Conveying the idea of collection to a horse can be likened to pulling back a bow. It can be followed by the bow breaking under the pressure of an unskilled hand, losing your grip and everything flying out of control, or.... the executing of the most elegant and powerful display of dangerous beauty.
Your timing of pressure and release is everything.
When I start young horses, I teach them from the beginning about simultaneously accepting contact with the bit and pressure to go forward. In dressage, which is my area of expertise, we expect young horses to show in a frame that has the hind legs well under the body and pushing into a steady contact with the bit, via a soft topline. I have to establish this with a young horse, by maintaining my contact as I add power from the hind end, until the horse understands she can find release by softening her back upward. The result should be a happy and confident young horse, who understands positive pressure. Only then can I proceed with building collection.
I'm going to describe 3 exercises that I do often with young horses to
help with teaching them the concept of collection.
1. "Circle the Barreler"
A young horse that is forward thinking and may have a tendency to lose its balance when not supported quite a bit by the rider can benefit a lot from going in a small circle on a long line of travel. I will establish a forward thinking, connected trot or canter on a long straight side. As the horse starts to get against my hand, strung out, or on the forehand, I will quickly ride a small circle to the inside with bend, but turning from my outside rein and outside leg. I always give the horse a half halt or "wait"/"sit back" indication with my seat just before I turn her. She will start to pay attention to that clue, and will learn that, if she sits back and waits for me, she won't lose her balance and the turn is easy.
2. "Diamond with Baguettes"
I work on counter canter(purposely staying on a lead even when changing the direction)to help a horse learn to balance and get stronger in their ability to sit, as well as to work on obedience and having control over which lead the horse is on. An exercise that works very well for developing collection in the canter is to ride a large diamond with small circles at each point. I usually ride the diamond in counter canter(the outside lead) and ride the small circles to the outside of the diamond, on the true/correct lead. I.e.: left lead; diamond to the right on the left lead; at each point of the diamond, a small fast circle to the left on the true lead; then back on the diamond to the right l(but still on the left lead)until the next point. The trick to this pattern is to really push the horse's hind legs forward on the small circles. This sets the horse up so you can back off on the counter canter/diamond part of the circle so the horse actually wants to collect and wait on their own. This way, the counter canter starts to become the easy part of the exercise instead of the hard part. You can modify the exercise to only 2 circles instead of 4 to make for more counter canter.
3. "Half Steps"
I often “check” with all ages of horses so that I am able to collect their stride in a relaxed way with their hind legs staying quickly under their body. The level of education determines the amount of power I require from them. I do this most often in the trot. When I have established a straight, forward, and connected working trot, I then bring the trot back little by little towards a thought of almost trotting on the spot. The key is to do it in a relaxed way, with the hind legs under the horse, and the horse's back soft and accepting. Keeping the horse straight, especially where the shoulders and neck connect, is imperative, as the goal is to encourage the wither to elevate while the hind legs step under to support. In dressage, we eventually take this to a high degree of power within the collection, where the result is piaffe, an expressive trot on the spot. With a young horse, such as my coming 4 year old filly, I keep the power and pressure low, just "jogging" a few steps while asking with my seat and leg lightly for her to step more under herself while maintaining a soft topline. I then trot forward out of the exercise, and bring her back again after she is pushing well with her hind legs. This is not about slowing down. On the contrary, the horse should be quick in the hind legs in order to be most athletic.
One of the most important things to remember when working towards collection is that to be a real athlete, the horse needs to sit and be uphill in order to be able to tap her power and be handy. Sit them down behind and lift their wither up. The more their wither rises, the lighter and more in "self carriage" they become. True collection is ready and able for any maneuver because of the balance and power you are recycling.
- Betsy Van Dyke