Monday, June 15, 2015

Collection - It's All About the Feet

Collection is one of the first advanced concepts we start hearing about once we're past the basic WTC.

As a kid, I thought collection was about creating a pretty picture -- by keeping my horse's nose in. As many of you know, my horse, Mort was a head slinging, hard mouthed runaway. It made sense for the advice I heard the most to be, "Get that nose down!"

I didn't understand how collected he was without any help from me. His hind legs always were under him and his front end was loose and light. There's something about a horse who can jig for twenty miles and bolt into the wild blue yonder at the drop of a hat that creates a rounded frame.

My biggest breakthrough in understanding collection came when I realized this is not a man-made way of going. Horses collect all by themselves.

When left to their own devices, a horse collects as needed for the maneuver at hand. Spooking, fighting, stopping themselves from falling off a cliff, or jumping over an irritable bear, all require collection.

The mustang (Kiger 1) is beautifully collected. See the pissy horse (Kiger 2) coming up behind him? He's creating the whole kit and caboodle by driving the hindquarters forward. The beautifully flexed poll on Kiger 1 comes from resisting being moved out, but still having his butt shoved into his head. He in position to rock back and start kicking or to spin and come in biting or striking.  See how his hips are angled toward Kiger 2's head? This horse could easily step in to a haunches in, or 
kick Kiger 2's face off.

Horses travel by choice by dragging themselves along with their front end, and letting their hind legs trail happily behind a hollowed out back.
We humans realized a collected horse is a smother ride. It also benefits the horse by strengthening the back and easing the stress of lugging our lumpy selves by getting those hind legs to bear a portion of our weight.

Different disciplines have different ideas of what  constitutes a collected frame.

Personally, I think this is what causes 90% of the clashes between English and Western riders.

Western Reining Horse  -- Collected

Western Horse -- not Collected

English - Dressage Horse -- Collected

English - Dressage Horse -- Not Collected

Western --Pleasure Horse -- Collected

Western-- Pleasure Horse -- not collected

English Jumper -- collected

English Jumper -- not collected

I am not bashing any discipline here.
I'm not even bashing the riders that have missed the collection boat. I don't know any of their circumstances, they were simply clear examples of the mess created by saggy middles and sprawling legs.

I do want to point out that collection can happen no matter where the head is. The reason this can happen is because collection isn't about the head. It's about drive. Which comes from the feet. 

rider from any discipline will never, ever, EVER collect their horse by pulling the reins to their hip bones. 

All that can happen is the horse will raise his head, hollow out his back and trail those legs behind.


What do these images have in common? The riders aren't using their legs to shape their horses.Their legs are too forward to do anything but hang like deadwood and put them out of center. 

Collection begins in the back of the horse. By squeezing, pushing or bumping (name your poison) with your calves you will propel the horse's hindquarters forward.

"But  he just speeds up!" My argumentative audience interjects.

"Shut up for a minute." I respond.

As the horse begins to pick up speed, your hands create just enough contact with the horse (bit, halter, fairy dust) to create a wall. 
Yes, a wall. You are propelling your horse into a wall. Jamming them into that baby so you can squeeze them together between nose and tail like a car in a compactor at Hank's Auto Salvage.

The woman with the white pants is squeeeeeezing her horse and shoving his head into the wall (see red line). This encourages him to take deeper, longer steps so he can puuuuuuush the wall with his forehead. This lifts his back. The harder he pushes, the rounder his back becomes, and the farther he reaches underneath himself  with his hind legs.
The headless rider is doing the exact same thing  except his rider is bump, bump, bumping and he will puuuuush his wall (red line) on a loose rein.  The deep, reaching steps and the lifted back are created the same way.

Here's the deal. Neither horse needs to be pulled on in order to collect. The vertical carriage  comes from the push into the wall, which is created by the legs of the rider driving the hindquarters forward. The riders hands give the horse a place to go to, so it can push that frigging wall.

