What is Classical
The Training Scales  
of Horse and Rider
& Its Evasions 
How and Why Not?
& Auxillary Equipment

Natural & Natural +


True Collection


False Collection


The 1/2-Halt & Positioning


Lateral Movements


True Collection

What It Is & How to Achieve It

Phillippe Karl and his Andalusian Stallion Odin


Descriptions of Collection
What Really Happens
Trained Equilibrium
Bend the Hip-Benders
The Abdominal Muscles
Lifting the Base of the Neck
There's No Such Thing as a "Particular Level Frame"
The Rein Aids for the Relaxation of the Jaw
Use the Trot for On-The-Bit
Collection in the Trot Continuum
The Signs of Collection - A Source of Misconceptions

If you have gotten here without first reading about Natural and Natural+ I strongly suggest you take a few minutes and actually read said chapter. If you choose not to, you will disagree with me simply because we do not define "natural" the same way. I make much more sense if you read it.

Descriptions of Collection

What is this illusive thing called collection, anyway? We all talk about it, but what do we mean? Are we all on the same planet here, or are we even in parallel universae?

The stages of collection - levade omitted
The stages of collection - levade omitted

Collection can be described in many ways. If you read Podhajsky and Müseler they both have two different descriptions that are not really described together, in their books.

Stepping In Under the Body

One is that the horse steps further in under its body with the hindlegs and erects the neck. One of the most spread drawings of the stages of collection emanates from their books (it's hard to tell who was first). A horse in a stance from halt to levade (wich I have omitted here) with increasing stepping under of the hind hooves and erection in front. The strange thing with this graphic is that it is only in the piaffe that the horse is "moving" at all. In the rest of the drawings the horse is at halt or up in its rear. This, I think, is not very descriptive of "collection in action". And collection IS action.

Shorter, Higher Strides

Length of steps in different stages of collections in trot
Length of steps in different stages of collections in trot

Then there's drawings of horses of horses doing collected trot and canter and others of extended walk, and then the stride length is compared. The shorter loftier strides are described as collected, while the longer flatter strides are called extended. Here the body stance is not mentioned.

Shorter Body

Then there are more modern writers who say that the horse must compress its body in order to be collected. Some even stretch themselves to say that the topline must shorten and compress the horse. Now, that is desinformation!

Get the Back Up

Some, mostly those adhering to a school of thought of setting the head low to get the back up, usually called "deep, low and round" define collection as when the back is up. The solution to achieving collection lies in getting the abs to compress the visceral contents and press the back up, alternatively that the excessively lowered head will hoist the back up by lever action, and by the head's traction on the nuchal ligament. That might be possible, but is that really collection?

What Really Happens?

The pink horse has shortened the distance from seatbone to base of neck
The pink horse has shortened the distance from seatbones
to the base of the neck

The best description yet of what actually happens in the body of the horse as it collects, is as follows:
The points of the horse's seatbones and the 7th vertebra of the neck are drawn closer together. This can be seen illustrated in the superimposed pictures to the left.

The Hindlegs Bend and Smooth the Steps

The best description of what happens with the movements of the legs in collection, is a bit longer:
Yes, the steps become shorter and loftier, but how? Well, the important thing is that the hindlegs bend as they land and are loaded. The hindlegs land with a slight bend still there from the bend during protraction. They begin to support the body-weight still bent, the hindleg transports the body-weight over the point where the hondhoof is grounded and forward, still bent. The hindleg finally pushes off, still slightly bent.

Bending jointis in the hindleg lowering the croup
Bending jointis in the hindleg
lowering the croup

This mechanism, the bend in the hip, knee, hock and pastern help to suspend the horse's body in a shock-absorbing way. There is no land-stiffly-bend-push-off/up that you usually see in the raw, untrained gaits. Moving in this shock-absorbing way, the body of the horse is transported with less thumping, because it is suspended in the air by the spring in the legs.

This affects the thumping of the forehand as well. The bent hindlegs lower the croup some. The tucked croup pulls on the spine to arch upwards and actually lift the forehand a tiny bit. The forehand is thus relieved of the weight that the hindhand would otherwise push over to it, and also relieved of the thumps.

Frontlegs Lighter

Nice, correct medium trot
Nice, correct medium trot.

Unlike the hindlegs, the frontlegs do not bend more in the supporting phase. The forelegs actually become straighter in their stance, at least in the greater collection of the piaffe and pirouettes. The frontlegs are not entirely suited to bend and smooth out the steps like the hindlegs are. They have straight "knees" to begin with, and the articulation of the shoulder and elbow is not as pronounced as that of the hip and tarsus behind. The muscle-mass governing the frontlegs is not as pronounced, either, and these muscles are preoccupied with the passive supporting of the thorax while they move the frontlegs forwards to take new steps.

Nice, correct extended trot
Nice, correct extended trot.

The frontlegs are not as passive as one might think, though. When studying dressage and learning of the weight-carrying and pushing abilities of the quarters, it is easy to think that the forehand is nothing more than two sticks that alternately support a little bit of the body weight in front. But in the jumping dicipline, the activity of the forehand becomes more evident.

When the horse takes off for a jump it is easy to think he does so by lowering the quarters and pushing the body up and over the fence. But if horses in general could do that, levade would really be a piece of cake. It is just not possible for the hindhand to come under the body in such an angle that the body can be pushed up over the fence. Also, if it did, it would certainly not have the power to push the body over a 6 feet jump from such a crouched position. If that were so, why would horses find piaffe so exhausting?

How the hindquarters and back muscles work together, seen from above
How the hindquarters and back
muscles work together, seen
from above.

gluteus_longissimus_from_above.jpg No, a horse pushes his forehand off the ground by the muscular power of the shoulders and chest. The neck helps some, too. In canter, this is actually done while the hindlegs are still in the air, coming in to land for a push-off. As they land and start pushing, the forehand is already well raised so that the hindlegs can push without the horse squatting down.

