When the word ‘collection’ is first uttered to a new rider, they often make the common mistake of thinking that collected strides are just shorter strides, and they apply the handbrake in an attempt to get the horse to take smaller steps.
Although, yes, collection does result in a shorter stride length, it is not created by a stronger and tighter rein contact.
So, in this article, we take a look at collection within the dressage scales of training, the purpose of collection, collection within dressage tests, and how to achieve collection correctly.
Recap: The scales of training
The dressage training scale was originally conceived by the German military as a way of ensuring that the classical principles of schooling and training the horse were carried on through generations of riders.
They are designed to be approached in order and provide a systematic and logical framework for training the dressage horse.
They are usually depicted as a pyramid (see below), with rhythm as the foundation through to collection as the pinnacle.
Collection within the scales of training
Collection is the last of the training scales and is dependent on a fair degree of accomplishment of the earlier scales, i.e. rhythm, suppleness, contact, impulsion, and straightness.
If there are any missing links in the earlier stages, achieving true collection will not be possible.
Collection is the culmination of training and is the ultimate aim for the dressage rider.
What exactly is collection?
In a nutshell, collection is the re-balancing of the horse carrying the foreign weight of the rider; teaching him to carry more of the (combined) weight on his hind quarters rather than on his shoulders.
As the horse shifts more weight to his hind legs, this creates changes in;
- the stride length (the stride length becomes shorter),
- the stride height (the stride height becomes taller),
- and the horse’s outline (the frame becomes taller and more compressed from nose to tail).
The above differences are a result of the horse’s hind legs stepping further underneath and taking more weight.
This leads us nicely into talking about relative and absolute elevation.
Relative elevation (correct collection)
When collection has been achieved correctly, the horse’s hindquarters will lower (to take more weight) and the shoulders and forehand will naturally become higher and freer.
This means that the height of the horse’s shoulders is relative to the engagement and lowering of the hindquarters; the more the hind legs engage, the higher the withers and shoulders rise, and vice versa.
This is a biomechanically functional posture.
Absolute elevation (incorrect collection)
When collection has been achieved incorrectly, the horse’s neck is raised artificially by the rider’s hands and reins.
Although this may look like a taller and more collected outline, the horse’s shoulders remain down, his back is hollow, and his hind legs are disengaged.
This posture is not biomechanically functional.
What is the purpose of collection?
There is a reason why collection is the pinnacle of dressage training, and that is because it offers so many benefits to the health and performance of the horse. Some of those benefits include the following;
1 – Collection improves the mobility and lightness of the forehand.
A lighter forehand makes the horse more maneuverable. He will be easier to turn, stop, and position for various school movements.
2 – Collection enhances the quality of the horse’s natural paces.
The paces will appear lighter and freer, and the trot and canter will show an increased moment of suspension.
3 – Collection improves the horse’s soundness and longevity
Bearing in mind that most lameness occurs in the weaker front limbs of the horse, by transferring more of the weight carriage to the stronger hindlimbs we help to improve the horse’s soundness and prolong his working life.
4 – Collection enables the horse to extend the paces
Interestingly, the ability to correctly collect your horse’s paces is also needed if you want you correctly extend your horse’s paces.
Think of your horse’s hind legs as a spring. When you ask for collection, you load more weight onto the spring. You can then ask the horse to use that energy to push more upwards for a collected stride, or to push more forwards for an extended stride.
If you try to extend your horse’s paces without first loading that energy and weight onto your horse’s hind legs then, more than likely, your horse will just quicken his tempo and fall onto his forehand.
5 – Collection enables the horse to perform ridden movements with ease
With more weight distributed to the hindquarters, this makes the horse much more balanced and able to perform difficult movements visibly easier whilst remaining a beautiful and biomechanically functional carriage that gives the appearance of traveling uphill.
6 – Collection makes the horse more pleasurable to ride
With well-engaged hind legs and a lighter forehand, the horse gives a better-balanced feeling to the rider.
It also places the horse in a functional horse-friendly posture that enables him to easily respond to the rider’s aids, promoting a willing, harmonious partnership.
It’s important to understand that collection comes in degrees and its development is something that happens gradually over time.
A young novice horse can show a degree of collection, although it will only be a very small degree. However, as the horse advances and builds suppleness, strength, and balance, the amount of collection that it will be able to show will increase.
As the rider, you need to be mindful to only ask the horse for a little at a time to allow the hindquarters to increase in strength.
Collection in a dressage test
Dressage judges are aware that collection does not happen overnight and is, instead, in a constant state of improvement.
Therefore, the degree of collection required in tests at each level is only enough to enable the horse to perform the required movements with ease and fluency.
So if the test asks for a 10-meter circle in collected canter, the amount of collection required is only enough to be able to perform the circle in canter with ease and fluency. If you don’t have enough collection for the circle, that will result in a loss of submission and you will not be able to perform the movement easily or fluently.
As you and your horse progress further up the dressage levels, the exercises get more demanding and, therefore, more collection is required so you can show movements such as shoulder-in, half-pass, and canter pirouettes with reasonable ease and engagement.
In essence, the higher the level, the higher the degree of collection required.
How to achieve collection
When trying to achieve collection, many riders make the mistake of riding endlessly around the outside of the school and using the reins to artificially shorten the horse’s stride and slow the pace. This is not correct collection and will only result in an unhappy horse with a short neck and a tense, tight, and possibly hollow frame.
