Progression To Collection

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.

Soft Feel

Since my post criticizing the claims made by Cowboy Dressage that it is based on classical principles, I decided to look more closely at what is a central tenant of the discipline, which is ‘soft feel.’

 

When I was younger and a student of dressage I never once heard my teachers talk about soft feel. So when I began taking an interest in horsemanship, I was confused by this term. A lot of the trainers talked as if soft feel was important and how it changed the entire physical and emotional outlook of a horse. But when I observed what they were doing, this did not appear to be true. Their talk did not match their walk. I believe it’s still true today.

 

For many years I have heard, seen and read about the concept of soft feel. I have heard everybody talk about it. Those that try to teach soft feel interpret it as anything from vertical flexion of the neck to heavenly harmony of horse and human (don’t ya just luv alliteration?). It appears that different people assign different definitions to soft feel. For the most part it seems the common usage of soft feel is taught as a horse yielding to the reins through vertical flexion of the neck (whether at a stand still or in motion). However, I have seen a video clip describing it in mother earth statements that tried to convey soft feel as much more than vertical flexion without actually saying anything. It was portrayed as the ultimate achievement between man and horse, without actually saying what it is. My own view is that soft feel is not the ultimate achievement, but the very reason why so many non-dressage folks confuse soft feel and collection (which should be the goal).

 

Irrespective of what various teachers choose to define soft feel as being, it is my experience that they are all teaching it as one thing. Every person that comes to one of my clinics who has had previous experience with the concept of soft feel understands it as vertical flexion on a light rein contact. From memory, this is without exception whether the student has a minimum experience with the idea or is deeply entrenched and committed to the notion that soft feel is their ultimate goal. It is only after I discuss and demonstrate it at clinics that the concept of soft feel evolves beyond that for many of them.

 

So it doesn’t matter what trainers or clinicians say about soft feel because their students are all coming away with the same interpretation. And what they are learning (ie soft feel = vertical flexion on a light contact) has little long-term value and definitely not in anyway related to the classical principles of dressage. It is deceitful to say otherwise in my view.

 

I will try to expand on the problem in a little bit, but in a nutshell it comes down to the difference between lightness and softness. Just to remind people who have forgotten or have not heard my interpretation of the two concepts.

 

Lightness is a physical response to pressure.

Softness is an emotional response to pressure

A horse can be light, but not soft through evasion of pressure. But a horse that is soft is also light through a mental and emotional yielding to pressure.

 

In my research before writing this essay, I watched and studied a lot of videos, read a dozen or more articles and blogs and have concluded that almost universally that when people are talking about soft feel they are talking about lightness where the influence of the reins runs from the horse’s poll to its withers, and no further. I am sure there are a few people who get it and are not guilty of this, but from what I can find the vast majority seem to be. In all the clinics I have attended where soft feel has been discussed, people are only talking and teaching about lightness and the reins being blocked at the wither. I am sure the vast majority doesn’t even know the problem exists; yet their horses do. So cries from people that tell me I am wrong and that I don’t get it hold no sway over my opinion because the evidence is everywhere despite the rhetoric from gurus and students.

 

So let’s examine the basis of my concern about soft feel and why I believe it is anti-dressage and good training.

 

In essence, the issue is that with soft feel horses are learning to give vertical flexion in response to the feel of the reins WITHOUT influencing the topline to soften and the hindquarters to carry more weight. This makes it very (if not extremely) difficult for horses to develop self -carriage and eventually collection. Collection is the ability of a horse to soften mentally and through its whole body to raise the base of its neck, relax the muscle across the back and offer more flexion of the hocks. Whereas soft feel is simply the ability of the horse to flex its neck without pulling on the reins. See the problem?

 

Once soft feel is taught to a horse, it is very difficult to convince it to connect the reins through the whole horse and not just to the end of the neck. It is far easier for a horse to learn early on that the influence of the reins should go all the way to the hocks. It does take longer to teach this than it does to teach vertical flexion, but that it is because it is physically more demanding than soft feel. So connecting the reins to the entire horse (via mental and emotional comfort) needs to be done in much smaller increments as the horse both understands and builds the muscle strength to carry itself in this new correct way. Soft feel is easy to teach and requires very little muscle development from a horse. It is a trick.

 

I see no advantage to teaching horses soft feel. It is mostly taught as an evasion and requires no alteration of the way a horse carries itself that is much different from how it carries itself in the paddock (except for the bent neck). It offers no advantage to a horse during periods of work. On the other hand, collection has huge advantages for a horse’s physical well being during workloads. That’s why I am at such a loss to comprehend why Cowboy Dressage thinks soft feel is the pinnacle of harmony and is not interested in collection. To me, that’s like saying Ikea is the ultimate in furniture craftsmanship – looks good on the outside, but falls apart easily and not made to last.