The Hindlegs Take the Weight off the Frontlegs

How that happens in piaffe is relatively simple to see. The horse moves his hindlegs in under the body, bend all the joints to lower the quarters to get it more under, and thus take up some of the weight that is otherwise on the forehand. But collection is not only piaffe. It's present in school trot, less so in collected trot, and the least in working trot. But when the horse does not stay still in one place, like in piaffe, how does it work?

There is a more thorough description in Work & Stretch - the 2 Levers that Manage the Back >> but to stay in this article, , and to continue having the trot as an example, the short version goes like this:

If you look at a free trotting horse from behind, you can see that the left or right side of the back swells up as the left or right hindleg lands. As for example the right hindleg lands, the right side of the back lifts compared to the left. What happens is that the right side of the back, together with the right side of the butt tries to haul the right side of the chest and shoulder up, over the fulcrum of the hip. If the back is hindered in any way (by the rider's weight or by being tied down in front) the supporting left frontleg must take all the weight instead, and the horse goes on the forehand.

The butt and Longissimus work like a crane
The butt and Longissimus work like a crane.

When this is done on both sides simpultaneously, and all other muscles cooperate, the horse can lift so much that it rears. A very fit horse can do levade, which is more taxing in general. But this is also working to a small extent when the horse is just trotting along, because the hindquarters have such potentioal for athleticism. When the horse is ridden, it has 120+ pound on top of the longissimus and a new balance to manage, the horse has to always use this function because otherwise he will break down.

Sara Wyche calls all ridden exercises elevated (Sara Wyche - The Horse's Muscles In Motion), because they are, and because carrying the rider is much more of an effort than anyone can imagine. We all think the horse was made to carry us, but it wasn't. It needs to learn and strengthen to do so.

Trained Equilibrium - The Ridden Horse

Nice, correct, beginning collected trot
Nice, correct, beginning collected trot.

A horse meant to be used as a mount with even the minimum of finesse, must be trained to carry the rider's weight in a proper way to avoid breaking down. Many think of the horse as a couch or some other mechanical structure which is meant to carry the extra weight of the human body. But even though the modern sports horse has been bred for better withers, stonger back and a more useful neck, they still have not evolved through the eons to carry humans.

So what needs to happen in the horse for him to carry the rider properly?

The percentage of mass of the different bodyparts, according to Dr Hilary Clayton at the McPhail Institute
The percentage of mass of the different bodyparts, according
to Dr Hilary Clayton at the McPhail Institute.
The Rider Adds to the Weight

The extra weight of the rider first of all puts extra pressure on the spine by resting on the back. The spine is a somewhat flexible structure whose rigidity is mostly governed by muscular effort. The viscera of the horse is quite heavy (57% of a 600 kg warmblood is 340 kg!) and hangs from the spine. Another 60-80 kg added to it (i. e. the rider) will not help anyone.

Despite the look of the topline of this young horse on the left, the spine is arched upwards. In young and untrained (or poorly trained) horses it is by habit less arched, and the more supporting muscle the horse has, the better the arch.

The shape of the spine inside the horse's body
The shape of the spine inside the horse's body.

And the Pressure

But it's not only the sheer weight of the rider which disturbes the horse. It is the pressure as well. The horse's back is an emotional filter. An upset, tense, angry, frightened horse tenses his back muscles and hollows the back. A rider aboard can be intimidating, at least in the beginning.

An arched back is strong like a roman bridge construction
An arched back is strong like a
roman bridge construction.


It will also generate a certain degree of discomfort in the back, which the horse will try to avoid best he can. By hollowing. If these instinctive reactions are not nipped in the bud early on, the horse will establish a habit of hollowing as soon as the saddle comes off its hanger.


Another, and some would say the most important, reason why a horse becomes tense and hollows with a rider on board is the fact that his balance is upset. A horse is a flight animal, which needs to be able to turn and bolt in a second, or at least he will believe so until his last breath. To be cemented on the forehand by an additional weight on the back is a nightmare. In my experience, the higher up the hierarchy a mare is, the less she will tolerate losing balance. Because balance and poise is closely connected with self esteem and social structure.

The tension in the back muscles inverts the arch of the back
The tension in the back muscles inverts the arch of the back.

So before anything else, the horse must learn to not fear having the rider on his back. This way he can relax and not tensing the topline muscles and push the back down. The back muscles need to relax in order for the horse to be able to counteract the sagging of the spine that the rider's weight creates.

So after having learned the basic instructions for moving forward and stopping, turning left and right (which is initially taught in hand and on the lunge) the horse must be trained to lift the back to compensate the rider's weight. This continues to improve even towards the higher stages of collection (such as piaffe and canter pirouettes) but it must become habit from the start. No need for the horse to stagger about hollow backed and tense for 2 years during his normal field education - but don't interpret this that the horse should be held up in front or even rolled down between his forelegs. No.

Bend the Hip-Benders

The Ilio-Psoas Group
The Ilio-Psoas Group.

The horse must learn to use his "hip benders" - the iliopsoas muscles, his abs and his serratus, longissimus cervicis and spinalis near the base of the neck. This is accomplished by moving the hindlegs forward, and preferably a little inward towards the midline of the body to bend the hip. This can also be done in hand, and I show how in the article Shoulder-In Volte ».

The shoulder-in volte from the ground
The shoulder-in volte from the ground.

When ridden, it is done on a circle with a touch of Shoulder-In, called a Shoulder-Fore. This causes the horse to tread closer to the midline also, and the bend of the circle stresses the bend of the inside hip and the loading of that leg. Here you must be able to sense where the hindquarters are. If you can't feel if they are to the inside, in line or to the outside you have no business doing this exercise. Have someone on the ground look at your horse along the longsides and the midline, and say "Haunches are to the right, now left, still left, middle - good!" This does not demand any knowledge on behalf of the "instructor" other than being able to tell the front from the back of a horse.

Working forward to get the hindleg to step under
Working forward to get the hindleg to
step under.

When this works alright, transitions are usually up next. Be sure to make the up-transitions when the inside leg is going to touch down. You want the inside leg to grasp forward, and thus flexing the hip on that side. You need immediate attention to your aids to do this. You will naturally start with varying the tempo and slow transitions to get this obedience. As you have it, you make sure that the timing is right for the inside leg so immediate obedience stays immediate ;-).

