Tuesday, July 26, 2011

What, Really, is Collection?


Ask a hundred different riders, whether they are dressage riders or reiners, or cowhorse people, or hunter/jumper riders, even natural horsemen, and they will all give you a different definition, and yet, they are all seeking it.
I was telling my student and BFF about a month ago that I wanted to write a blog post about how I personally define collection. Then I got busy packing to head north, and didn't get it posted. In the meantine, she had lent me a book called "Dressage, Naturally" by Karen Rohlf. Karen was a longtime student of Anne Gribbons and has competed at the highest levels of dressage. But she left the conventional avenues of dressage training to pursue a study of the Parelli system. What came of that study is brought together beautifully in this book. Why am I mentioning this book now, during my attempt to discuss how I define collection? Well, because for the very first time, in all the reading I've done, and I've done lots of reading, I have never once seen anyone describe collection the way I would describe it, until I read this book.
Are you on the edge of your seat, waiting for my(and her) definition??!!
Collection is nothing more than balance. To me. If I could get my clients to understand one thing about collection, it is that it has absolutely nothing to do with framing your horse into a pose or slowing down the gaits or even the stereotypical picture of a "collected" horse. What you are seeing, when you picture that stereotype, is nothing more than a horse who has been brought, little by little, step by step, ride by ride, year after year, into a heightened degree of balance, self-carriage, throughness(I call it maleability), engagement, and straightness. There is a reason collection is at the top of the pyramid. You don't wake up one day and say to your horse: "Now we must be collected." And then proceed to arm wrestle him into a pose that fits your image. Karen, in her book, goes on to say that she would rather not talk about collection as a destination, but rather a journey. What we are all really after is actually not necessarily the height of collection(seriously, how many of us, and our horses, will really make Grand Prix or perform the airs??). No, what we are all really after is: "collectibility", the possibility to collect, the balance improving degree by degree.
So how do we achieve this? Well, that is a work in progress, for every rider, and every horse. Collectibility is your gradual development of your horse's balance. By developing all the tiers of the training pyramid thoroughly, you teach your horse to become more and more balanced onto his hindquarters, more and more light in his shoulder, and more and more maneuverable with lighter and lighter aids.
This is not an easy process. It doesn't happen overnight. And depending on how you picture that collection, whether you eventually want to ride a piaffe/passage tour or you want to ride a rundown to a sliding stop, you must take the time to develop your horse's rhythm, relaxation, contact, impulsion, suppleness and straightness until he has become so rideable and balanced that the collection you need to get that task done is just "there". The amount of collection needed to do a medium trot to collected trot transition at Second level is not the same as the amount of collection needed to get that piaffe/passage tour done at Grand Prix. But if you don't ride that medium trot to collected trot transition well at Second level, then you are not setting your horse up for the piaffe/passage later. You have to ride today's work very well if you want tomorrow's work to be better. So the next time you ride, consider this. Rather than saying to yourself "gee I wish my horse had an easier time staying collected.", instead think about what is missing from your horse's way of going that prevents him from staying balanced enough to keep his weight on his haunches and off his forehand. Is he overloading his left shoulder? Is he giving you neckbend rather than body bend to the right? Are his haunches to the inside when you canter? Is he stepping through equally with both hind legs? Does he "stop" in the downward transitions and fall into your hands, or does he step more deeply underneath his mass and transition down like a feather falling from the sky? These are the kinds of questions you have to ask yourself, as a student of horsemanship generally and dressage specifically. Not once in a while, either, but every ride, every stride. If you are in the saddle, you'd better be asking questions, if you want that coveted perfect balance of collection.
Here's to balance and collectibility, in riding, and in life!