Photos courtesy of Darrell Dodds
The key to collection isn’t in the horse’s head and neck, but rather from his withers on back. It’s about creating impulsion and then driving that energy from the horse’s back end to his front end. But, there’s no point in driving the energy forward if the horse doesn’t know how to give vertically to the bit, otherwise, the energy will just go up and over the bridle. That’s why I teach a horse how to give vertically at the standstill before teaching him how to collect vertically at the walk, then trot and then the canter. He has to understand the basics before you ask him to do more complicated maneuvers. When people don’t take the time to teach their horse how to be soft and give to the bit, that’s when you see false collection. False collection is when the rider forces the horse to tuck his head and neck in and his hindquarters are strung out behind him. It’s an ugly picture and only teaches the horse to be stiff and heavy and ignore the bit.
#1 Lateral flexion is the key to vertical flexion.
Long before I even think of teaching a horse how to give vertically to the bit and collect, I teach him how to flex his head from side to side. Whenever a horse’s body is straight from his nose to his tail, he’s practicing resistance. With that being said, once when you teach your horse vertical flexion, don’t fall into the trap of completely ignoring lateral flexion. It’s important to constantly balance vertical flexion with lateral flexion. When you first start working with a horse, you do 100 percent lateral flexion. Then when you teach him vertical flexion, you might spend 10 percent of your ride on vertical flexion and 90 percent on lateral flexion. As the horse gets softer, you can gradually even the ratio out so that you’re working on 50 percent vertical flexion and 50 percent lateral flexion during the course of your ride.
#2 Teach Vertical Flexion with the “Hot Potato Give.”
The first step to teaching a horse how to collect is to teach him to give to the bit, period. Always start at the standstill and then progress through the gaits as the horse understands. The ultimate goal is collection, but in the beginning, it is just a soft feel. When you first pick up on the reins at the standstill and ask the horse to tuck his nose in and create slack in the reins, he may only soften for a split second. And that’s all he needs to do in order for you to reward him. As soon as the horse creates the tiniest bit of slack in the reins, throw the
reins up his neck as quickly as you can. When I say “throw the reins up his neck” I literally mean throw the reins up his neck. Exaggerate the release of pressure so the horse knows he did the right thing. You always want to exaggerate to teach and refine as the horse understands. That quick release of pressure is what I call the “Hot Potato Give” because I want you to simulate what you’d do if someone threw you a hot potato. If I threw you a hot potato, you’d immediately throw it to someone else because it’s hot and burning your hands. You want your horse to think that every time you pick up on the bit, the bit becomes a hot potato, and he should immediately give to the pressure and soften. As soon as he gives, you’ll act like the reins are a hot potato and burning your hands, and you’ll quickly throw them away. Since horses learn from the release of pressure and not the pressure itself, the quicker you can throw the reins away and reward the horse, the softer he will get and the quicker he will learn.
#3 Hold the Soft Feel Longer
Vertical flexion is something that you’ll build on with each give. First the horse has to understand that when you pick up on the reins and apply pressure with your legs he needs to maintain whatever gait he’s in and give to the pressure. As soon as he understands that concept, then you can ask him to hold the soft feel longer. A “Hot Potato Give” will turn into holding vertical flexion for a stride. One stride will turn into two, and before long, two will turn into 20. The key is not to get greedy and ask the horse for too many strides at first. When a horse starts doing well, our first instinct as predators is to ask for more. But the trick to training horses is when it feels good, quit – instantly give back to the horse. It usually takes a few days for a horse to get consistently good at the Hot Potato Give at whatever gait you’re working on. Then you can move on to holding the soft feel longer. If you start holding it longer and the horse gets worse, he’s telling you that he’s not ready for it, and he needs to get better at the Hot Potato Give before progressing.
Author note: Clinton Anderson is a clinician, horse trainer and competitor. He’s dedicated his life to helping others realize their horsemanship dreams. Learn more about the Downunder Horsemanship Method at www.downunderhorsemanship.com.
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This article was printed in Performance Horse Digest, Volume 9, Issue 3