Remember that down transitions are usually harder for the untrained horse. Start with asking for correct up-transitions, and just leave the down-transitions. This is also psychologically right - forward is good and rewarded. The up-transition only needs driving aids - no contradition. The downwards transitions usually end up being a tense horse on the forehand with a rider pulling and kicking. Not good. Leave them for now.

The Abdominal Muscles

A horse really using his abs to support the arch of the back and croup. Click on picture to go to an article on their anatomy
A horse really using his abs to support
the arch of the back and croup. Click on
picture to go to an article on their anatomy.

Some silly people of some old-school claim that horses don't use their abdominal muscles to lift the back. An elderly Swedish fellow who used to discuss the Nouveau Dressage in Swedish media claimed that the horse, like any other deer-like mammal does not need the abdominals to collect, because he had himself seen a deer get his belly blasted away by a stray bullet, and the deer still ran for dear life.

I'm sure it did, but I bet you the poor deer wasn't collected as he ran away! I have personally seen a burglar run away on a broken leg, but that still doesn't make it an ideal way of running, does it?!

The abdominal muscles seen in the photo to the left
The abdominal muscles seen
in the photo to the left.

The fact is, that the horse needs the abdominals to support the work of the hip-benders. The abs make sure that the back doesn't hang through, by pulling the bottom of the pelvis closer to the sternum. Without this action, you can get a horse that bends greatly behind but still doesn't take on any extra weight from the forehand, because the bridge inbetween is disconnected.

Here's a link to an explanation of the abs and the bulge seen in the photo above...

Idle abs letting the trunk fall through
Idle abs letting the trunk fall through.

But a few things are important:
The abdominals must work in the rhythm of the gait, and thus relax as the horse breathes in to allow this. They are only needed in the supporthing phase of the gait, and should thus be "pumping" with the gait, or the horse will be tense, and have trouble breathing correctly. This is usually not a problem unless you work the horse deep and behind the vertical, with heavy hands or with fear.

The way rollkur or deep works - mainly in the neck and abs
The way rollkur or deep works -
mainly in the neck and abs.

The abs must also pull the pelvis forward, not pull the sternum (of the chest) backwards! This may sound like semnatics but it is not. It may also be impossible to differentiate between the two since the pelvis and the sternum both are pulled towards each other. But what you want is the hip bend to stabilize the tilt of the pelvis, so that not the croup is flat and the horse drops the forehand down and starts slanting the forelegs backwards, as is so common in rollkur.

Lifting the Base of the Neck

Dr Deb Bennett (www.equinestudies.org/board):

When a horse rounds up, that is the first stage or least degree of collection - starts from, and is always primarily the product of, coiling of the loins. ... 'Collection is continued when coiling of the loins causes the horse to arch the freespan of his back,' and 'Collection is completed when the horse raises the base of his neck.'
A horse clearly lifting the base of the neck in a f-d-o stretch
A horse clearly lifting the base of the neck
in a f-d-o stretch.

Dr Deb Bennet says "Collection starts with the tucking of the croup and is complete with the lifting of the base of the neck". Or something to that notion. And this is so very true, although many people have this all confused and say it's to do with head position or possibly the degree of bend in the hocks. Smoe people think the neck should shorten with collection which is quite the opposite of what Dr Bennett says.

Arching up and out, lifting the base of the neck
Arching up and out, lifting the base of the neck.

Most riders think that the role of the reins are to steer, and to arrange the head in a certain fashion. They usually speak openly about the steering part, but the head setting is something they do and pretend they don't. I guess they think all riders set the head with the reins, and that is pretty close to the truth, too. Unfortunately. But if you have studied the equine anatomy closely enough, and had the good fortune to ride with someone who knows better and then had the chance to put it all together, you'll know differently.

First of all, you only steer a very green horse, or possibly one going very fast in difficult terrain with the rein as the major aid. And hardly even then. To be honest, even the most modestly trained dressage mount will turn away form the active rein (the outside one) into the released rein (the inside one). The horse will turn from the weight and leg aids, not be pulled left or right. Next, to pull the nose towards the chest, neck or knees will never make a horse collected. That would be like judging how fast a car goes from the amount of exhaust created. It has some relevance, but it all depends. You can have the clutch down and rush the engine at standstill, or you could be going downhill with the engine turned off (unless you have an automatic gear box, that is). But enough of cars.

If your horse is using himself resonably well, he will have relaxed the poll to drop the nose to become vertical, or slightly in front of the vertical. This because he will have lifted the base of the neck, to extend the neck, and thus relaxed the contracted upperline. And the nose drops. As soon as one forces the horse to contract his underline to pull his chin to his chest, the spinal column is "broken" and the S-shape exaggerated. This instead pushes the base of the neck out, and the chest sinks between the front legs.

It can be very deceptive, because the tension that is created around the shoulders and the base of the neck, makes the horse feel inflated infront. This makes people think that the horse is collected and elevated in front, when in fact he has fallen down between his frontlegs and is tense. This interpretation of that feel into thinking the horse is "collected" really just tells you how little experience these riders really have with true collection.

Normal poise - the base of the neck sags
Normal poise - the base of the neck sags.

Normal Poise

Normal poise is what the image to the left is showing << The longer muscles from withers to poll (red) hold the bulk of the weight of the head and neck. They are working to hold the head up and nose out. The spine sags inbetween. The muscles holding the base of the neck are relaxed (pink) and let the spine sag down. This is natural, and whether the horse has a big underneck bulge and less than harmonious line of the neck is more a matter of what the muscles do in their relaxed state - that is, their tonus. The stronger, shorter, suppler and more elastic the serratus/longissimus cervicis/spinalis muscels holding the base of the neck up, the nicer looking the horse, even at standstill.

Arched poise - the base of the neck lifts
Arched poise - the base of the neck lifts.