If a horse is used to having his face pulled only to drop his nose, BUT FOR NO OTHER REASON he will learn to get behind the bit. Once his poll is tipped over his nose he can't push against the wall...if he can't push he can't collect. He can however, get some relief from those yanking hands

Can't you see the power all leaking out the back?

Collection is essentially a way of creating boundaries both front and back with our hands and legs that create the ultimate in efficient, beautiful movement. There should always be an equal amount of pressure between legs and bit. Always. If the horse has confidence in the communication and trust in hands and leg, he will find the best way to go comfortably between the boundaries we have established. 


  1. I see what you are getting at. Question I have is I was taught true collection actually lifts the horses shoulders and rocks them back. When the horses neck is as low as the reining and wp horses you showed as "collected" wouldn't that then push them on to their forehand instead of over the hind end?

    Second question is that the dressage horse you showed is in a frame however it really isn't supporting itself on its hind legs like it should be for this level of riding from what I was taught and have seen.

    Not trying to be snarky just trying to continually learn and expand my knowledge!

  2. What happens with the horse that won't allow you to create the wall? I have one. It's not so much about bit resistance because it is regardless of bitted or bitless..

  3. Valerie. Anytime you think you need to add "Not trying to be snarky," to a comment, pretty much figure you are.
    It's your use of quotation marks that tripped you up.
    We consider our western horses collected, not "collected."

  4. SB- I'm not sure what you mean...what exactly is happening? Can you describe what you're trying and the horse's reaction?

  5. Leg on to drive forward, any contact at all and instant head in face moment, props to a stand or bounces as if to rear. Back teeth tack all checked, she does it as said above bitless (hackamore, no bosals over here) or bitted. Also tried bareback and on the ground with long lines. On a loose rein she is relaxed and rather forward but will carry herself and will accept minimum guidance

  6. great post and breakdown of what's actually happening. i struggle with your last example - where my horse curls under and is unable to really drive from the hind end. mostly i need to get a feel for creating that 'wall' without just plain old pulling... so these are useful examples

  7. ahhhh.. I have been missing you. And as always, it is so worth the wait.
    Thank you for the pictures and the descriptions and the details. You a gem, gal.

  8. Sadly I really wasn't trying to be snarky. But I also see that things get taken the wrong way in the internet all the time. The quotations around collected were to separate the word not to claim they weren't. The questions I asked were honest questions. Apologies if it was taken the wron way

  9. This may be one of the best explanations of collection that I've ever read.

  10. Good post. Weird to see one of my photos in it, but still good.

  11. Thanks Mugs, you've managed to break down a sometimes confusing topic into something understandable.
    Valerie, I understand where you're coming from as I was told basically the same thing years ago. However, it is possible for a horse to travel with his head lower than the wither and still lift his shoulder, round his back, and drive deep with the hind leg. I have a 4 year old AQHA gelding I'm riding with the helpful insights of a close friend who is also a trainer, and let me tell you when everything happens like it's supposed to and the head is down, the neck is relaxed, the shoulders lift, the back rounds and the hind leg reaches deep as he lopes off nice and soft.....that, Valerie, is heaven on earth.

  12. Cool beans Braymere. Which one is yours?

  13. Valerie - I'm writing more about western horse collection, hopefully tomorrow. It's an entirely different subject from the point of this post, but it's time to address it.

  14. Thanks for clarifying horsehair. And thanks for replying mugwump. I am honestly a type of person who really wants to learn. And yes riding a horse in collection is amazing but even my quarter horses do it with their heads at or above poll level. I'm re entering the western world from the dressage world so am still learning. At times my questions come across brass or condescending and I honestly don't mean them too. Mugwump I've been reading your blog for awhile and really enjoy your writing style and have learned much about a world I have not heard good things about and that were talked down about to me by those I rode with. Looking forward to your next post

  15. Oops that's supposed to say with their poll at or above the withers

  16. Thanks for this.. hours of thought and chewing in one post!

  17. THIS is life changing for me...well, in regards to riding, anyway. Thank you for this explanation. For whatever reason, this has never really been explained to me. I'm going to go through all of my show photos now and take a look...I fear I'll be doing a lot of cringing.

