A Question of Collection

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“The mere notion that collection is an advanced idea is destroying the industry and is at the heart of why we all feel we need science to explain and help us understand horsemanship. In reality collection is a baby basic. If you can’t get your horse in a weight bearing posture, you are injuring it. It is confusing to me as to why people think it is such a difficult thing to achieve. I watch (a trainer friend) teach beginners this in a matter of minutes on a regular basis. Collection is the beginning not the end.”

 

 

Recently a friend asked my opinion on the above statement. She did not know who the author of the statement is, only that the statement was found online. I thought it was thought provoking enough that I’d share it here and add a few thoughts, as collection is often a topic that can be easily misunderstood and wrongly applied.

First, I think it is important to start by saying that horses (as well as all other quadrupeds) live in a weight bearing posture. They are designed by nature to support the bulk of their body weight, specifically the internal organs, while static or while in motion. This support comes from a number of sources, particularly the spine, legs, neck, and pelvis, along with a number of muscle groups and connective tissue throughout the thoracic region and beyond.

Specifically, though, this support comes from several sets of muscles that we will refer to as the horse’s core. They are the rectus abdominis, which are two long muscles that run length-wise along either side of the horse’s midline from the sternum to the pelvis, the transversus abdominis, which is a group of muscles that run from the inside of the ribcage starting at T-7 and extend all the way back through the flank area, and the internal and external abdominal obliques. The external obliques run roughly the length of the lower part of the ribcage along the horse’s sides, and the internal abdominal obliques run over the top of the transversus abdominus in the flank area. Together these muscle groups, along with others, create the support the horse needs in order to comfortably carry the weight of it’s own body in opposition to the forces of gravity. It is also these core muscles that help generate power to the hind quarters.

The groups of muscles I just mentioned are primarily the ones that need to engage in order to create what we might refer to as collection. However, it should also be pointed out that these muscles are usually already engaged just by the sheer act of the horse standing and moving. These muscles will usually stay engaged when weight is placed on the horse’s back, providing there isn’t some source of discomfort that causes the horse to disengage them while engaging other, less helpful muscle groups.

Most of the time when on their own, horses use only the amount of engagement they need to support their own body weight. Most horses when saddled for the very first time during the starting process, and providing they have been prepared properly, will automatically engage these muscle groups with the direct amount of energy they then need to support the weight of both their own body and the extra weight of the saddle. When a rider gets on the horse’s back for the first time, and again, if prepared properly, the horse will once again incrementally add just enough engagement to be able to support their own weight, then the weight of the saddle, and then the weight of the rider.

The amount of engagement the horse offers when we get on is usually in direct correlation to the amount of weight it needs to support. We might refer to this “passive” engagement, insomuch that the horse just naturally adjusts to the weight on its back without us having to ask them to do it. It is one of the ways they use to keep their own body in balance, the same way we might engage certain muscle groups to stay in balance if we pick up buckets of water with each hand at the same time.

This type of engagement is subtle, but obvious if you know what to look for. When we put the saddle on the horse’s back, for instance, all we need to look for is if the horse’s back stays level, or rises ever so slightly. If so, the horse has more than likely engaged to compensate for the weight of the saddle. If the horse’s back appears to drop slightly when the saddle goes on, then it has either disengaged the core muscles, or we might have a saddle fit issue, or there might be a pain issue of some kind in the horse’s back. When we step up into the saddle, we can look (or feel) for the same things. If the horse’s back stays level or rises slightly, the horse has engaged, if the back drops (often the head will rise at the same time) then we probably have disengagement.

As the horse begins to move with the rider in a relaxed manner, they will usually hold this passive engagement, which in turn is usually enough to support both the horse’s own weight as well as the weight of the rider. If they move off with tension (tight jaw, high head, stiff legs, tight back, etc.), then they will most certainly lose the passive engagement of the core. A defensive horse or a horse bracing into or onto the bit, which is usually followed by the horse leaning forward to use the rider’s hands for balance or dropping or lifting the head and neck, often causes this tension. Too much leg pressure or a leg used unnecessarily can also cause this, as can a rider that is out of balance or whose seat is too active, or whose hands are unfeeling. A simple lack of movement or undue tension in the rider’s body can also cause this kind of undue tension in the horse.