Arched Poise

In the Arched Poise horse has shifted his effort from merely holding the head up and out, to arching his neck. This arch begins with the serratus/longissimus cervicis/spinalis (now red) actively lifting the base of the neck, and the longer muscles going from withers to poll (now pink) relax just a tad to let the nose drop down towards the vertical. So the action is at the withers and base of the neck, not at the poll or upper line. This is where it mostly goes wrong, though. People don't know this fact I have described above, and honestly I can't blame them. It's hardly in any books except the more experimental french turn-of-the-century books by DeCarpentry or Beaudant, and later in veterinary surgeon Udo Bürger's "The Way To Natural Horsemanship". Most discussions on collection and rounding that concerns the actual weight shift, either think of this as shortening the counter-weight of the neck to transfer the weight, or that the rounding (often excessively) of the front end will transfer over the back (or belly!) and continue the rounding behind. This is not the purpose of the rein aids. It's not even desirable as some magical effect of the other aids. This is not what should happen!

Going above the bit, pushing the underneck out
Going above the bit, pushing the underneck out.

I know a lot of riders, especially those claiming to be classical, say the reins must do absolutely nothing. Just hold a still elastic hand and the horse will come to the bit sooner or later. Later, is the more common scenario. I also know a lot of them seem to have 'alien hand syndrome' in that they are totally unaware of what their hands do. They're sawing, pulling and yanking and keep it on a subconcious level.

Then there are of course those who really do absolutely nothing with their hands. Most of them also have horses which go year in and year out, circling the arena with the underneck out like the bow of a boat, nose-the-highest-point chronically on the forehand. "It takes time" they say. "I don't want to force anything." But contrary to their beliefs, this is not kind! I shall venture to explain...

Arching out and lowering, lifting the base of the neck
Arching out and lowering, lifting the base of the neck.

The Horse has no clue that he will stay sound for longer and carry the rider more comfortably if he carries himm in a better poise. All the horse knows is that he has a cumbersome load on his back and is out of balance. He does his best to deal with it. Lowering the back, tensing the head up is an instinctive reaction to this situation. The rider asks the horse to step under from behind, asks him to use his abs to hold the back up, but it all just rushes out the front end where the neck is hollowed and the forehand sinks between the front legs. This is where we need to help the horse, not have him solve this puzzle the best he can. We need to tell him to lift the base of the neck.

Completely arched out and down - neck telescoped
Completely arched out and down - neck telescoped.

As the horse lets the chest sink between the forelegs, he pokes his nose and clenches his jaw. He is tense. If we wand to reverse this vicious circle, we could stand on the ground and poke him in the base of the neck to see if he lifts it. My bet is that he won't, but rather that he will back off. Another thing that you can do is ask the horse to relax his jaw, which in turn will relax his uppeline muscles some, and with the stepping under from behind, chances are high he will start to use the serratus/longissimus cervicis/spinalis base-of-neck lifters instead. Maybe lower his head some, and certainly drop the nose from the poll.

There's No Such Thing as a "Particular Level Frame"

Ranging from fairly elevated to sniffing the dirt
Ranging from fairly elevated to sniffing the dirt.

So we do that. But is that then not a head set?
No, it's not a head set, it's a body attitude. The head can be ranging from fairly high to sniffing the dirt. The horse will follow the hand down into any height that seems appropriate. The only real change is that the horse has relaxed the upperline and the poll and is now lifting his lower neck. It would be wrong of the rider of a young horse here to try to put the horse into a Training Level Frame, or anything of the kind. There is actually no such thing.

A quarter horse in a correct trot
A quarter horse in a correct trot.

Any horse can be relaxed in the poll and lifting the base of the neck. That is not too much to ask from a young horse, nor is it heavy on his hocks since he can have the neck very low and not be collected, nor will the contact make him less willing to go forward, because the contact is actually lighter. The horse is not asked to contract anything, only to relax something. It should be more comfortable. From this lolling, relaxed poise, the horse can find his balance in a relaxed way, use his topline and move through his body. The rider can feel the back, and its oscillations. The rider can ask the horse to stretch longer if he feels a stiffening or a withdrawal, and he can as for a "give" to the rein aid if the horse pushes on the hand. The rest, my friend, comes from behind.

GP in front, training level behind...
GP in front, training level behind....

To think that a horse should be working for 45 minutes to an hour with his neck held in any particular shape is outrageous, whether it be low and stretched or high and "collected". The only outline that a horse is made to withstand for hours is a grazing outline, with no rider on.

The horse should be ridden to try to collect from behind (which raises the neck) and at the same time stretch over the back (which lowers the head). The easiest way to do this and to avoid acid build-up and fatigue (read resistance) is to switch between collection and stretching down almost continously. You don't have to come up very high (never higher than the back can sustain) and you must not even go very low. But the more collected the horse has been the more he must be allowed to stretch. And you as a rider must learn to feel which is what and how much through the horse's back.

And you must also remember that the horse is the one who actually lowers his head. He does this because he wants to and it is comfortable. He does so because you give the reins. You must not try to pull him down.

But you can't ride along on a star-gazer and give the reins and think he will stretch and lower his head. A stargazer will at the most stick his nose out. You need to explain to him how to lift the base of the neck, telescope the neck forwards and down, and you do this by positioning and relaxing the jaw.

The Rein Aids for the Relaxation of the Jaw

To ask the horse to find this quite different poise himself, when he goes around like a giraffe, is to ask too much. This is why the horse never understands these requests. Sooner or later the horse grows tired in his topline from tensing and hollowing his neck and will lower the head. But has he understood? I think not.

Horse pulled together and broken att the 3rd vertebra
Horse pulled together and broken att the 3rd vertebra.

There is a world of difference between this and sawing on the reins to get the nose in. This getting the nose in can actually do the opposite - it makes the horse pull the head back towards the chest. To do this he tenses his jowl and underneck. In holding the head in he can press the base of the neck down, which is totally counter-productive to what one wants. So in no way must the horse be forced to any particular head/neck carriage by use of the reins. The only thing you must do, is ask for relaxation of the jaw.

Stretching to the outside rein, by bending and releasing with the inside rein
Stretching to the outside rein, by bending
and releasing with the inside rein.

