Calling for Collection
Take your time when horse training to build collection.
By AQHA Professional Horseman Ken McNabb | August 11, 2013
When I talk about collection in my clinics, a lot of times, trail riders will tell me, “Ken, that’s not relevant to me.”
Truthfully, it’s more important to trail riders than just about anybody else. If I’m able to collect my horse instantly, that means I’m able to stop him on a dime – and that might be what keeps us safe out on the trails.
Dressage riders who perform advanced maneuvers need collection, but so do I when I work cattle on the ranch. I need to be able to get my horse rocked onto his hindquarters and moving quickly right and left. I need him to be collected. It’s something that’s very important to every rider.
So now that we’ve talked about why it’s important, let’s talk about the “what.” What, exactly, is collection?
A good visual is to imagine a short riding crop or dressage whip. Hold one end in each hand and push on the handle so an upward arc is created in the fiberglass body. That’s collection in the horse, when his body is shortened and rounded like that whip. His hind end comes up underneath him, rounding his back, and his front end is slowed down and controllable by the rider. His body is shaped much like a banana stood on edge, and he’s in a soft, smooth, athletic frame.
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The opposite of collection would be a horse whose head is up in the stop, his mouth is open, his neck is stretched straight forward and his rider is pulling on the bit. With collection, that horse’s nose is soft, his hindquarters are underneath him, and his neck is soft and fluid.
That’s the picture we all want, but to get there, we have to take it slow.
To start achieving collection, we first have to remember that collection begins in the hind end. So I’ll start moving my horse forward at the walk, asking him to reach underneath himself with his hindquarters and push forward with energy. It’s a “going someplace” walk.
Now, I’m ready for the second half of collection, which all too often becomes people’s focus. I’m going to pick up on both of my reins and offset my horse’s jaw to one side or the other just slightly. This makes it easier for the horse to soften his jaw and bring his face to vertical.
As this all comes together, the horse should feel soft in my hands. I shouldn’t feel like he’s dragging on my elbow. If my arm muscles are starting to ache from holding the horse, he’s not soft enough, and we need to go back to the “Circle S” exercises that were discussed in the article “The First 30 Days.”
As soon as I feel my horse bring his jawbone in nice and softly, I’m going to instantly release him.
Now, dressage riders can go through an entire test with their horse in a collected frame. But that takes a lot of physical strength on the horse’s part. It takes muscle memory and physical conditioning. So when I start, I’m going to ask for just one step of collection at a time.
I think of that perfectly collected horse as a mailbox, and this exercise is the road that takes me closer to the mailbox.
When my horse takes one soft step, with his hindquarters driven up underneath him, his backbone arced and elevated and his front end soft in my hands, I’m going to release him, realizing that he just took me one step closer to the mailbox.
When my horse throws his nose forward, jerks on my shoulders, slows his feet down and hollows out his back, he’s walking away from the mailbox. I’m not going to release. I’m going to keep in mind the picture of collection – the hind end driven up underneath, the front end soft in my hands, the horse’s backbone arced and elevated – and I’m going to continue driving him forward until I get one step of that picture.
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I’ll continue that exercise for about five minutes until I can consistently pick up on the reins and get one step with the horse’s hind end really underneath him and his front end as soft as butter in my hands. I want to feel only the weight of the reins in my fingers.
Once I can get the horse to make that step consistently, I’ll ask for more; I won’t release after the first step. My horse’s response is going to be to take his nose forward and bump the bit, like he wants to remind me to release him.
When I feel him bump the bit, I’m going to push him forward with both legs, keeping the cadence of that “going someplace” walk. When he softens again, I’m going to release him.
It’ll take several minutes for my horse to start showing some improvement, maybe as much as 10 minutes. But pretty soon, I’ll pick up on the reins and my horse will take two steps in collection before he bumps the bit.
I’ll build this exercise one step at a time until I get around 10 or 15 steps of collection. By this point, my horse will start waiting for the release, instead of bumping the bit. He’s going to have learned that the most comfortable thing in the world is to wait for that release and not add pressure to that bit.
But in the course of this exercise, any time I feel my horse push on the bit, I’ll drive his hindquarters forward. He needs to learn that he can’t lean on the bit. But every time he comes off it, he finds a release. Relatively quickly, he is going to seek the release and will take more and more steps in collection, building his physical condition.
Then I can change my goal from collection at the walk, to the trot and then the lope.