Sunday, August 23, 2009

Learning collection


Horse people talk a lot about collection--what it means and how to get your horse there. I've had advice that ranged from what bit to use, to driving the horse up into my hands, to suggestions to use a tie-down, etc.

When Katie was taking riding lessons and showing Western Pleasure, I remember her coach talking about collection and getting the horse's head down into the proscribed position. Back then, it made absolutely no sense, but even now--after watching other horses, having lessons, talking about it in classes, reading about it, and watching horse training videos--it was all just vague concepts. I could feel when both horses had it, just as I could feel when they didn't, but I never felt like I knew how to teach it to the horse--particularly Bar--until Karen evaluated him. She gave me explanations that made sense and visual cues to watch for that would help me make sure Bar and I were headed the right direction.

Collection, being in the frame, or traveling through is not just about your horse having their head in a particular position and their rear foot landing in or past the hoof print of the fore foot on the same side. It's about a horse using the ring of muscles--from poll, down the neck and topline, around the hind end, and underneath to the belly muscles--to drive themselves forward in a balanced and strong way. Just like humans need strong core muscles and good posture, so do horses. It includes a mental piece, too--getting a horse relaxed gets them to that proper frame faster.

Bar has a very long stride and manages the rear-footprint-into-front-footprint without hardly trying. However, his hind end is not often connected to his front end and he does not relax well most of the time to get the circle of muscle to come into play.

Karen told me several things to look for, starting with what would signal relaxation, and then what would mean he was "traveling through," and it finally clicked for me. I've been working off that for the last two weeks, using it with both horses, and getting wonderful visual examples from Lena of where I want Bar to be. The hardest thing for me--as always--is patience and giving him time to get there.

Ideally, we're working at a relatively quick trot, and as they get into a zone, you'll see muscle groups start to relax and vibrate or bounce--over the ribcage, in front of the hip, and the big muscle at the front of the neck. Licking and chewing are also great signs of a horse relaxing, and a nice lift to the tail is also a good sign. Finally, you want that head to drop and the horse to reach out with the nose and open the poll, maybe blow a little, too.

Bar is not quite there, yet--except at the walk--but he is closer than he was two weeks ago. Lena has provided me with some great visuals of where I want him to be, though she isn't always there, either.

Here's Bar at a walk, nose extended out, nice reach in his neck, long stride, etc.:



And here he is at his normal trot--this is actually relaxed somewhat, notice the tail position and (though you can't see it) the muscles are mostly bouncing nicely. (His trot pictures are all blurry, but you can see position well enough for what I'm trying to describe.)



And here is Lena in a very tense, heads-up trot, just so you all know she's not really perfect, either:



And here is Bar a tiny bit better--I know it may be tough to see, but I'm going for that 1% Ike talked about (go for 1% improvement every day and your horse will be 100% better in 100 days) and it's there:



With Lena, who was trained to drive with that hind end and be collected, you can do the normal tricks under saddle--drive her up into the bit, bump her head, jiggle the bit back and forth--and (usually, anyway) she'll respond and get into frame.

Bar doesn't know any of that. You pick up his face and push him into that bit and he objects or runs off. Tie downs and other methods just seemed to aggravate the situation so I stopped using them. Unfortunately, I didn't replace those methods with something that would work for him and that wasn't what he needed, either.

Now I have a place to start that gives both of us a frame of reference so when I ask for it under saddle, we each have that basic concept to work with.

Sometimes it feels like baby steps, but I go back to Ike's 1% and remember it's all about the process and what we learn together. And Bar and I have both learned a lot, that's for sure.

1 comment:

Kate said...

In my experience, many people misunderstand what true collection is and obsessively focus on the headset or frame. But that isn't what it's about, and any method that creates a brace, such as using tie-downs or driving the horse into the bit, cannot create collection - just a false headset or frame. As you say, the use of the core has to come first, and the objective has to be to have the horse soft from nose to tail. A horse that is braced cannot use its core, and 99 times out of 100 a horse is braced because of something we're doing. I've seen horses on the bit, or with a frame, who are completely braced, and I've seen horses on a loose rein who have perfect self-carriage and softness and are therefore able to truly collect. Softness has to come first - too many people are in a hurry.

You're on the right path with this - good luck!