This is easiest done on a bent track. Support the horse on the outside rein, and with the inside rein, either lead to the inside with the thumb out, or nudge the corner of the mouth, and then release. Release no matter what response. If you get no response - do it again. Sooner or later. Usually sooner, the horse will learn that there will always be a release. So he will relax the jaw in response to your nudge. And in response to his own relaxation stretch the neck forward and down into your release. Now you follow him with the outside hand as well.

It is very important that you do not release with the outside rein as you give the nudge/squeeze on the inside. Why? Because if you do, all that will happen is a sawing action left-right-left. What will the horse make of this? Nothing, or find it slightly irritating, and bore against it. Why? Because, on the circle, the horse works, let's say, to the right. The inner hindleg, the right, steps under towards the midline of the body, bends and takes weight. He bends his hip more on this side. Bends his whole body to the right, stretching the left side longer. The rein aid on the right side causes the horse to position to the inside, stretching even the neck on the outer left side. This "half-body lateral stretch" to the still outer side of the bit is what does it all, not the contraction on the inside. Doing this in both directions sets the table for "bi-lateral longitudal stretch" forward to the bit. But if you have no bit there, what will the horse stretch to? He will need a safe contact on the outside, be told to bend to the inside and thus stretch the outside, and then get to stretch along with the bit.

The first 2 years of an untrained horse's life should be spent doing all kinds of things, with this neck and body attitude. Please note that attitude does NOT equal frame. Attitude can only be described as lifting the base of the neck, telescoping the neck forward - down - out, and relaxing the poll. It cannot be drawn on a paper, like a fixed outline can. The horse should be allowed more rein and to stretch the neck down as soon as he desires, because you will not want to create tension in the base of the neck which comes from fatigue.

A nice stretching trot
A nice stretching trot.

This is very common, a young horse trots nicely around the arena for 5 minutes, relaxed and stretching, and then all of a sudden, the head comes up and he wants to break free. It takes some serious convincing to fix and usually takes a minnute or so. This is because the horse has grown tored in the muscles lifting the base of the neck and needs to relax them. You should really let him do that. Let him walk for 5 minutes. Rather than fight him into working with hurting muscles, or working wrong, or learning to fight you.

A nice working trot
A nice working trot.

During his first years under saddle they horse needs to be out alot, walking in forests, jumping ditches, stepping over sticks and stones, walking on unieven ground, just to "find his feet". This can be done with a stretching down neck, to build the right attitude from the start. If you have the horse going around for 2 years with his underneck protruding, he will be mighty surprised and unfit to start working in stretch mode all of a sudden. Start gently.

Use the Trot for On-The-Bit

Don't shorten the reins and have your horse walk around the arena, bending and leg-yielding, in the following years of training. I know a lot of trainers say this, but it IS important. Use the Trot and to some extent canter for this. Why? Because of the greater schwung, as some claim? So you can drive? No, that's not my point. Because the head is still in the trot.

A good, collected passage
A good, collected passage.

When the horse trots on the bit, the head position does not change during the phases of the steps. The horse can be on the bit with a uniform rein length, and the rider can hold his hands fairly still, learning to feel contact. In walk, the green, young and even fairly welltrained horse will move his head up and down with the footfalls of the hindlegs. Anyone but a really educated rider will tend to block these head and neck movements at the walk, by simply holding the reins in the same length, and the hands in the same place and block the head from moving. Now, this is not all that really happens, because the horse still tries to move his head, to be able to use his hindlegs and their push through the back. So he still moves the neck up and down, but adjusts to the fixed reins by pulling his head in towards the underneck when he needs to lower the neck. The horse becomes intermittent behind the vertical and behind the bit. It makes the horse tense in the neck, and this blocks the movements of the back, and finaly the hindlegs.

It takes a feeling hand to follow the movements of the head at the walk. Now, many old classicists say not to "row with the hands". To ride with the fixed hand, and then in the next breath explain that the fixed hand is a soft fixed hand and that the seat and back moves enough to follow the hand. This is not true. I shall expalin.

On the high-school horse you can ride collected walk in which the head does not move up and down. It is a short walk, which needs a lot of hindquarte work, because the forehand is still. You can't achieve this by just holding the hands still - you must strengthen the hindquarters and the back for years. You do this at the trot and canter. And the trot is fine, but in the canter, the same thing happens as in the walk - the head and neck goes up and down.

The fixed hand makes the horse pivot around the hand, losing suppleness and balance
The fixed hand makes the horse
pivot around the hand, losing
suppleness and balance.

If you only block this, because you are not supposed to row with the hands, your horse will tense up in the neck. Old instruction says not to row, because the horse goes on the forehand when stretching out. But an untrained horse goes on the forehand in the last supporting phase of the canter, whether you give him the rein or not. He is just relaxed in the neck on the forehand if you do, and tense in the neck and on the forehand if you don't. If you could keep a horse from going on the forehand just by holding the head up, I would not need to write this page, and everybody would ride GP.

So what am I saying. I say, work to strengthen the horse towards collection in the trot. Use walk interspersed, and if you do, follow the head with the reins or let the reins out. Train the canter by trot-canter transitions. When in canter, follow the head. Don't canter and canter for it improves nothing. Check down and canter on again instead. When the horse can walk and canter collectedly, you will have a stiller head, and thus stiller hands. Videofilm yourself from time to time to check whether your horse bobs his head at the trot or canter.

Not very many of the old classical institutions or their followers will agree to following with the hand at the walk and canter. Only Robert Hall of Fulmer School, and Col. Carde of the Cadre Noir as far as I have heard, personally. Many say it's a competition dressage thing because you want the horse to over-reach exaggeratedly at the walk in the test, so you do anything to make that happen. But as far as I know, many of the old school institutions don't compete at the lower levels, don't even show at the lower levels, and when they school the lower level exercises they don't use walk on the bit. I don't know about canter, but many places don't school the canter before the horses are well balanced at the trot, and further educated than most low or mid level competition horses will ever be.

