How can I get my horse to collect?

Collection on the bitQuestion: I cannot get my 4-year old to collect. I bought her a year ago, and she had no idea how to give or collect. I have been working with her and she is getting better, but she just doesn’t round her back up. I have been trying to sell her for over 3 months. I have lately been “lunge-bitting” her (where I put her in a snaffle, and tie one rein tightly to her girth, just so her head must be bent, and lunge her) I was told it helps build up muscles and teaches her to soften, but do you have any other tips to teach her to collect. She also rides in a low-port curb, are there any excercies I could do with the curb for collection?

Answer from April Reeves: There are no quick ways to achieve collection. It is only achieved through time with proper suppling and muscle development, and cannot be achieved mechanically.

Think about the word ‘collect’. It means to gather. Think about this word when you begin to train for collection.

Let’s go through the pros and cons of the exercises you are doing now, and give you something to work on with her that will build her up gradually. Because of the state of the market for horses right now, you may have her for some time.

Where does collection come from?
Collection is the result of a very supple horse. It is a natural movement, where the horse places the majority of his weight on the hindquarters. This allows the back to rise, and the front legs to have a greater freedom of movement.

While many people try to obtain collection through force, true collection can only be created with an intense program of suppling and non-resistant riding. Soft hands – soft mind.

We need to change some of the things you are doing. First, a 4-year old is still growing so let’s take her learning a bit slower. With horses, slower is faster. At 4 she will begin to fuse her leg joints, but her back and neck are going to fill out and lengthen.

The exercise you are doing by tying her head to the side and longeing her may not be the best solution. Let’s not do that one anymore. While it does build muscles, you will build them improperly.

Tying her head that close to the saddle will not encourage the elasticity of the muscle, which is necessary in suppling. The head must be able to be released, or the horse will build up resistance to the exercise, and begin to lean on the bit, as opposed to lighten. Also, the horse will learn how to move crooked. You need to teach the horse how to be straight first. Only a supple horse can move straight. Longeing is not the answer for the results you are seeking.

The curb bit you are using is for a horse that is already supple and well trained. Harder bits are for advanced horses, not green horses, as ‘greenies’ do not know how to work in them properly. Throw it away for now.

Keep your snaffle, or move into a French link. It has 2 joints instead of 1, and the middle looks like a dog bone. It alleviates the ‘cracker jack’ action of the regular snaffle, and is softer. You want to use softer bits as horses tend to become anxious and edgy when they associate pain with training. You want to associate training with fun. When you have your bridle on the horse, do not tighten it up to any wrinkles on the mouth. Instead, bring it up so that it does not hit any teeth, but sits comfortably in the mouth without dropping down, or causing any wrinkles. That way, when you pick up on the rein, the horse can feel the movement. When bits are too tight, the horse has no ability to feel the ‘pick up’. As you advance in training, you can adjust it a bit tighter, but even dressage riders are bringing their bits down on their horses now. The old style of three wrinkles is long gone for single bits.

The round back you want will be created with many hours of suppling, bending and flexion, both laterally, vertically and longitudinally.

Vertical refers to the head and poll. I think this is what you are looking to do first. Unfortunately, this comes later with the right suppling work. Done correctly, you will not have too long to wait.

Lateral Flexion Exercises
Let’s begin under saddle with a set of exercises in lateral flexion. Begin at the halt, reach down one rein and guide her head fairly close to your knee (you need to bring her head close enough to your knee, but far enough away so that she can bring her head closer on her own without your help) until she gives. Keep your hand planted firmly against your knee or thigh. It’s important that the horse does not move your hand.

The give will feel as if there is suddenly no weight on the rein. This often happens quickly so be watchful of it. When she gives, drop the rein immediately and let her bring her head back to center (it is important to drop the rein immediately as it is the release that teaches). If she walks off, bring her head around to the other side in the same fashion, and when she stops and
softens, let her go.

Make sure there is no pressure from the opposite rein. Only pressure from the one rein should be used. You may have to go back and forth, side to side for quite a few times at first. When she finally does get this, she will stand quietly while you fuss around up there, patting her hindquarters and gathering your reins.

If she ever walks off on her own, repeat until she stands, and until you use both legs to ask her to move. Horses need to stay exactly where you put them until asked to change. This is important as it means the rider must be consistent with the delivery of the aids and not be good one day and slack the other.