 

I am excited that people from western disciplines are interested in incorporating dressage training into their ranks. I believe every horse benefits from good dressage. But the emphasis needs to be on good dressage. It doesn’t matter if you ride in a dressage saddle, western saddle, racing saddle or bareback. It is irrelevant if you use a snaffle, curb bit, double bridle, or no bit. It does not matter if you do it in an arena, on a trail, paddock or in a yard. Who cares if you ride a Warmblood, Fell Pony, Mongolian Pony or Akal-Teke.  None of that stuff matters. But correctness and softness does matter and there is no substitute for it if your motive is to benefit your horse.

 

Photo: This horse has developed a soft feel.

Circling With Straightness

At the Canberra clinic over the weekend we work on lunging in a circle with quite a lot of the horses. It’s an exercise that I believe when done well, is a very valuable tool for achieving focus, relaxation and balance. So at nearly all my clinics we work on circling with at least one or two horses as part of the groundwork.

During one session, Dorinda picked up on the fact that all the horses that day tended to travel counter bent to the direction of the circle. They were crooked. Some dropped their inside shoulder and fell inside the circle and others dropped their inside hip and pulled away through the outside shoulder. But all were flexed to the outside to the direction of travel to some degree and for at least some part of their circle. 

Dorinda wanted to know why. After all, if it is physically easier for a horse to travel in a balanced way, why would they circle in an out of balance way? That seems a logical question to ask.

I guess the first thing I should cover is to describe in general terms, what is straightness/balance (I use the terms interchangeable because I believe they are the same thing), so we can all know what I mean when I talk about straightness and crookedness.

In the broadest sense straightness means a horse is working the left and the right sides of its body equally. The workload is equally distributed to both sides of the horse so that the burden is shared evenly. This is true if a horse is travelling in a straight line or on a curve/circle or performing laterally. In all cases, a horse is only straight if both sides of the horse are doing the same amount of work. I could go into some detail about what this means for the way the biomechanics of the horse function, but for the purposes of this article all that you need to know is that straightness/balance is when the horse is working equally on both sides and crookedness is when it isn’t.

So why does a horse not work equally when we ask for a circle?

Most people I come across explain crookedness as a physical restriction of a horse. I recently read that a lack of straightness was the result of the spine having “kinks and blockages.” Other people have explained it similarly with the belief that weak muscle development on one side causes a horse to work the side with stronger muscles more than the side with weaker muscles. In the end, the cure always seems to be the same, which is to do more exercises designed to strengthen the weaker muscles.

In the case of most horses I see, I believe this is wrong thinking. The horses that mostly come to clinics are not doing exercises that require a lot of muscle development. I just don’t ask them to work that hard. Unless their muscles have the consistency of jelly, the workload they get asked to perform by their owners and me is easily within their capabilities without very much exertion.

It is my experience that the majority of crookedness I see in clinics is caused by both mental and emotional factors. This is supported by the fact that when we address these factors suddenly horses become a hell of a lot straighter without the need to turn the weaker muscles into stronger muscles and the need to un-kink and un-block their spines. Horses just become more balanced when they feel better and can yield to a thought presented by the rider’s reins, legs and seat.

However unfortunately, it is not entirely that simple.

Let’s go back to Dorinda’s question about why are so many horses are naturally unbalanced on a circle?

When you watch horses walking or trotting or cantering a circle or an arc in the paddock, you almost never see them balanced and straight. Virtually every horse has a natural tendency to fall inside the turn and be flexed to the outside. The faster they go the more crooked their turn becomes. Humans, dogs, sloths, lizards etc are all the same. We all exhibit innate crookedness to some degree. We all stress and strain one side of our body more than the other in the way we use it. I don’t know why, but it is universal. It is probably linked to the reason why some people are naturally left-handed or right-footed or tilt their head to the right or put their trousers on left leg first. I don’t know, but we are all prone to it.

So horses have an innate crookedness built in when travelling on a circle or arc that has to be overcome in order to be straight and balanced. But I still don’t believe this is a problem of muscle weakness because the crookedness tends to exist whether the horse is clockwise or anticlockwise. It exists in both directions. If it was related to having weak muscles on one side and strong ones on the other, then on one side it would fall in and be counter bent, and in the other direction it would fall out and be over bent. But this is not what happens in most cases. When a horse is crooked moving in a circle it is inclined to be crooked in the same way in both directions.

To overcome the natural tendency of a horse to circle with a counter bend, we need to teach them to follow the line of the circle with their thought. The lead rope or lunge line or rein presents a feel to the horse to direct its thought. When a horse is yielding to that feel, staying balanced is easy. But when a horse is escaping or resisting that feel they will keep trying to do what they feel is natural to them, which is to remain crooked and unbalanced. Even when a horse is light to the feel of the lead, lunge line or rein if they are not soft (ie, feel okay about it) they will continue to be crooked. This suggests to me that their crookedness is not about weak versus strong sides or kinks and blockages in the spine.

This brings me to the other factor that contributes to crookedness - the horse’s emotions. The more worried a horse becomes the more crooked it becomes. You’ll often see horses circling nicely balanced when they are walking, but become crooked when asked to trot and the most crooked when asked to canter. This is because the faster they go the mos anxious most horses become. This causes an increase in circulating adrenaline and creates tightness across the muscles of the top line, which exacerbates the crookedness. When a horse can trot and canter in a relaxed manner, it’s relatively easy to help them balance.

