on the forehand, hollowing the back and going “behind the bit” (the nose is pulled and held more closely towards the chest). These shapes result in physical and mental stress and trauma as the horse’s natural movement, balance and confidence are impaired, and pain is caused in the neck, back, poll and jaw. His field of vision and airways can also be restricted. Horses who have been trained in this manner have poor muscle definition in the hindquarters, weak or sore backs, and often exhibit uneven rhythm or unsoundness.There are no short cuts to creating true collection because it depends upon correct muscle development as well as suppleness. Focus on developing both impulsion and engagement and your horse’s ability to come into collection will develop naturally.Spiralling Circles Develop EngagementBegin by walking on a 20-metre circle. Ensure your horse has true bend (eg. bending around your right leg when you are walking a circle on the right rein) and maintain the bend with your inside leg. Maintain even, supple contact on both reins so that you are following the natural movement of your horse’s head from your elbows while keeping his nose aligned with the centre of his chest.If your horse falls on his forehand or speeds up his pace, apply a half halt from your outside shoulder on the out beat to help rebalance him to his hindquarters. Continue to spiral in to the smallest circle you can make while maintaining balance and rhythm then gradually spiral back out. To spiral out, you no longer turn the belly button in or push with the outside leg. The inside leg now becomes more active as it pushes your horse out. The outside leg becomes passive. Remember to work with the natural swing of the barrel. So, the push from the inside leg happens as the barrel swings out (the out beat).
  • When this exercise is done correctly, your horse will engage his inside hind leg more by stepping further underneath his body. Do the exercise in both directions to work both sides of your horse’s body. While this is a simple exercise, it is not easy. So make sure you give yourself and your horse breaks from the circles to regain your focus and release tension.
  • Release any tension in your neck, shoulders, arms, hands, back, hips, knees, ankles and toes. When you and your horse are relaxed, begin to gradually spiral the circle in to a smaller circle. As your horse’s barrel swings out (this is the out beat), turn your belly button in slightly while keeping your weight even in both seat bones and your hips soft. At the same time, use your outside leg to push your horse in. If you can’t feel the swing of the barrel, the out beat happens as your horse’s outside shoulder comes forward – this is the up beat of your posting when you are trotting. You can open the inside rein slightly to “open the door” in the direction you want your horse to go, but make sure you do not pull your horse into the circle with your inside rein, as this will create resistance and pull your horse off balance.
  • This simple exercise will help your horse develop more engagement while remaining relaxed. Refer to the previous article (“Finding Frame” July/August 2011) for instructions for creating a true bend, as that is essential for this exercise.
  • When done correctly, true collection benefits the well-being of all horses – regardless of discipline – by developing a strong, supple and balanced frame of body and mind without tension, stress or force. A horse ridden for pleasure, trail riding or at schooling level competition will do quite well with a basic level of collection. Having the ability to shorten his stride slightly without losing impulsion or balance will help him to safely and comfortably negotiate tight obstacles, a sharp curve or a steep incline on a trail or cross-country course, a tight distance between jumps on a low level hunter or jumper course, or to create more elevation for a basic dressage test. Working through each of the three phases – impulsion, engagement and collection – will keep your horse healthy and sound so that he can be your willing partner for many years and develop his athleticism.
  • The horse can only come into true collection when he is mentally and physically relaxed. Any tension, imbalance or bracing from the rider causes tension and bracing in the horse, which limits his ability to lift his back and prevents him from stepping his hindquarters underneath him. In order for the horse to be relaxed, the rider must be relaxed and supple in all her joints (neck, shoulders, arms, hips and legs), have a following seat and consistent, following contact.
  • True collection happens when the horse’s frame shortens and becomes “rounder” as he comes on the bit with his poll slightly higher than his withers and his back lifted. The centre of balance shifts back as the hindquarters naturally lower. The correctly trained horse coming into this true collection will be light in the rider’s hand. The energy that is created from the hindquarters flows softly through the horse’s supple back and poll and is received by the rider’s supple hands, arms, hips and spine. With correct contact on the reins creating a boundary that contains the forward pushing impulsion, the horse’s stride shortens without losing any energy.
  • Engagement of the hindquarters creates a natural chain of events that causes the hindquarters to lower, the back to lift and the centre of gravity to shift back towards the hind legs, lifting the weight off the forehand. The horse reaches his hindquarters well underneath his body, has more flexion in his hind leg joints, and the abdominal muscles work harder to lift the back. Impulsion becomes engagement when the hindquarters’ pushing force is contained by correct contact of the reins. The contact collects the energy created by the impulsion so that the movement becomes less forward and more upwards. The rider feels more lightness in the front end and more lift in the back.
  • Walking and trotting your horse over a series of poles helps encourage him to lift his hind legs and back to create more impulsion. He must maintain straightness between your legs and reins, and work with some contact on the reins so that you can help him maintain a consistent rhythm. When he can get over all the poles consistently without hitting any of them, do the same exercise with some raised poles. Rest one end on the bottom of a standard or another pole so that the poles are two or three inches off the ground.
  • Impulsion determines the quality of your horse’s “forwardness” – his ability to move forward willingly with elasticity, suppleness and roundness in his back and joints. Impulsion is not the same as speed. It is a powerful pushing forward from the hindquarters that gives the horse the ability to cover more ground with each step as his frame lengthens from poll to tail. When the horse has impulsion, his step becomes bigger, longer and his hind legs begin to step further underneath his body. Without impulsion, the horse pulls himself forward with his front legs, has a choppier step, and no suppleness in his back.
  • These three training components are phases of similar movements. Each phase takes the movements to a deeper level. For your horse to develop true collection, he must first have impulsion and then engagement of the hindquarters. For low levels of showing, trail riding or pleasure riding, having the first phase, impulsion, will benefit and strengthen the important chain of muscles through the back, abdomen and hindquarters. Performance horses that work or compete at higher levels in all disciplines of riding need to do more muscle building to develop true collection.