If your horse keeps moving in a small tight circle with you holding her head close to your knee, sit up straight and go for the ride until she stops. You can sit there longer than she can circle. Keep straight – don’t lean in. Continue the exercise no matter how long it takes. If she gets excited, just stay there with her head close to your knee and let her react. It will be very uncomfortable for her eventually and you will have made the right thing easy and the wrong thing difficult.

Another advantage of this exercise other than lateral flexion is that it takes away the power and drive from the hindquarters. We call this ‘disengaging the hindquarter’ (taking out the clutch). When a horse is straight, they can get into all kinds of trouble and become dangerous. Without the power, they lose that ability, and learn to shut down and focus. It moves a horse from instinct brain to thinking brain. Horses by nature will not use the thinking brain much; humans have to teach them to think first.

Once this lesson is working, begin to walk her around, keeping a fairly loose rein. Then do the same exercise (called a one-rein stop) again at the walk. As you ask for the halt at the walk, draw your energy and weight down into your seat and stirrup. The horse will feel this and eventually pick up on it, but you need to incorporate that plus the one-rein stop at the same time, at the beginning.

You can never do enough of these exercises. They are an improvement from what you were doing before:

  • They allow a release of the horse’s head when she is in the correct position.
  • Because you move from side to side, the horse gets the chance to stretch, which she was only forced into before.
  • You will find that it releases the poll once your horse becomes supple and stretched. It’s in this poll softening that you will find vertical flexion – where the horse gives at the jaw and poll.

Keep up these exercises for about 5 days straight. Then when the horse feels more flexible (side to side), you can begin to ask for vertical flexion.

Vertical Flexion
I am not comfortable with teaching this exercise in an article, as it really is one that you need to see, but here goes.

Remember how you took one rein and held it solidly against your leg? In this exercise, you are going to take up both reins evenly, and pull back, holding both hands solidly against your thighs. Do not let the horse move your hands. Do not put too much pressure on the reins; just enough to be uncomfortable for her. Hold them there until she drops her head and gives to the pressure. When she does, drop both reins like they were really hot! Let her release, and think for a moment about what just happened; then take up the reins again. Some horses really fight this, even throw their heads backwards, so take care not to overdo this. You don’t want to pull really hard or ask for the head in really far. You just want the horse to give to the downward pressure and release the pressure on your hand. Reward the slightest try.

It often takes them a while to figure this out, but after about the 5th time you will find that the horse begins to seek comfort. This is the key to this exercise. The horse is thinking “wow, if I just drop my head low and keep my chin in, the rein pressure disappears. I have my rider fooled! I’m going to just keep my head low and in, and she can’t pressure me.”

Why does this work? Horses seek comfort by nature. Eventually, she will drop and lower and bring her head in on her own the second she feels the pressure. Horses bring their head up to avoid the pressure, the same way they will lower their head to avoid it. Because the human wants the head low, the human must show the horse another way to avoid the pressure other than the head up. It’s simple really, except that the human considers the head up as bad, and the head down as good. The horse has no idea that one is bad and one is good. He’s just taking responsibility for his own comfort. You are setting up the learning for this.

Another reason why I like to put this technique on a horse fairly quickly is because it is safer than having a horse’s head up high. Do remember though that this is not collection – it is simply a vertical flexion exercise only. Real collection comes from behind, not from the front.

What is very important is that you are able to feel the right time to release her. Always release when she shows the slightest try. Do not expect amazing results right away, as these exercises take time and consistency. Do not get angry or increase your rein pressure in any way. If she does not respond right away, stay in the same place with your hands, and wait it out until you get the smallest try. This is so important – I can’t stress this enough! You must stay consistent with this exercise in order to get the result you want.

Cadence and Rhythm – The ‘Backbone’ of Collection
The next stage to collection is calm, cadence and rhythm. These exercises under saddle take a bit of time, and should be done after you do the above exercises (daily). You will need to get your mare supple first with the above exercises.

This next exercise will teach your horse to take responsibility for her gait. You should never have to constantly push a horse every few strides, nor should you have to try to correct a fast horse all the time. Horses should stay in the gait you ask until you ask otherwise, and this exercise will help. It’s also easy. You will do very little. There is no direct pulling on the face or aggressive motion on your part.