I also suspect that this is a dogma, that has actually been so used, that it has become less than optimal. Just like I would not touch sidereins, most accomplished riders who use them minimally might be able to fix the stiffing problems that they create so skillfully that they don't even know it. I suspect that horses that are to a small extent trained with a fixed hand at the walk or canter, will later be repaired by riding schwungfully forward to regain what has been lost. Because the still or fixed (but I despise that expression - it is made to be misinterpreted) hand is a result of a high school trained horse and his supreme balance. It is not a method to achieve it. That would be like pulling the head up in order for it to arch up into collection. We all know what that leads to.

Collection in the Trot Continuum

The trot continuum
The trot continuum.

I spoke above of the treading under of the hindlegs in trot from extended trot to piaffe via collected trot and passage. This is what is called the trot continuum. All of them are diagonal movements with longer or shorter steps, and a suspension phase. Depending on how you interpret "suspension phase", of course. All gaits, from extended trot to piaffe can be performed in a seamless range from one extreme to the other. I know many riders, even GP competitors, don't train the trot continuum by collecting and enxtending between the above, and that's where they miss out. They train the trot, beginning with working trot, then they ride more forward until someone on the ground says it's medium trot.They then keep riding the medium until someone says it's good and trained anough. Then they ride the collected trot, and hold back the energy and end up just shortening it, and fear they will ruin the gaits. So they train the medium again.

All front-legs
All front-legs.

So they ride extensions to get the legs going.

The shortened trot cannot develop into piaffe since it's not collected, only shortened. So they start piaffe from standstill or walk. The piaffe is developed as something completely different that the rest of the trot continuum, so the horse learns to do this as a party trick, from standstill or walk, and it is not a collected trot collecting even further. This is why the piaffe is often not collected at all, but looks more like a standstill with diagonal legs whisking about.

Un-engaged hindquarters but high frontlegs
Un-engaged hindquarters but high frontlegs.

The passage is often trained as a medium trot with "hang time". You go for big movement, and freeze the movement (with pulling on the reins leaning backwards) in every step. This gives you a horse which whisks his frontlegs really high, and just pauses his protracting hindleg, usually way behind the plumb line from the hip.

Training within the trot continuum, you begin in the middle. No untrained horse is able to preform either of the two extremes in a resonably fair way. They can rush the trot, ok. Even taking longer steps and keep the same beat, but they will not do it in an uphill "Jet-Taking-Off" kind of way which is the only constructive way. They might also be able to shorten the steps and keep the same beat. But it will only be a short kind of trot.

Piaffe - The Ultimate Trot

Piaffe is revered as the ultimate movement in mainstream dressage today. It is used as a trick to sell a horse as something it is not - trained up to Grand Prix. You often read:
"7 y.o. gelding, FEI prospect, Nice P&P."
So, you wonder, how come this horse with the nice piaffe and passage is only a prospect for the FEI levels?

We know the unfortunate anwswer - The horse has huge gaits and is very forward so that you can hold back and whip up some kind of leg sprawl in place as well as hold the trot to make it hang. Voila, piaffe and passage!

But piaffe is not a holding-back-kicking-on movement. Like Philippe Karls says:
"The horse piaffes because he wants to go, not because someone is kicking his bottom!" So piaffe is really the ultimate collected trot. The horse really wants to go, but he stays.

But what is so ultimate with this movement?

Well, it's the receit you get back from training. If the horse can go into piaffe and out of it, smoothly, and the piaffe is 2-beat diagonal, lowered behind, and round over the back, you have accomplished something extraordinary, that your horse will benefit from. You will also have trained him into utmost obedience. You ask him to move with a lot of impulsion and selfcarriage and still be obediant enough to stay in place on light aids.

2004-06-20 - To be continued

The Signs of Collection - A Source of Misconceptions

1 Arching Tail

Broomstick tail- tension
Broomstick tail - tension.

Arched tail - relaxation
Arched tail - relaxation.

The softly arched dock of the tail is a sign of mental relaxation and relative relaxation of the muscles supporting the spine. Whilst a horse that clamps his tail between his buttocks is easily disregarded as tense or in pain, a horse who does the opposite usually goes unnoticed. Many horses in the competition arena are tense throughout their backs, but this is not totally obvious to the half-blind, since they are made to curl their heads down. Their tails are sticking out like broom sticks backwards and up for 6-8 inches and do not move from side to side with the strides. This is one end that the rider cannot control with force and this is where the tension shows. The correctly arched tail should only arch until horizontal and only about 4 inches out. After this length it should fall like a waterfall and gently wave from side to side with the strides. Also, the tail should finish the lateral bending line of the horse's spine. On a bent line, the tail should be held arched and slightly to the inside of the bend. If it does not, the horse has blockage somewhere between jaw and dock, and it needs to be taken care of. Should the horse point the dock the other way, one should take it as a real warning sign. Directing the dock to the left while bent right is a sign of serious blockage, injury or pain.

2 Foaming Mouth

Nice wet mouth - white lipstick
Nice wet mouth - white lipstick.

A mouth that is happy, relaxed and softly chewing the bit, usually produces some moisture. The salivary glands behind the jaw are massaged by the soft chewing motion of the jaw. When the spit runs down the insides of the mouth and moves with the tongue and lips, it foams slightly and produces what you may call a "white lipstick".

Horses that do not produce this, are either unhappy with their bits, not through in the poll (which comes from over the back and behind). They might be tense because of poor balance or because the rider is rought with the reins, or simply because they are slopping around and not working right. You quite often see that in riding school environments, on poorly ridden ponies, on horses that are only hacked, or possibly forcedly ridden horses with harsh bits.

Too much foam...
Too much foam....

In the top of the sport you hardly ever see dry mouths. But not all wet mouths are good. I would say most of the top GP horses one sees foam simply too much. This is not a sign that they are extremely relaxed and active behind, but rather that they are overly active in the mouth. If the horse is ridden overbent at the poll, so that the salivary glands are squeezed, and the rider pulls hard or fiddles constantly at the mouth, like sawing, the horse will defend himself. This is usually done by trying to get the tongue to move about and get the bits off, and it results in the tongue beating the saliva to a lather. If the horse opens his mouth in resistance, it can go to the extreme that blotches and strings of drool splatter the frontlegs or the chest. This is a sign of tension, and just like the stiffly lifted tail above, should not be sought or condoned.

