A topic came up at a clinic recently that was important enough to those listening that they suggested I write my thoughts down for my Facebook followers to read. So here goes.
It’s about the progression from a young horse learning to yield to the inside rein when first being started to the development of collection as it rounds out its education a sometime later.
From the first time I put a halter on a foal, I begin the journey of teaching the horse the importance of giving to the feel of a rope. It’s not just about employing the horse to move its feet in the direction the rope pulls it. It involves the feel of the rope inspiring the young horse to change its mind from what it is already thinking to what the rope is telling it to think. The rope is the medium by which the human’s idea is conveyed to the horse to become its idea. To me, that’s the definition of yielding or giving when it comes to communicating with a horse. If it’s just about moving the horse’s feet then it’s giving in, not giving.
Now that we have that cleared up, the importance of yielding to the feel of the lead rope for a foal is only a small step away from teaching collection! Well, maybe two small steps away ☺!
Teaching a horse to yield it’s thought to move its hindquarters and its forehand in response to a feel of the inside rein or the lead rope is among the top few most important skills a horse must learn in my view. I first begin by teaching a horse to disengage its hindquarters independently of its forehand. Then I accompany this lesson with teaching it to yield its forehand independently of its hindquarters. These forehand and hindquarters yields form the basis of everything that it is to come.
Once the forehand and hindquarter yields are well established it becomes much easier to have both ends of the horse working in unison with correctness. Let’s look for example at a circle. A correct circle is nothing more than a smaller version of a forehand yield and a hindquarter yield performed simultaneously. By that I mean, a circle should consist of a horse laterally flexed along the arc of the circumference of the circle (inside bend), the inside fore follows the line of the circumference of the circle (forehand yield) and the inside hind steps to the outside of the circumference of the circle (hindquarter yield). So you can see that the essence of a correct circle is the horse giving (with its thoughts) to a feel of the inside rein to have the forehand and the hindquarters working together.
So where do we go next from a correct circle to head towards collection?
One the biggest obstacles to horses carrying themselves in a manner that leads to collection is tension in the muscles along the back – usually called a tight topline. Without a relaxed topline the best we can hope for is a false collection or frame where the horse only softens from the poll to the wither. The back refuses to relax, which makes the engagement of the hindquarters necessary for collection, damn near impossible.
Once we can get a soft bend and our horse accurately following a curved line, we can use this to encourage our horse to elongate its frame and relax its topline. It is important to understand that a correct lateral bend in a horse is a major resource in getting a horse to relax the topline. It is biomechanically impossible for a horse to have a strong brace in the topline IF the bend is soft and correct. That’s why using the inside rein to influence the lateral flexion is such a powerful tool in minimizing the resistance a horse may hold in its back.
Now that we have a horse relaxing its back it can now stretch forward and down. This opens up the length of stride of the horse and encourages the hindquarters to work harder through engagement. The result is a slow strengthening of the muscles that will be required later when we finally ask our horse to carry more weight on the hindquarters.
To be extremely brief about this (otherwise this essay will be several chapters long), collection comes from working a horse in an open and relaxed frame to build up muscles and mental relaxation. We then begin to shorten the frame by asking the horse to raise the base of its neck and carry more weight on its hindquarters. In time the horse learns to lower its hind end as it raises the base of the neck. All this takes a lot of time and a lot of work and can only happen if the horse remains soft and yields to the reins through its entire body. This why people who believe collection can be established in a few months are misled.
I am not saying there are not other ways to teach collection to a horse. There are always many roads to Rome. But it is my experience that utilizing the power of yielding to the inside rein to establish a soft and relaxed mind and body is prone to fewer errors and wrong turns than using both reins to attempt to impose softness and eventually collection.
It all begins with teaching a horse to be soft to the lead rope and yield its hindquarters and forehand while maintaining a soft lateral flexion. In my view, there is no more powerful tool than a soft bend in response to the inside rein.
Photo: Dorinda is encouraging Maggie to stretch down and relax her topline in the trot. There is a way to go, but it is a beginning.