While I agree that it is imperative that a horse understands how to carry the weight of a rider properly (something they will naturally do on their own when given the opportunity) I would disagree with the statement that “Collection is the beginning not the end.” For me everything begins and ends with relaxation and understanding in both horse and rider. Without these elements there can be no balance and without balance there can be no softness. Without softness, there can be no engagement and without engagement there can be no collection.

It is the relaxation part of the equation that most people and horses have trouble with. There are so many horses out there today, usually 8 out of 10 of the new horses that we see in clinics, where any type of relaxation or softening (and thus collection) is initially impossible simply because of the amount of brace the horse has developed throughout its body, usually due to defensiveness to the bit. Interestingly, many of these same horses “look” as if they should be able to collect as they can carry themselves in a frame of sorts, but because of the excess tension between themselves and their rider, not only aren’t many of them moving properly, but they have no elevation at the base of the neck and they have lost their straightness as well. As a result, true collection is simply out of the question.

Before horses (and riders) with these types of issues can be taught how to collect, they must first be taught how to relax and soften rather than lean on or brace or fight against each other. Depending on the horse and rider, and the severity of the issue, this process can take anywhere from a few minutes to a few days. In some cases it can even take longer depending on how “stuck” the horse and/or the rider are in their behavior. On top of that, there are often other fairly serious variables that simply won’t allow a horse to relax or soften properly, such as teeth issues, saddle fit problems, physical or chiropractic issues, other ill fitting tack, and feet that are imbalanced, sore or poorly shod, just to mention a few. Obviously these issues would all need to be addressed long before collection was attempted.

Most horses can and do achieve a basic weight bearing posture or position through simple relaxation of mind and body along with understanding how to willingly give to pressure, specifically from the rider’s hands (which some would refer to as the horse being able to “follow a feel.”) For many “backyard”-riding enthusiasts, this basic weight bearing posture in their horse is usually all they might need for the kind of things they ask their horse to do, such as trail riding or basic arena work. Obviously if someone is asking their horse to do more advanced work, then more advanced body mechanics and carriage would be necessary. Even so, in my opinion, this more advanced collection would still need to begin with relaxation and softness in both horse and rider.

Of course the actual act of true collection in the horse is the culmination of a series of major and minor adjustments the horse needs to make in order for the body to perform at such a high level while carrying a rider. Not the least of these adjustments is the horse maintaining (or developing) the ability for full three-dimensional flexion throughout the length of the spine. This flexion, in turn, becomes one of the major keys to the higher-level movements for which collection is needed.

Another major aspect of true collection is the actual physical development of the core muscles – the ones we spoke of earlier – as well as others that are involved. It is the physical development of these muscles as the horse learns how to carry itself properly for the higher-level activity that can be the real time consuming part of the process. Again, depending on the horse, rider, and level of activity that is needed from the horse, this development could take anywhere from days to weeks, months or even years.

So in my opinion, while basic weight bearing posture in the horse is relatively easy, and in some cases, quite natural to achieve, true collection (not false collection, which could be the subject for a whole other article) is a little more complicated, can be a bit more time intensive, and usually requires a bit more refinement of the rider’s skill and overall body control.

Like the above author, a great number of people over the years have told me that getting a horse to collect is actually quite simple, and they don’t understand why others have so much trouble with it. I have to admit; I always take statements like that with a grain of salt. I say this because for some people, especially those with years and even decades of riding experience, and hundreds of hours of riding lessons under their belt, developing true collection may very well be easy for them to achieve. But for someone just starting out, someone with limited riding experience that is sitting on a horse that has little or no concept of how to give to pressure, the task may not be quite so simple.

And that leads me to one last thought regarding the original statement. Toward the end, the author mentions that he/she watches a trainer friend teach collection to beginners in a matter of minutes on a regular basis. It is an interesting statement, not because of what is said, but rather what is not said. It appears that the author has watched someone else teach this concept, and even watched someone else learn the concept, but the author doesn’t actually mention that he/she has been taught how to achieve the concept themselves. If that is the case (I’m not saying that it is) then the author may very well fall into the category that many new riders fall into. That is, someone who understands, or believes they understand the theory of collection, but that doesn’t necessarily have the ability to actually attain it – yet.

Perhaps the author is a beginner or a rider new to this particular concept. Perhaps they are an experienced rider that has yet to actually experience true collection. Either way, it’s all good. After all, just like everything in horsemanship, developing the skill to achieve true collection is a journey, not a destination. And there is no better place to start any journey than at the beginning.

 

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