  18. great post, love that you could show examples of both English and Western riding. I'm a student of Dressage, and when starting out my horse did more than a year of long & low riding to get him to develop his back and abs, while driving the hind end. This really made me appreciate a round western horse. It is notable which horses are stepping up with the rear legs all the way under the girth, and which are not.

  19. This is the best post on collection I have ever seen!!!! I want to print it out and laminate it and hang it in the tack room!!!!(Because I WILL ride again and I WILL teach again!!) I have known that collection comes from the back, not the front, but this explanation, with pictures, makes so much sense. Man, learning takes a long time. And comes from so many sources.

    I have alway felt like my mare collects naturally. When she moves on her own, she really reaches her hind legs. But sometimes with a rider, it's like she's collected in front but not in back. AHA. New things to observe, coming up!

    Love the example with the mustangs. I've seen this. So true. THANK YOU and this was totally worth waiting for! (Hope you've been well and happily busy!!)

  20. Okay just looked at pictures again. This time looked at the rider's leg. This is why I'm always telling riders -- and myself -- to get those legs back and underneath. How long did it take you to compile all these pictures for examples?

    Turns out that Fairy Dust Bitless Bridle isn't necessary after all.

  21. Collection is something I'm trying to learn about so thanks for this post. Where I'm confused is about the wall. How is a wall made with a loose rein like the fellow in the pic?

  22. Well at least it could be a guy, it's the headless rider. ;)

  23. Great post! I had a dressage instructor who gave me lessons on my ex-barrel horse. Talk about lessons in collection! She taught that there is NO pull in collection - rather, you are "squeezing water from a sponge" on the reins while bump/squeezing with your legs. Always thought that was a helpful analogy, especially on a horse that's been pulled around by his face the wrong way for a long time. Eagerly awaiting the post on western collection....Good to see you back, Mugs.

  24. Hi Mugs,

    What do you see with gaited horses? I've heard gaited horse trainers talk about "collecting them up" in order to get the horses to gait better, but also heard a dressage trainer once say that it's impossible for a gaited horse to be truly collected because they are all "leg movers" and don't have "true impulsion." I do see a lot of them ridden with the chair seat (rider's legs way out in front) that you pointed out in this post, and a lot have that look where the nose is tucked in but everything else is hanging out, but not all of them. Maybe I've answered my own question... like all disciplines some horses/humans do it better than others.

  25. GREAT explanation of collection! Thanks from all of us visual learners for digging up the pictures.

  26. Pishkeen - as an owner of a horse that can gait, my answer to your question is . . . weight distribution? I think? Properly gaited horses (peruvians, standardbreds, some walkers) can "push a wall" too, maybe not effectively as a horse that's trotting or cantering, but they can distribute their weight more evenly between their front and back legs. (even gaited horses naturally tend to drag themselves along with their front legs). When they are balanced like this, a gaited horse is even smoother, softer, and more pleasant to ride. Their gaits look nicer. Whether you can ever get a gaited horse to use as much power from behind while in gait as a collected, trotting horse does, is well, I suppose, an issue for those dressage masters to debate.

    The rub comes when you're dealing with horses that don't gait "properly", i.e. big lick walkers, saddlebreds, racking horses, etc, and especially when you are competing them. For these horses, the breed standard assumes, and the judges look for, "big movement", "expression", and a hundred other euphemisms that really just mean "flashy leg action". Evening the weight distribution, "pushing a wall", or "collecting" the horse tends to make a horse move more smoothly - and reduces that fancy leg action that so often enthralls the non-horse person. However, hollowing the horse out, and putting the poll behind the vertical, not to mention shoes, pads, elastics or chains, encourages these gaited horses to lift their knees higher. And no, I don't think I've ever seen "true impulsion" in these horses.