Often, the best way to achieve collection is to not think about collection at all. Instead, work on improving the qualities that lead to collection such as impulsion, straightness, and engagement through the use of school movements and exercises.
As already mentioned, before you can ask for a degree of collection you must have already achieved a fair degree of rhythm, suppleness (both mental and physical), contact, impulsion, and straightness.
Your horse must also have an adequate amount of;
- muscular strength (especially in his hindquarters and over his back),
- and an understanding and acceptance of the aids for positioning, transitions, and half-halts.
To develop collection, you’re going to ride a variety of school movements (see below) concentrating on your horse’s impulsion and straightness.
At the same time, you’re going to use the following aids:
- A quick leg aid to encourage the horse to step briskly forwards and under with his hind legs.
- A small seat action to help control the length of stride and so the horse doesn’t misinterpret your driving aids as an instruction to go forward into medium or extended strides.
- A half-halt to recycle the energy back into the horse’s hind legs.
Ride down the long side of the arena focusing on your horse’s rhythm, impulsion, and straightness before riding onto a 10-meter circle and using the aids above.
The circle will encourage your horse to step further underneath himself with his inside hind leg whilst controlling the length of stride, thereby helping you achieve a higher degree of collection.
Then, as you ride out of the 10-meter circle, you’re going to suggest to your horse that he remains in that same new balance by supporting his stepping under with your driving aids and continuing to recycle the energy through the use of the half-halt.
Exercises for collection
Any exercise that encourages the horse to step further underneath himself with his hind legs will be beneficial in the development of collection.
Here are a few of them.
1 – Transitions
Upward transitions encourage the horse to push more from the hind legs and downward transitions encouage the horse to take more weight on the hind legs. When ridden correctly, they help develop the necessary qualities for collection.
The more direct the transition, the greater the benefits.
2 – Rein-back
The rein-back helps to engage the horse’s hind legs under his body, improves the horse’s co-ordination, strengthens his hind limbs, and encourages his back to lift.
A very beneficial exercise that be done both ridden and in-hand.
3 – Counter-canter
During counter-canter, the horse develops engagement, strength, hock flexion, and straightness. Through these qualities, collection is inevitable as the horse is encouraged to take more weight behind and lighten the forehand.
4 – Lateral exercises
All lateral work, when ridden and positioned correctly, will be beneficial in the development of collection and the rebalancing of the horse. But, arguably, one of the best exercises is shoulder-in.
By moving the horse’s shoulders to the inside, the horse must shift more weight to his hindquarters which lifts the forehand and results in greater shoulder mobility, which is exactly what you’re aiming for.
The ‘true collection test’
If you have achieved true collection, your horse will have a degree of self-carriage relative to his level of training.
To test this, you can ride a give and retake of the reins, either both reins together or just the inside rein.
If the collection and self-carriage are correct, then there will be no change to the horse’s outline, speed, length of stride, or balance as you yield your hand(s) forward for a couple of strides.
Additional notes on collection
1 – More impulsion needed
When trying to collect the strides, many riders make the mistake of killing the impulsion altogether or inadvertently letting it dwindle.
Remember that, in most cases, it’s the collected paces that need more impulsion than the working paces, not less. Think of collection as a gathering of energy on the hind legs, NOT a reduction in energy.
If you feel the impulsion decreasing, ride the horse forwards into a medium pace to re-establish it before continuing.
2 – Preserve the paces
If you ask the horse for too much collection too soon (or you ask for collection incorrectly) you can damage the horse’s natural paces.
For example, the walk could lose its clear 4-beat rhythm and become lateral, and/or the canter could lose its moment of suspension and turn into a rolling shuffle.
If you start to lose the natural quality of the paces or the rhythm becomes corrupt or irregular, then abandon the exercise and restore the rhythm before continuing.
3 – Beware of over-engaging
It is possible for the horse’s hind legs to come too far forward beneath the body and create such a short base of support that the balance is impaired.
In these instances, the horse can become stuck and unable to respond to your aids and move forwards. In extreme cases, this can also lead to rearing.
So, only ask for as much collection as what the horse’s balance, suppleness, and strength can cope with.
4 – Mix it up
Collection requires a great deal of strength and effort from the horse. To prevent the horse’s muscles from becoming stiff, sore, and fatigued, intersperse the collected work with frequent walk breaks, stretching on a long rein, and other exercises that the horse can do well.
Not only will this help to maintain the horse’s enthusiasm for his work, but it will also allow you to reaffirm the other training scales and keep the horse working through a supple back and stretching into the contact.
Collection is the ultimate goal of dressage and the culmination of all of your training.
As the sixth and final training scale, it’s dependent on the first scales of rhythm, suppleness, contact, impulsion, and straightness being relatively well developed.
Collection is developed through the riding of school movements and lateral exercises combined with the use of the half-halt.
When collected correctly, the horse shifts more weight onto his hind legs that are working with plenty of activity and supple bending in all the joints, and are as well engaged beneath the horse’s body as his conformation allows. This, in turn, raises the horse’s shoulders and forehand (relative elevation), making the horse more maneuverable and promoting soundness.
The end goal is to produce an image of the horse ‘sitting’ that you see in the ultimate expressions of collection during movements such as the piaffe and the canter pirouette.