This article is the sixth and final article in a series that has served to discuss in depth the various tiers of the USDF Training Pyramid. Every dressage rider should be very familiar with this Pyramid. The tiers are as follows: Rhythm, with Energy and Tempo; Relaxation, with Elasticity and Suppleness; Connection-Acceptance of the Bit through Acceptance of the Aids; Impulsion-Increased Energy and Thrust; Straightness with Improved Alignment and Balance; and Collection-Increased Engagement, Lightness of the Forehand, Self-Carriage. A pamphlet discussing it in depth may be found here: https://www.usdf.org/EduDocs/Training/Pyramid_of_Training.pdf
Since everything we do every day with our horses is interrelated, I will demonstrate with these articles specific connections between the various tiers, and how they can be used to facilitate the training of the horse at every level. The vast majority of riders and horses are at Training Level, but what the reader must understand is that this is the MOST IMPORTANT level, for horse and rider. A good education in the beginning secures the future of every dressage horse and every aspiring dressage rider. ~Stacy C. Williams
The USDF Training Pyramid defines Collection as follows: “COLLECTION (Increased ENGAGEMENT, LIGHTNESS of the Forehand, SELF-CARRIAGE) The horse shows collection when he lowers and engages his hindquarters– shortening and narrowing his base of support, resulting in lightness and mobility of the forehand. Because the center of mass is shifted backward, the forehand is lightened and elevated; the horse feels more ‘uphill’. The horse’s neck is raised and arched and the whole top line is stretched. He shows shorter, but powerful, cadenced, steps and strides. Elevation must be the result of, and relative to, the lowering of the hindquarters. This is called ‘Relative Elevation’. It indicates a training problem if the horse raises his neck without displacement of his center of mass to the rear. This is called ‘Absolute Elevation’ and can, if pervasive, adversely affect the horse’s health and his way of going. Collection with Relative Elevation will enhance the horse’s self-carriage, so that he can be ridden almost entirely off the seat, and the aids of the legs and especially those of the hands can become very light.”
Here we enter into dicey territory. Ask a million riders what collection is, and, you may get a million different answers, particularly if they do not hail from a Classical Dressage background. The USDF definition is clear, however. In order for collection to exist, there must be balance. It must be RELATIVE TO the degree of lowering and engagement of the hindquarters. It is hard to see. Judges and trainers(trainer meaning anyone who sits on the back of a horse and attempts to proceed through the levels-not necessarily a professional) must work very hard to develop their eye. It is hard to develop. It takes longer. It probably means lower scores as it is developing. It is much easier to see elaborate articulation of the joints. It is much easier to see a high poll. It takes time, education, and discipline to discern the difference when a horse instead bears more weight on his hindquarters in the stance phase, narrowing his base of support and shifting his center of gravity more onto the hindlegs. This causes the muscles of the belly area and the thoracic sling to contract, thereby lifting the topline. The poll then becomes the highest point as a matter of training, strength, fitness and ultimately engagement. If this is being done correctly, day in and day out, a horse’s entire musculature will reflect that. He will have rounded, peach-shaped buttocks. The long back muscles, which lie under and behind the saddle, and the trapezius muscles which lie right behind the wither, will grow and create a lifted look to the back. The muscles along the top of the horse’s neck will also grow, vs. the muscles on the underside of the neck. The throatlatch area may even become more defined, and the jugular groove area may become more defined. While a horse’s innate conformation will play a role in how much difference can be made to the musculature, it nevertheless should reflect good training.
If it takes so much longer to develop relative elevation as opposed to absolute elevation, why then is it important that collection be developed in relation to the engagement of the hindquarters? Why take the time? The main reason is to improve the horse’s physical longevity and comfort. I recommend everyone do an internet search of a horse’s spinal processes. If you study the way a horse’s spine works, it serves to illustrate why it is so important that a horse learn to open his topline and REACH for the bit. Teaching a horse to continue to reach for the bit even as he closes his frame takes much longer than simply shortening the reins and driving strongly. When the horse stretches open through his topline, the spinal processes separate, allowing them to work in freedom with far less chance of them rubbing, which would create inflammation and joint damage. It also allows a horse to engage all the lifting muscles in his body, which allows him to use his muscles vs. only the joints, ligaments and tendons in his legs to propel himself over the ground. The whole body works. When the whole body is working in harmony, the horse becomes much easier to influence from very small aids on the part of the rider, emanating primarily from the seat. Because his balance and center of gravity have shifted towards the hindquarters, he becomes more elevated from the shoulder and will feel much taller. Ridden this way consistently, he may actually appear to GROW taller due to the development of the topline muscles as described in the previous paragraph.
