Achieving true collection is the culmination of years of training and is the ultimate goal of every aspiring dressage rider
When the horse is collected, the picture you present is light, balanced, and elegant, and even the most difficult technical exercises appear easy to the onlooker.
So, how do you collect your horse?
Keep reading to find out!
What is collection?
Collection refers to differences in:
- Stride length (shorter)
- Stride height (taller)
- Overall balance – with more weight clearly distributed to the hindquarters rather than the shoulders
- A shorter, taller outline as a result of the above change in weight distribution (i.e., not because you’ve just shortened the reins and pulled the neck higher).
Collection is the re-balancing of the horse carrying the foreign weight of the rider and teaching him to carry more of the (combined) weight on his hindquarters than on his shoulders.
This makes the horse more balanced and able to perform ridden movements with ease and in a beautiful and biomechanically functional carriage that gives the appearance of traveling uphill.
The end goal is to have your horse’s hind legs working with plenty of activity, with supple bending in all the joints, and as well engaged beneath his body as his conformation allows, to produce an image of the horse ‘sitting’ that you see in the ultimate expressions of collection, such as the piaffe and canter pirouette.
The benefits of collection
A horse that is able to collect can work in a more balanced way which promotes longevity.
This functional posture transfers the weight of the rider and equipment from the weaker front legs and places it on the stronger hindlegs, therefore helping to prevent lameness and making the shoulders easier to maneuver.
When collected correctly, the horse’s abdominal muscles are engaged helping to strengthen the horse’s core and support the topline to prevent injury and soreness to the horse’s back. This also makes the horse more longitudinally supple.
The horse will also be able to show an improvement when lengthening the strides as he will be able to engage his hind legs further underneath his body and have more strength to create more forward thrust.
Collection will further enhance the quality of the horse’s natural paces as well as making him a more pleasurable ride.
When is the horse ready to start collection?
Collection is the last of the dressage Scales of Training.
Related Read: The Scales of Training: Scale 6 – Collection
For collection to be achieved, the five other scales – rhythm, suppleness, contact, impulsion, and straightness – must be in place to some degree.
Your horse must also have;
- a fair degree of muscular strength,
- a reasonable amount of balance,
- an understanding of the half-halt,
- an acceptance of the aids,
- and a relaxed but attentive way of going.
How much collection is required?
It’s important to note that collection comes in degrees; it isn’t either there or not and it’s appropriate to each stage of the horse’s training. Even a young horse moving in balance has a degree of collection, albeit a small degree.
In a dressage test, the degree of collection that is required is only so much as to be able to perform the required movement with ease.
So at the lower levels when collection is first introduced, that’s not much.
All the judge is looking for is that the horse can bring his weight enough off his shoulders to be able to, for example, perform a 10-meter circle without struggling, or make a downward transition from canter to walk (as in a simple change) without pitching forward and putting all his weight onto either his front feet or the reins.
As you progress further up the levels, you should be able to produce a little more collection – enough to show movements like shoulder-in, half pass, and travers with reasonable ease and engagement.
The higher the level, the higher the degree of collection required, until at the top levels you have enough to produce, for example, a canter pirouette in balance and with visible ease.
Insufficient collection at any level results in a loss of submission because the horse is not able to perform the movements with ease and fluency.
How to achieve collection
Collection is achieved through the progressive strengthening of the horse and correct riding.
Shortening the strides artificially (i.e. by pulling back on the reins) will result in stiffening and loss of activity, which is exactly what the judges do not want to see.
To develop collection correctly, you use circles, transitions, and lateral movements, combined with the use of the half-halt.
Don’t just ride around and around the arena trying to collect the horse. More than likely, all this serves to do is make him less engaged and less collected.
School movements, especially smaller circles, direct transitions, and lateral exercises, are the tools you need to develop your horse’s collection.
For example, when working on a smaller pattern, such as a 10-meter circle, use your driving aids and the half-halt to ask the horse to step further underneath with his hind legs without allowing his frame to lengthen. Then, when you travel forward out of the circle, suggest to him that he remains in that same, new, balance.
Your leg aids create impulsion and activity and encourage your horse to step under whilst your seat determines the length of stride. So to find collection, you need to be using quick (not strong) leg aids, to keep his hind legs stepping briskly forward under, but a small seat action to keep the stride length small and so the horse does not misinterpret your drive as an instruction to go forward into a medium pace.
- How to Use Circles in Dressage Training
- How to Progress With Transitions
- How to Introduce Lateral Work (And in What Order)
Exercises to develop collection
Here are a few exercises that you can use to develop collection in your horse. Feel free to modify them to suit your horse’s current level of training.
Remember to ride all exercises on both reins equally.
Exercise 1 – Variations and transitions within the paces
You can ride this exercise in trot or canter.
Begin by riding an active working trot with plenty of impulsion on a 20-meter circle at A.
Ride a few medium trot steps before bringing the horse back to a working trot, staying on your 20-meter circle.
Repeat this step several times.
