Collection is a word that’s thrown around a lot when we’re talking about performance horses of any kind, and it can easily be misinterpreted.
What is collection?
The official definition is: Collection occurs when a horse’s center of gravity is shifted backwards. Energy is directed in a more horizontal trajectory with less forward movement (limbs generate higher vertical impulses)
Horses naturally carry 60% of their weight on their front legs, and that works fine for them in their usual activities of grazing and travelling. Sometimes, they make use of the strong carrying muscles of their hindquarters and transfer more weight off their front legs, allowing for more light, expressive movement. On their own, you’re most likely to see it when a stallion is showing off for the mares, or during a bout of high energy play.
When we ask a horse to carry a rider, or in the case of our Miniature Horses, pull a cart, working towards collection is going to help them use themselves most effectively, avoiding potential injury and stress to their forelimbs and allowing for much more expressive movement.
True or False?
A horse in collection is beautiful to watch. Their hind legs are well underneath their body, their back is lifted and round, the base of their neck is elevated allowing free, elevated movement of the forelimbs and their head carriage has their nose at or just ahead of the vertical.
The portions of that whole that we, as humans, tend to fixate on are the less important ones to the structure of the movement: the high stepping front legs and the vertical headset.
At first glance, that doesn’t seem so bad – I mean, the head and forelimbs are attached the rest of the horse, so if we get those, the rest will fall into place, right? But no, that’s not what happens.
True collection has to be built from back to front. Building the strength of those big hindquarter muscles and teaching the horse to use them is critical to the process. If you get them using their hind end and back well, then the opposite IS true – the head, neck and forelimbs do fall into place.
Focusing on the front of the horse, and using gimmicks, mechanical tools, or strength to “pull” a horse into a frame can only result in false collection. Tight martingales and overchecks, draw reins, stronger bits and a “send him on and hold him in” approach all fall into this category.
Other mechanical devices can be used to get the flinging, high stepping movement of the front legs without proper collection – flip flops, weighted boots, etc. Again, you might see a difference in their movement, but it’s not going to actually create collection.
What does it matter?
You might be thinking, those horses with the vertical headset and fling flangy front legs are winning in the show ring. So why SHOULDN’T I do it that way?
False collection results in a hollow back, and a hind end that is disconnected and trailing behind the horse. Not only is the horse never going to reach their movement potential in this posture, but continued work will result in repetitive strain injuries, particularly to the back and hocks. If your goals for your horse include a long career and a happy, pain free life, then these are not shortcuts you should be taking. And if you’ve found your way here to my website, you’re probably not the type of person who would put a championship ribbon ahead of your horse’s well-being anyway.
How to tell?
If you’re new to horses, or even if you’ve just never been aware of correct and incorrect movement before, there are a few easy ways to check that the brilliant horse you’re admiring is in true collection instead of false collection.
First, just as we should in training, start with the hind legs.
In true collection, the hind legs reach well forward underneath the horse with every step, falling at or close behind the print of the forelimb to form a V at the length of the trot stride. They are in a perfect rhythm with the forelegs, and display an equal amount of elevation, so the knees and hocks are even with each step. There is an even and steady 1-2-1-2 rhythm to the trot.
In false collection, the hind legs are out behind the horse, with a huge gap between fore and hind limbs. The hind legs seem to barely lift off the ground compared to the front legs, and they may seem out of rhythm, as though the front and back legs aren’t stepping at the same time. You may have trouble finding the 1-2-1-2 beat of the trot.
Next, look at their back. We have an advantage with our driving horses that makes it easier to tell if they’re lifting and using their back effectively and that’s the backstrap of the harness that lays along the horse’s spine. Is there a whole bunch of daylight between the horse and the harness strap? If so, that’s a pretty good indicator that the horse is hollow and not using themselves in true collection.
Then, their neck. Often, you can tell simply by looking at the horse unharnessed whether they’ve been driven in true or false collection. Does their neck have an elegant arch with good definition of the muscles? Or is there a thick buildup of muscle making a bulge on the lower side of their neck? When they’re driving, a horse in true collection will lift up at the withers, elevating the base of their neck and making their neck look longer. Their throatlatch will be open and soft, with no tension between the neck and the jawbone. In contrast, false collection will be characterized by an “upside down” neck, a tense bulge of muscle on the front side, wrinkles at the throatlatch as the head is pulled into place, and often they’ll have difficulty breathing, making a roaring noise.
What can we do to encourage correct, beneficial movement?
Drive your horse from back to front. Worry about the basics of rhythm, relaxation and think about engagement of the hind leg long before you start asking for more energy. And don’t take short cuts. Once again, go slow, you’ll get there faster!