There are three healthy frames that your horse can be ridden in – long and low, level and on the bit (high headed with lifted back). For more information about the importance of your horse’s frame, read my article “Horse Training – The 3 Most Important Riding Frames for Any Discipline”. In this article, I will focus on the three important, but often misunderstood, training components that affect your horse’s ability to work correctly in these frames:
These 3 training components are phases of similar movements. Each phase takes the movements to a deeper level. For your horse to develop true collection, he must first have impulsion and then engagement of the hindquarters. For low levels of showing, trail riding or pleasure riding, having the first phase, impulsion, will benefit and strengthen the important chain of muscles through the back, abdomen and hindquarters that will enable him to perform his job well and comfortably. Performance horses that train for higher levels of competition in any discipline need to develop more muscle strength through engagement to develop true collection.
Impulsion affects your horse’s ability to move forward willingly with elasticity, suppleness and roundness in his back and joints. Impulsion is not speed. It’s pushing forward powerfully from the hindquarters that gives the horse the ability to cover more ground with each step as his frame lengthens from poll to tail. When the horse has impulsion, his step becomes longer as his hind legs step further underneath his body. Without impulsion, the horse pulls himself forward with his front legs, has a choppier step, and no suppleness in his back.
Test to see if your horse has impulsion by using 2 visual markers (i.e. fence posts, trees, rocks or ground poles) that are about 4 to 6 feet apart. Walk or trot your horse over the poles or past the markers and count his steps between them. Next time around, ask your horse to lengthen his stride by increasing the push from his hindquarters. Increase the push from your seat and legs in time with your horse’s natural movement. Count the steps between the two poles or markers again. If you have impulsion, your horse will lengthen his stride and put fewer steps between the two points. If your horse puts in the same number or more steps between the markers, then he has not developed the strength in his muscles to create impulsion. Your training program needs to focus on developing the strength in his hindquarters.
Engagement of the hindquarters lifts the horse’s weight off his forehand as he naturally lowers his hindquarters and lifts his back causing his centre of gravity to shift back towards the hind legs. As his hindquarters reach well underneath his body his hind leg joints have more flexion and his abdominal muscles work harder to lift the back. Impulsion becomes engagement when the pushing force of his hindquarters’ is contained by correct contact of the reins. The contact collects the energy created by the impulsion so that the movement becomes less forward and more upwards. The rider feels more lightness in the front end and more lift in the back.
True collection happens when the horse’s frame shortens and becomes “rounder”. His stride shortens without losing energy. He comes on the bit with his poll slightly higher than his withers and his back lifted. His centre of balance shifts back as the hindquarters naturally lower. The correctly trained horse coming into this true collection will be light in the rider’s hand. The energy that is created from the hindquarters flows softly through the horse’s supple back and poll and is received by the rider’s supple hands, arms, hips and spine.
Collection done incorrectly causes training problems such as falling on the forehand, hollowing the back and going ”behind the bit” (the nose is pulled and held more closely towards the chest). These shapes result in physical and mental stress and trauma as the horse’s natural movement, balance and confidence are impaired, and pain is caused in the neck, back, poll and jaw. His field of vision and airways can also be restricted. Horses who have been trained in this manner have poor muscle definition in the hindquarters, weak or sore backs, and often exhibit uneven rhythm or unsoundness.
The horse can only come into true collection when he is mentally and physically relaxed. Any tension, imbalance or bracing from the rider causes tension and bracing in the horse, which limits his ability to lift his back and prevents him from bringing his hindquarters underneath him. In order for the horse to be relaxed, the rider must be relaxed and supple in all her joints (neck, shoulders, arms, hips and legs), have a following seat and consistent, following contact.
Because true collection depends upon the correct muscle development and suppleness there are no short cuts to creating it. You must focus on developing both impulsion and engagement for your horse’s ability to come into collection to develop naturally.
Regardless of the discipline you ride, true collection when done correctly benefits the well-being of all horses by developing a strong, supple and balanced frame of body and mind without tension, stress or force. A horse ridden for pleasure, trail riding or at schooling level competition will do quite well with a basic level of collection. Having the ability to shorten his stride slightly without losing impulsion or balance will help him to safely and comfortably handle tight obstacles, a sharp curve or a steep incline on a trail or cross-country course, a tight distance between jumps on a low level hunter or jumper course, or to create more elevation for a basic dressage test.
To keep your horse healthy and sound in mind and body work through each of the three training phases – impulsion, engagement and collection. He will not only develop his athleticism but can be your willing partner for many years.