3 Bulging Neck Muscles

Arched, round neckline, smooth topline muscles
Arched, round neckline, smooth
topline muscles.

Overbent at 3rd, spenius muscle bulging across the mis-aligned vertebrae
Overbent at 3rd, spenius muscle
bulging across the mis-aligned

A nicely filled out topline of the neck is always desirable. When it swells with muscles, it shows the horse's correct training to be able to arch the neck (and the back) into collection. Unfortunately, it can bulge in a wrong way, too, which is only too ofthen observed in the competition arena. Overbending the joint between the 2nd and 3rd vertebra also produces bulging muscles, but these kome from the kink in the vertebral column, not from arching.

The correct "bulge" goes all the way from the shoulderblade to the poll, and is smooth like a loaf of bread. This is evidence of a spinal column suspended from the strong topline muscles, just like it should be. What it shouldnt look like, is a bulge only at each side at the top of the neck, usually with a sharp shadow underneath it. This is a sure sign that the horse is bending excessively at the joint between the 2nd and 3rd vertebrae. This break in the spinal column produces a bulge, because the muscles that are supposed to span the upper line from the withers to the top vertebrae are no longer above the vertebral column. They have their insertion on the poll (the occipital bone) and/or the atlas and axis. As this part is now lower than the top (the upper edge of the axis) they move to the side of the neck instead of being able to span across the topline. Quite remarkable.

4 Freedom of the Shoulder
Michael Holmström used to travel all over the world with his Horse Evaluation System, and did clinics to evaluate warmblood horses for dressage performance. He developed a system of stickers on specific points on the horse, and software to calculate the anges and distances between the points, and how they related to athletic ability and paces. He could basically calculate what angles were favourable for a specific quality of movement. This system has been critizised by more than a few horse physiotherapists, but I will not go inte that here.

From this system, where he used stallions from the Swedish state stud Flyinge, he not only made conclusions as to what angles were favourable, but also some new discoveries regarding movement in general, like that horses don't step under themselves more in piaffe than in the regular trot. But we all knew that. Here he is also in good company with dr Clayton at the McPhail Institute, where they also come up with breaking news that the horse does not work the way we have previously learned. I have specific critique for their experiments, in the way that they choose material to select data from, but that is a whole different ballgame. I will not go into it here...

What I will go into, is what every photographer knows. The perspective and relations between dots on an object is subject to change in the final photograph, due to different lenses, slightly moved camera, etc. The fact that the dots on the horses had the angles that they had, was totally dependent on the specific camera, and how it was set up at that specific time. As some prominent physiotherapists also pointed out, a few inches differing placement of the hooves of the horse subject also made the dots move significantly.

Regarding shoulder movement, for example, he found that the "freedom of the shoulder" was actually not of the shoulder at all. It was the freedom of the forearm that was significantly better in the trots of stallions recieving 9 or 10 in their stallion testing. As an example of this, he illustrated a presumably nicely free shoulder with a photo of Flyinge Amiral ridden by Kyra Kyrklund at the trot.

Comparing the relative freedom of the shoulder, redefining 'shoulder freedom'
Comparing the relative freedom of the shoulder, re-defining
'shoulder freedom'.

This photo clearly showed how this extravagant movement was really based on how well the horse could extend the forearm forward. The feredom of movement was in the elbow, which the stallion could flex to quite some extent, making his forearm nearly horizontal. In the photo, we could all see, that the position of the shoulderblade was hardly any different from that of a standing horse, or any horse with a mediocre trot.

Anyone who has seen Amiral in the flesh, as he is trotted in hand, will see a totally different kind of shoulder movement, where the shoulderblade indeed does extend far forward so that the shoulder joint is far forward of the chest. One can clearly see the empty armpit where the shoulder used to be. This cannot be found in the ridden horse, at least not in the picture that was used to illustrate just that. But, drawing startling new conclusions from flawed data, is apparently more important than simply verifying that, yes, freedom of the shoulder means a quite mobile shoulderblade, but this mobility is strongly reduced at times when ridden.

Extension on the forehand and huge flicking gesture
Extension on the forehand and
huge flicking gesture.

Some even confuse freedom of the shoulder with the dreaded toe flicking that can commonly be seen in extensions, and even in passage, where they flick in the hang-time. Of course, if you look at it from a strictly muscular point of view it IS freedom of the forelegs, because the muscles holding the bend in the leg (those attached to the strong tendons at the back) have released the leg completely, for the other muscles to fling the leg forward with a snatch.

This is bad for the fetlock, as it snatches (because it is an uncontrolled movement) and it is particularly bad upon upon impact of the leg, because those relaxed muscles are supposed to brace for impact. Often such horses bend too deeply in the fetlock when it is bearing later in the phase.

That is also so, because the horse has lost balance in the first place. Poor balance or fatigue makes the horse throw his frontlegs out to catch his body from falling to the ground. If you school extensions for 45 minutes, and the horse is very tired, he may start to fling like this. Then trainers and riders alike think he's finally letting go and really extending, that that last resistance is gone. And they praise. I wonder if the horse learns to do it for the praise?

Falling froward
Falling froward.

5 Active Hindquarters
For a horse to move correctly, it must learn to push itself forward with the hindquarters instead of shifting the weight forwards and falling forwards. This requires active hindquarters that initiate movement, and not just hindlegs that catch the falling weight. The activity needs to be twofold: the horse needs to both actively push off and also actively step under and support the weight. These are two quite different criteria, but when most riders speak of hindleg activity, they do not separate the two. It could be that they don't realize the difference.

Actively jerking the hindleg up but not placing it very forward
Actively jerking the hindleg up but
not placing it very forward.

In competition we often hear comments on how active a horse is behind. That activity is usually the "pulling up" of the hocks as the hindlegs leave the ground. Some horses even show a jerking action with the hindlegs, as they are lifted to be protracted. This gesture is quite spectacular and impressive, but it does not impress everyone. Especially not me.