  27. Thanks PonyFan! I've gotten some experience with Paso Finos in the last year and a half. Every horse seems to gait differently, and some more naturally than others. It might be something about their gait, or their conformation, but they don't step up under themselves when they gait, which is something that my old dressage trainer taught me to look for in a trotting horse. They are fun little horses though!

  28. Pony Fan - Now I have to start watching gaited videos. Great info BTW.
    I don't have much experience with gaited horses. One Rocky Mountain, one TWH and one Paso Fino. There have been a few crosses that ended up gaited...
    All were very nervous, hot and bracey. I rode them the same as any other horse, since they were there for their problems, not my Gaited horse knowledge (damn good thing).

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  30. Pishkeen-a marvelous old trainer of Peruvian horses told me once to ride the horses "from zee bottom to zee top, from zee back to zee front" good an explanation of collection as any.

  31. One thing I would add
    - collection can happen no matter where the head is -
    I agree with this, this SO MUCH for gaited horses. Gaiting needs to be balanced by the head and neck muscles of a horse, even much more so than trotting/cantering. Some gaits require the horse to flex and bend at the neck or poll with each stride, the extremest being 'nodding' walkers who actually need to lift and drop their head with each stride.

    I think a lot of gaited horses get "bracey" because they are using the rider to support their gait. And this can be caused by a rider who uses too much contact and doesn't let the horse move naturally in their gait. On the other side of the coin, it can already be so damn difficult to find that sweet spot, where you have light but firm, steady contact and the horse is neither behind the bit or leaning on it. It sucks even more when the horse moves its head and neck with every step.

  32. This would be my collection video of choice, maybe you remember it from when there was all that drama about a 'natural" walker daring to compete big lick to make a point. They even had the nerve to put an African-American rider on the horse!
    If you watch the footfalls, the horses are all performing the same gait, even if the natural walker is not as exaggerated.
    In my opinion, the natural walker demonstrates collection in a gaited horse.

  33. Do you see engagement and collection as the same thing? To me, the reiner in the first picture is engaged but not collected, the same with the balanced dressage horse a few photos lower. I see collection as when the front end comes up and the hind end goes down and steps further under, such as a collected trot or piaffe in dressage and the collected lope on the smaller circle in a reining pattern, or the sliding stop when the horse must lift the shoulders and drop his butt in the ground.
    It's an excellent post on the correct way of riding back to front.

  34. I have a much easier time getting my horse engaged at the trot than at the walk, and the canter is hardest of all. Being able to let my elbows open and close with the movement of my horse's head and neck, while maintaining the canter and keeping it from getting too fast or breaking the stride, is very very very hard for me.

  35. great post and really helps me understand, but like SB Zenith I struggle to make that wall.
    My horse will walk faster (and starts shuffling in trot instead of extending) but if I try to get a contact she'll throw her head, pull, shake , stop or shuffle even faster.
    I'll add to that that contact and collection are new to us so this may be way over the top and above our level but I like to understand what to do to help us along.
    she is slowly getting the idea of lowering and stretching but any engagement with my legs means faster and contact means run through the wall.
    would it be best to keep getting her used to lowering and stretching( and ground exercises etc) until she has more balance in herself to not rush herself forward or am I teaching contact and the wall IN ORDER to give her balance to not rush...which would be first?

    ps. I've missed your posts :)

  36. Head on the vertical (give or take) has nothing to do with the head. Nothing. It has to do with a back that lifts and rounds and a neck that telescopes. Period. Head carriage during collection will vary with the upper cervical curve.

    It's difficult for many gaited horses, especially TWH and SBs to get under themselves due to the very long tibia we see on a lot of these horses, not to mention the typical hammerhead neck/poll upper cervical curve issues with certain lines of TWHs.