One thread that ran throughout the 1998 National Symposium was collection and how to develop it. Kyra Kyrklund made sure everyone understood that collecting a horse is much more complicated than somehow kicking and pulling him together. Neither is it just making his strides and frame shorter.
Marching across the arena on foot, she demonstrated that in collected gaits, the same tempo is maintained, the energy is undiminished, and the steps remain powerful, as a portion of the thrust is re-directed upward.
In the early stages of a horse’s training, before collection can begin, one of the rider’s main tasks is to create steady, metronome-like gaits. Upper level horses can show a marked distinction between their collected and working paces, but when a horse is learning to be collected, the rider can’t “turn a switch,” and suddenly make a different trot or canter. As Kyra explained, developing collection is a gradual process, requiring from the horse both muscle building and several leaps in understanding. Just as she did in her “ABC’s” and in the lateral work, Kyra broke the problem down into manageable pieces.
With the Symposium’s Training Level riders, Kyra discussed the importance of controlling their “tummy” muscles. Having strength in the abdominals lets the rider selectively tilt her pelvis in a momentary “back-bracing” movement. By “stopping the seat” in this way, the rider is able to make downward transitions without taking back on the reins. This is an essential part of teaching the horse to wait for the pushing aids.
Before working on true collection, Kyra also wanted all the horses to be able to keep the rhythm while varying the length of their strides. She introduced this both in leg yielding and in shoulder-in exercises. One demo horse was asked to stay in the shoulder-in position along the rail and first make transitions between walk and halt, then later between walk and trot. Kyra described these transitions as “big half halts,” rehearsals for more subtle ones to come. Later, whenever a half halt didn’t “go through,” she went back to full transitions between the gaits. Kyra insisted that the bend and angle of the shoulder-in be constant and that the horse stay in front of the rider’s leg and step through from behind in each transition. Then the exercise was repeated, not between gaits, but within the same one. From letter to letter, Kyra would alternately ask for relaxed but shorter and shorter steps, and then, all in rhythm, for longer and longer steps.
Another technique that she demonstrated may seem strange to you at first. During the Symposium, after each horse began to work on the aids, Kyra schooled the rider to be able to establish the trot and ask the horse to hold himself up without the leg constantly pushing him. As a test, she asked the riders to let their legs hang passively and to slow their horses much beyond the normal tempo and energy of their Working Trot (and later Working Canter). If the horse tried to break, she would have the rider reinforce the forward idea with the whip alone. Once the horse would stabilize in a quiet, relaxed gait without having to be pushed, she re-introduced the leg to create, not speed, but more cadence, engagement, and eventually collection. Any time the horse wanted to go faster, the tummy muscles, back, and hands would correct with a momentary half halt, and the process could be resumed, either on circles or in the shoulder-in.
Kyra showed canter-collecting exercises with many of the horses, but the result was most pronounced with the Grand Prix demo horse. With him she worked on the collection needed to make a good pirouette. Staying away from actual pirouettes themselves, she asked the rider to take the track in the counter-canter. She then repeated the exercise described above, where a slow canter could be maintained only with the seat, a correcting hand, and the whip. She called for transitions from counter-canter to walk to be made with the outside rein (the one away from the fence), so that the inner rein wouldn’t block the inside hindleg from coming through.
Then, still in counter-canter, she asked the rider to be active with her outside leg to make the horse engage. The outer rein kept him from quickening, and the wall kept him straight and having to jump up under himself. As Kyra explained, if she tried this in true canter, it would be too easy for the horse to evade with his haunches, swinging them off the track. Once, when the horse tried to keep his shoulders off the track to give himself room to escape behind, Kyra suggested mildly counter-flexing the poll with the outside rein to keep the forehand nearer to the rail.
“Keep the tempo and don’t collect the neck!” she cautioned. When the horse gets strong in the hand, don’t try to make his neck shorter. Make him work more from his outside hind, and he’ll carry more weight on it, step further under with the inner hind, and soften in front as a result.
“And don’t try to trap him between the spur and the bit. You can’t make him do collection. He has to offer it,” which he’ll do when he softens and carries himself, accepting the push without needing the hand to hold him back.
At times, she asked the rider to free the horse on the inside rein, and at various times when the horse came more under himself, she rewarded him with brief periods of longer, forward-thinking strides.
Kyra observed that many upper level horses will offer a degree of collection, but they each get to a place in their canter where it feels awkward, either against the hand, tight in the back, or not coming through from behind. In trying to get to more collection, many riders feel the resistance and try to skip over this spot on the canter continuum. Kyra advised that this is exactly the degree of collection to keep the horse working in. Rather than trying to bypass this point, spend time getting the horse loose and re-suppled, and only then go on to more collection. Avoid immediately going to your hands. Remember that sometimes the best rebuttal is to apply your correction and just WAIT a few seconds for the horse to decide that you’re really serious and he must come through.
When Kyra does run into problems in the collection, she looks for her solution in one of three places. “There are no hard and fast rules here,” she says, “but I experiment with either a faster or slower tempo, with a higher or lower frame, or with a longer or shorter neck.” Somewhere in these possibilities is usually the key to unlocking the horse’s resistance and making him more susceptible to the collecting aids.
Once the horse was slow over the ground, rhythmical, relaxed in the bridle, and actively stepping under himself, Kyra had the rider do the same exercise on the centerline. Again, straightness was paramount. When necessary, the shoulders were led to the inside with an opening rein effect. This prevented the neck from over-bending and kept the shoulders aligned with the quarters. Later, with the horse confident about his canter balance, Kyra noted that the pirouette itself was as easy as turning around.
As she explained in her “strawberry jam” analogy, it is especially difficult to describe in a meaningful way a feeling that the listener has never experienced. Collection always seems to be one of the most mysterious, most misunderstood topics in all of dressage. Hopefully, Kyra’s methodical, step-by-step approach to collection can help you avoid the usual pitfalls.