You will need an arena or a field where you can ride safely, and has no holes or rocks. Begin by asking the horse to trot, keeping her in a series of circles. Keep the circles fairly large, as you don’t want to put stress on the legs and muscles. Keep your reins loose and allow your horse to trot freely.

Let the horse trot as fast or as slow as she wants, and gently guide her to stay in the circle. Do not pull or try to change her trot speed. Just stay there and go for the ride, quietly, keeping your legs off the horse.

Your only job is to make sure she does not change her gait. If she slows down and almost breaks into a walk, bring her up again. Ask with your legs once, and if she does not move forward with speed, ask again using a crop and legs at the same time, and mean business. Let her jump forward, even canter for a few strides then bring him softly down into a trot again. Never pull a horse back once you have asked him aggressively to move forward. It is a conflicting message for her as you ask to go forward and then check her. This can make him very anxious and you can lose her trust.

Always in training, remember what the single lesson is. In this case, it is simply to move forward. As time goes by and she gets better at this, then you can refine it, but for now it’s one lesson at a time only. This is basic introductory movements, not advanced work.

If your horse is more likely to speed up into a canter, each time she does you are to use the one-rein stop (the first exercise you did at the halt) to bring her back to a trot. The instant she moves back into a trot, release her and allow her to move forward first, then gently guide her back to the circle.

It’s important to remember to bring the horse back to a trot from the canter, not a walk or stop. Remember what the lesson is: trot, rhythm, cadence and obedience. You must stay in the trot at all times. The only exception is above, when you are doing the exercise to move forward with obedience, but even with this exercise you will still bring the horse back to a trot should she move forward at the canter at the beginning.

When you have this working well, move her into the canter, and keep it, staying in the circle. If she breaks into a trot, do what it takes to keep her in the canter. If she begins to balk, do not stop and try again, as this only teaches her to shut down when SHE wants to.

Your legs and hands
Also during this exercise, do not ‘nag’ with your legs at all. The point is to get the horse to continue it’s gait on it’s own without your help. This teaches the horse rhythm and responsibility.

Your hands remain quiet and still with the exception of guiding the horse, by picking up one rein or the other, never both reins at the same time. You should not have to force the horse into any circles. If this happens, go back to the one-rein stop at the walk. This exercise will teach you to stop the direct rein habit of pulling back with both reins as your first instinct to stop or change gaits. You should learn independence of hand first, and that includes stopping horses with one rein. It is more effective and produces results faster.

Try to change the circle direction often. You should never overdo this or wind the horse. If she gets hot or winded, stop her and let her catch her breath. Once she is recovered, you may resume the circle. I never wind a horse as it can damage them permanently and sour them.

Why does this work?
Horses seek comfort by nature. Since she does not know how long she will have to trot, eventually she will realize that it may be best to slow down and conserve her energy. This is where the lesson is: when she decides this on her own without any help from you.

With some horses, this lesson can take an hour a day for many days. It is important that you do not give up after a day or so. Eventually they all come around. Remember to let the horse catch his breath often.

What’s amazing is that you just sat there and did very little. There are many ways to create a great foundation without all the pulling, frustration, aggravation and expensive training. All my students learn this before anything else. You cannot do anything without cadence, rhythm and calm first. This is the foundation to begin all other training exercises.

It is the foundation to collection.

After about 20 times, you will notice a rhythm and steady cadence to your horse’s gaits, from the walk to the trot and canter. Do this exercise at the canter also, as many people avoid too much canter work. I personally spend a great deal of time in the canter, as it is part of my interval training schedule (breathing and endurance) and obedience in speed gaits. Never be afraid of the canter – you can’t improve on something if you don’t do it. However, if you have trouble staying in the saddle during the canter, it is well advised that you take some training to improve your seat and balance, as often horses canter quickly to avoid the pain and discomfort of the rider coming down hard on their backs too often during the canter.

These exercises cover about 3 months of work, 5 days a week. As you progress, you will find your mare becomes softer and softer in the face, and with her cadence getting better, you will be able to take her into more advanced moves, such as lifting her back. You will find that she will offer a lift to you once she is supple.

As she advances, you will find that you can take her head in for longer periods of time. Always increase every exercise slowly and get the foundation down well. If you come across a problem or get stuck anywhere, go back and revisit the beginning work. All horses, regardless of age and experience need to go back once in a while and ‘remember’.

This is basic foundation work for you to take her into any discipline you want. It is a good place to start with a young horse.

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