It is important that we teach our horses to be balanced in all that they do. It helps keep them sound and allows them to put maximum physical effort into the work. They can run faster, jump higher, carry us further and move more beautifully. But most of all it means we will have them for longer.

The photos at the top show Dorinda lunging Starshine. You can see how much more balanced and straighter (on the right) he became.

Accepting The Bit - What Does It Mean?

Alice Kra asked if I would talk about getting a horse on the bit. It is a huge subject that would require many pages of explanation, yet the principles are very simple. I will make a modest attempt at explaining my thoughts on the subject.

 

The first thing to know is that being “on the bit” or “accepting the bit” has nothing to do with bits. It’s a common misnomer to think that when instructors talk about having a horse working on the bit, they are referring to the bit. The confusion about the term “bit” leads to many people believing that without a bit a horse can’t work correctly. This is just wrong. Bits have nothing to do with how a horse works. As I have said before, a bit is nothing more than a transducer that converts energy from the rein to a meaningful pressure via a horse’s mouth t0 it’s brain. So forget about thinking of terms like “on the bit” as being about the bit.

 

“On the bit” actually refers to a horse’s back. It’s how it carries its posture. A horse that is “above the bit” or “below the bit” tends to be hollow in their backs and the base of the horse’s neck is pushed downward. Both are evasions of “accepting the bit”.

 

When a horse is “on the bit” the horse has a rounder back, where the muscles along the topline are more relaxed instead of contracted. This allows further engagement of the hindquarters, which is why it is important that a horse relaxes the muscles of the topline.

 

Most often people look at the roundness (or flexion) of a horse’s neck to judge whether a horse is accepting the bit. But the roundness of the neck is not very revealing about the way a horse carries his back. There are many examples of horses with rounded necks, hollow backs and dragging hindquarters, where the “yielding” travels from the poll to the wither and no further.

 

This so-called “false rounding” often comes about with the help of gadgets (such as draw reins, side reins, pessoa, chambon etc) or the hands of a rider who does not know the feel of a horse softening its topline. Riders who do not feel a horse’s back often release the rein pressure in response to a horse rounding its neck rather than softening the back. This causes a lot of confusion for many and results in horses offering false collection. Even some elite dressage riders succumb to a false degree of collection rather than the real thing – the world champion dressage horse, Totilas is a perfect example of bad training; yet brilliant competition results.

 

To effectively teach a horse to accept the bit and carry itself is a long haul. It takes time. This is because it takes considerable muscle strength for a horse to sustain the correct posture. A horse may be able to offer moments of being on the bit in the early stages, but it can’t be expected to sustain it for the length of a dressage test until there is sufficient muscle development.

 

In my view the old tried and true method of the classical masters are still effective in teaching a horse to work correctly on the bit, although there are newer and quicker methods being developed all the time (please don’t write to me asking about rolkur).

 

It begins with teaching a horse to reach down with its neck to achieve what is called a “long and low” posture. This is where a horse’s frame is stretched out or elongated. The poll should be at wither height or slightly lower. The horse is encouraged to move freely forward at all paces, and the rein contact is minimal. In this way a horse will learn to relax it’s topline. Even though, it will be carrying itself on the forehand, the freedom of movement and elongation of the frame will encourage a more relaxed back. You might have to deconstruct a badly trained horse before you can construct it again for correctness.

 

As this becomes normal and easy for a horse, it can be asked to shorten its frame incrementally. However, in doing this it is important that the horse learns to yield to the reins and no push into them as they ask for more over time. As a horse accepts the reins more, it yields to the reins more. This means that in the process of shortening its frame in response to the reins, the base of the neck lifts and the roundness of the neck is more from a telescoping effect than a contraction of the neck. At the same time, the back lifts and the hindquarters engage further to carry more of the burden of weight. At no time, should the reins jam the neck. It’s hard to explain, but when you feel a horse lift its neck and back it becomes hard to confuse the difference between softening to the reins and bracing against the reins.

 

The last piece of the puzzle that I want to emphasize is that accepting the bit or correct response to the reins or whatever you want to call it, can’t be imposed on a horse. It comes through a horse accepting the action of the reins, seat and legs as a result of understanding and softness. Anytime, tension enters the picture resistances will appear, which will hinder a proper acceptance of the bit. So the first and foremost responsibility of the trainer is to ensure worry and tension do not creep in. This means a horse can only carry itself correctly and allow the reins to influence its mind when it understands, is willing and ready. It is not something you can fix with the correct tool.

 

That is a very scant and inadequate outline of what is entailed in teaching a horse to accept the bit. However, there are very many books and videos devoted to teaching correctness to the horse and I recommend people study them. As I said, it is simple in principle, but difficult in practice.

 

The photo is from my last clinic showing Katie helping her horse to reach down and stretch is topline. There was considerable change in how the horse strided forward and softened it’s back once it began to relax its back.

Why Some Horses Trot Faster Rather Than Canter

I thought this was interesting. I don't yet know if I agree or not and will think about it some more.