How do we determine if a horse is being ridden in relative elevation/correct collection, vs. absolute elevation/false collection? There are visual cues. It takes training the eye to see it in real time by studying photographs and video in slow motion and/or with repeated pausing of the video to check each moment in the stride. Once you can see it this way, you begin to develop the ability to see it in real time. It is not easy to learn to do, because even judges who have been trained and have years of experience will miss it, often rewarding the high poll and extravagant movement over the horse whose movement is perhaps less extravagant, but, much more balanced and harmonious. It is a task worthy of a lifetime of study, because if you are serious about dressage, even if only to achieve harmony and balance with your horse and not necessarily to compete at Grand Prix, then you will want to teach your horse to balance himself onto the hindquarters and learn not to “prop” with the front legs. The horse already naturally carries his balance more to the forehand at liberty, but when you add the weight of a rider to that horse, and we sit right behind the shoulder, you can see why it becomes very important to help the horse learn to better distribute his-and your-weight more evenly over all four legs.
Here is a super article that discusses the issue of Relative vs. Absolute collection in depth. Realize it is as much an opinion article as it is an educational article, nevertheless the illustrations offered are very informative. http://www.sustainabledressage.net/collection/false_collection.php
Below are two photos of the same horse, in the same photo session, taken probably less than a minute apart. This is passage. At first glance, the first photo appears much more spectacular. It is a fairly good moment and it does appear that the front end is very lifted. However if you then look at the next photo, you can see that the tension is now gone, as evidenced by the naturally hanging tail and the nose now clearly in front of the vertical. The horse suddenly appears shorter behind the saddle, and while both photos demonstrate the horse’s willingness to engage behind with powerfully coiled hind legs, the second photo clearly shows more correct loading of the stance hind leg. Do not be fooled by extravagant movement. Often the more expressive the movement, the more tension involved. With time and strength, the outline of the same horse in the second photo will serve to more correctly develop her topline and ultimately the expressiveness of a much more correct passage. Photo credit goes to Robert Schmidt of utahlens.com
If you think that this article does not apply to you because you are riding at Training level and only just schooling First level, think again. What you need to realize is that the best way to identify real collection is when the horse is “let out” into medium or extended trot. The possibility for this is already being developed at First level, where the Purpose of the level is defined as: “To confirm that the horse demonstrates correct basics, and in addition to the requirements of Training Level, has developed the thrust to achieve improved balance and throughness and maintains a more consistent contact with the bit.”
Thrust is what causes the horse to cover more ground, from the hind leg toward the front leg, as opposed to a horse that pulls itself along with reaching front legs and trailing hind legs. Upon moving to Second level, we read the following Purpose: “To confirm that the horse demonstrates correct basics, and having achieved the thrust required in First Level, now accepts more weight on the hindquarters (collection); moves with an uphill tendency, especially in the medium gaits; and is reliably on the bit. A greater degree of straightness, bending, suppleness, throughness, balance and self-carriage is required than at First Level.” Notice that the acceptance of weight on the hindquarters(collection) is EVIDENCED BY the uphill tendency in the medium gaits.
Below is a photo of a First level horse in a trot lengthening. The diagonal pair of legs are exactly parallel. His nose points exactly where his front foot is pointing. His throat latch his open. His shoulder even appears higher than his hip. While uphill balance is not a requirement at First level, since this IS First level test 3, it is nice to see that uphill tendency even in this lengthening. For top scores at this test, a judge will want to see that the horse looks as though he is prepared to move on to Second level. Photo credit goes to Terri Miller.
On the other hand, here is a photo of a horse in working trot without that same degree of engagement. There are some things to like about this moment, however, this horse is not being asked to work in a way that will teach her to carry more weight on her hindquarters. It is okay at Training level, but she will need to learn to reach more underneath my seat with her hind leg in the swing phase, so that the hind leg in the stance phase is required to bend its joints more, thus allowing an overall better balance on the way to the development of collection. You can see by this illustration that how you ride your horse at Training level will set him up for correct collection in the future. If I were to ask this horse to lengthen stride with this much lack of engagement in the working trot, the strides would likely quicken rather than lengthen due to the balance already being on the forehand. It is thus in the extension that we find the proof of collection.
I hope this series of articles has been helpful. Recognize your place in the journey. Self examination is important for growth. We all make mistakes, but it is important to learn from them. Luckily for us, horses are very forgiving and so long as there is a steady supply of hay and carrots, they will usually suffer our ineptitudes with dignity and grace.
I dedicate this article to Charisma, the one noble soul who set me on this journey and allowed me to become a better person and rider while keeping me safe in spite of myself. To her I owe a debt I can never repay.