Bent pushing hock
Bent pushing hock.

When a horse actively pushes forward with the hindlegs, instead of pulling himself forwards with the frontlegs, he does this with slightly bent hocks and engaged (tilted) croup as the hindlegs are grounded.

Straight pushing hock
Straight pushing

In the trot, for example, the left hindleg is supporting/pushing, while the right hindleg is being protracted. The movement of the lifted and protracted hindleg is fully dependent on the quality of work of the supporting hindleg. If the supporting hindleg is weak at catching the weight upon landing, the supporting phase will be hurrided, so that the grounded hindleg will come into a pushing position as soon as possible. In the pushing position of the hindleg, the hindleg straightens and pushes the body forwards. But what it does the most is pushing the croup up. In this upward bounce of the hindquarters, the lifted hindleg will easily be jerked up and forward. Usually not as much forward as one would wish.

Bent landing hock
Bent landing hock.

The hindlegs thus do not support as much as one would want. Instead they push the croup up, and jerk the hindlegs up with the croup. The haunches are not bent, the pelvis is not tucked, the small of the back is flat and that means that the hindquarters are not engaged. To engage the horse needs to use his hip benders and his abs to pull the bottom of the pelvis forward. Some of these muscles are the same muscles that pull the hindlegs forward to be placed well in under the body of the horse and the same as will stabilize the supporting and bent hindleg so that it supports the bodyweight over the hindlegs.

Another definition from the USDF Glossary, page 217


Increased flexion of the joints of the hind legs during the WEIGHT BEARING phase, and the sacro-lumbar joint, thus lowering the croup relative to the forehand. A prerequisite for thrust/impulsion.

Engagement is NOT flexion of the hocks, or "hock action" in which the joints of the hind legs are markedly flexed while the leg is IN THE AIR. NOR is engagement merely the length of the step of the hind leg forward toward the horse's girth - that is REACH of the hind leg.

Lots of horses have reach, but they don't have engagement. Many horses are trained for reach and hock action by the use of over-speed, but they don't articulate because of engagement and collection, it's because they have learned to "throw the legs around".

In other words, a hindleg movement that is jerking upwards (very active hindquarters) are rarely engaged and supporting in the way we mean by "collection". This can often be observed in piaffe. Horses that are more active behind than in front in the piaffe, and that move the hindlegs higher up from the ground than the forelegs. The hindlegs look quite active. They are, too, but not in a collected and engaged way. They are actually able to bounce and jerk up because the hindquarters of the horse is not bearing weight. The front end in these piaffes are, as Philippe Karl says, actually "...bearing more weight than if the horse were standing at halt". This shows in slow motion, where one can see how the horses move from one frontleg to the other by stepping, grounding one hoof before lifting the other, while the hindlegs have a moment of suspension because the hindquarters have bounced off the ground completely.

Bouncing behind, slow walk in place in front
Bouncing behind, slow
walk in place in front.

Some call this a hand-stand and some call it a bouncing piaffe, a horizontal piaffe, and so on. Whatever one chooses to call it, it is a diagonal movement in place, and not at all collected and a "piaffe". This kind of piaffe is usually trained with a whip or a stick hitting the hindlegs to get the "energy". The energy is however in the wrong direction, and becomes a bounce instead of a sit.

Managing to lift the frontlegs high despite the extreme slanting back of the foreleg
Managing to lift the frontlegs high despite the
extreme slanting back of the foreleg.

Some horses even manage to elevate the lifted frontleg quite high in this kind of piaffe. But it's not a flowing movement - one can see that the horse is standing on one leg and pulls his other frontleg up high and slowly. The supporting frontleg is quite weighed down, and the pastern is very bent and the forearm pushed up into the shoulder.

This is usually taught with the whip touching the front legs, to get them to artificially lift higher.

The piaffe is supposed to be light in front and sitting behind. From this position the horse must be strong enough to move and shift the weight between the two diagonals. And preferably do it with some suspension between the two diagonals - the horse should be hanging in the air during one video frame. The truth is, that that kind of quality piaffe is probably too much to ask for from 99.999% of all warmbloods, and maybe 99% of all iberians. It would also render our competition marks useless, because with the points that mediocre piaffes get today, such a piaffe would render at least a "15".

Passage is something that is supposed to have both pushing and supporting qualities in the hindquarters, as well. Unfortunately that is rarely what we see in the competition arena. What we often can see, though, is a very expressive bouncing trot with hang-time. In this instance, it is not at all the active bouncing hindquarters we see, but rather an overly active bouncing forehand. This is possible, because of how the shoulders of the horse are put together. The horse has no collar bone. We humans are fairly mobile in the shoulders because it's an open ball joint and the arms attach to the shoulders' ends so there's space to move the arms. The horse has a different shape to the chest - it is flat on the sides and pointy at the sternum and back. The shoulders lie flat against the sides of the thorax and the forelegs point down. They are not particularly mobile in the lateral directions. So the horse does not need collarbones.

Developing huge shoulders to use for bouncing in passage
Developing huge shoulders to use
for bouncing in passage.

This makes the horse's frontlegs attach to the chest ONLY by muscles and tendons. Muscles and tendons form a sling from shoulderblade to shoulderblade for the horse's chest to rest in. This makes it possible for the horse to adjust the height of the chest with the muscles of the sling. It also allows the horse to use these muscles as shock absorbers and ultimately as a trampoline where the falling down forehand can recoil in the muscles and bounce up again. Man horses in the dressage arenas today, show exactly this kind of movement in the passage. The hindlegs almost walk forward,

Developing huge shoulders to use for bouncing in passage
Developing huge shoulders to use
for bouncing in passage.

while the front end bounces from one leg to another. It can look quite athletic. But if you stop the film and play it frame by frame, you will see that in the recoiling phase, it doesn't look so pretty... That's because it's incorrect to begin with. These horses, like Gigolo and Salinero, develop huge shoulders that seem to be from a different horse, than the hindlegs.

Natural & Natural +


True Collection


False Collection


The 1/2-Halt & Positioning


Lateral Movements

Copyright © 2001-2005 Theresa Sandin