Now that I’ve had a chance to go into detail about what collection is, I’d like to dive into how to start riding for collection and how to test your horse’s skills to see where they are at.
In my training program I put a huuuge emphasis on body control. That means being able to control different parts of your horse’s body and movement or foot placement independently. When I’m working with a green horse or starting a colt, the shoulders are one of the first things I want to gain control of. The shoulders are truly the steering wheel of the horse. When you are driving a car your rear wheels are fixed and they simply move forwards and backwards. The front tires are what control your direction. It’s kind of the same on a horse.
Have you ever been on a horse that was hard to guide around? Did you pull the horse’s nose to the left or right and they continued to go straight? That is an example of really poor shoulder control.
Before you begin working on any type of collection, you need to have shoulder control, without it you will be fighting a losing battle.
Test out your horse’s shoulder control by asking them to move just their shoulders over to the right or left. How you ask is really up to you. I elevate my hands a little and move them over in the direction I’m asking my horse to go because I teach my horses to stay right between my reins no matter where I put them. Some people ask more with leg pressure by sliding their foot forward and applying pressure to move the horse over. The key is to ask the same way each time. If you can ask in a simple way for your horse to move its shoulders over (cross one front leg in front of the other) and they respond immediately from a stand still, then move on and ask from a walk, trot, and lope. If your horse stops responding at a certain gait, stop there and work at that pace each day until you get the immediate response you are looking for. Don’t ask for ten steps over, just ask for one or two then continue going forward. This isn’t something to drill on day after day, it’s something to peck away at. It gets better over time, not over night.
If you have shoulder control at the walk and trot, then you can work on collection from the walk and trot.
Changes of speed and direction are the basis of developing collection. The reason why is because it teaches the horse to carry itself in a “prepared” way. It’s prepared to stop, prepared to change direction, prepared to spring forward into action, prepared to slow down or speed up. To do all those things efficiently the horse will need to be carrying more weight on its hind end, thereby freeing up the front end to quickly move over or change direction.
Do you see the correlation between shoulder control and collection now? If we can free up our horses front end by moving their shoulders from one way to the other, it’s takes the power and weight off the front end and transfers it to the hind end. Now your horse is in a truly athletic position.
If you don’t have a feel for what a collected horse rides like, pay really close attention to what is happening when you start gaining shoulder control. When you can feel your horse’s back and front end lift up even for an instant, record that feel in your head. That is a building block. By working on this little by little, you are building a foundation for your horse to hold itself in a collected, prepared way.