Related Read: How to Teach Your Horse to Lengthen
Next, from working trot, sit up tall and use your half-halts to transition to a collected trot and ride a 10-meter circle at A.
Then ride back onto your 20-meter circle and transition into working trot and allow the horse to stretch on a long rein.
The stretch rewards the horse for his efforts, helps to refresh the pace, and keeps the horse thinking forwards.
Gradually shorten up your reins and repeat the exercise again.
Exercise 2 – Transitions that skip a pace
Transitions are the ultimate dressage training tool. When ridden correctly they will help develop engagement, strengthen the hindquarters, create more impulsion, and lighten the forehand, all of which help to train the horse for more advanced degrees of collection.
Ride transitions from walk to canter and from canter to walk, focusing on the quality of the transitions.
Be prepared to ride as many canter or walk strides as necessary to keep the horse in a good balance and thinking forwards.
Other transitions that skip a pace include halt-trot and trot-halt, and even canter-halt and halt-canter.
Exercise 3 – Counter-canter
Counter-canter is a useful exercise for improving straightness and suppleness, but it’s also great for developing collection and improving the true canter.
Counter-canter also encourages the horse to use his hindquarters and to become more balanced.
Related Read: How to Ride Counter Canter
Pick up a large circle on the correct lead.
Ride a figure of eight to change the rein. Stay on the “wrong leg” as you ride through the turn and onto the long side.
Change the rein again, using your figure of eight.
When ridden correctly, the horse will naturally collect as you ride him through the turns. By practicing this exercise regularly, you’ll help develop the horse’s balance and strength while improving his obedience to your aids at the same time.
Exercise 4 – Shoulder-fore/in on a circle
Lateral work is extremely useful as an integral part of your horse’s dressage training, helping to develop suppleness, throughness, connection, and, of course, collection.
Shoulder-fore or shoulder-in can be easier on a circle than it is on a straight line because the horse is already bent around your inside leg.
On a 20-meter circle ride the horse in an active working trot.
Using your inside rein, indicate the direction inwards whilst using your inside leg to maintain the bend and keep the horse’s inside hind leg traveling forward underneath the horse’s body.
Your outside rein is there to prevent the horse from falling out through his outside shoulder due to too much neck bend, and your outside leg supports the hindquarters.
Step 3 (optional variation)
Within this position, you can ask the horse to gently shorten and lengthen the trot steps to further elasticize the pace and encourage his hind legs to step further underneath.
Common problems when collecting
There are a few common problems with collection, all of which are usually caused by the rider misunderstanding what collection is and trying to shorten the strides artificially.
Problem #1 – Riding too slowly
Perhaps the most common fault with collection is that the rider doesn’t ask for enough impulsion in the pace. Instead, the rider slows the horse down.
Slowing the pace causes many serious problems, including:
- Corrupting the sequence of the gait, i.e., a four-time, shuffling canter
- Flat strides that are earthbound, lacking cadence and expression
- Hollow transitions and a loss of thoroughness and connection
- The horse comes onto his forehand because the hind end is not engaged and working forward
Collected paces need more impulsion than the working paces, not less!
Problem #2 – Riding from front to back
Many riders attempt to collect their horse by pulling on the reins in an effort to try and shorten the horse’s stride, effectively riding from front to back rather than from back to front.
Instead of the horse pushing from behind into the contact and lifting the forehand, the horse drops the withers, hollows the back, disengages his hindlegs, and drags himself along on his forehand.
Here’s a summary of the most important things that you need to remember when working on developing your horse’s collection:
- Collection should be thought of as the rebalancing of the weight carriage towards the haunches, and NOT as a shortening of the stride. (The shorter striders are a result of the correct rebalancing)
- Collection is the progressive strengtheneing of the horse’s hindquarters.
- For collection to be achieved, the horse must show a reasonable amount of rhythm, suppleness, contact, impulsion, straightness, balance, and strength, along with an understanding of the half-halt.
- Collection comes in degrees and is appropriate for the horse’s level of training.
- Collection is developed gradually over time through the use of school movements such as circles, transitions, and lateral exercises.
- Always ride your horse forward from his hindquarters to his front end. The energy must always be generated by the pushing power of the quarters for true collection to happen.
- Working in collection is physically demanding for the horse, so praise and reward your horse when he gets it right and give the horse plenty of stretching breaks inbetween the exercises.
- After you’ve worked in collection, always revert to working or medium paces. That keeps the horse thinking forward and helps to maintain the essential energy and impulsion that you need for true collection.
- Don’t pull back on the reins!
The ability to ride your horse in true collection is an essential element of your dressage training that will enable you to progress to the higher-level work that’s demanded at the more advanced levels.
When the horse is collected, he is able to work in a more uphill frame with a lighter forehand and genuine self-carriage. The horse’s improved balance and physical strength make the horse easier to maneuver, more pleasurable to ride, and promotes longevity so he can have a longer working life.
True collection is achieved through the progressive strengthening of the horse and riding from back to front, never the other way around!