Recently a lot of my students have been struggling with the concepts of collection, thoroughness, and roundness. To me, this is the foundation of riding. These classical dressage principles allow us to improve the horse’s way of going, which in turn will improve their longevity and overall health.

Recently a lot of my students have been struggling with the concepts of collection, thoroughness, and roundness. To me, this is the foundation of riding. These classical dressage principles allow us to improve the horse’s way of going, which in turn will improve their longevity and overall health.

First, a little vocabulary. Throughness is achieved when a horse is stepping all the way through his back and his hind foot is tracking up to the front foot (Top Right Photo). Roundness is when the horse’s back lifts and rounds up (Bottom Right Photo). Notice how in the photo the horse’s back is flat behind the saddle. This is the opposite of a hollow horse whose back will dip behind the saddle. Collection is when the horse learns to round his back and then sink onto his haunches in order to raise his shoulder (Middle Left Photo – Although I would add that in this photo the horse does not have as much throughness and roundness as the other two photos. Ideally the horse would maintain the throughness and roudness in collection.). I will explain these concepts in more detail throughout the article.

Another thing many people are confused about is why we should bother teaching a horse collection. I think many natural horsemanship students struggle to understand why we would ask a horse to engage his or her core when we know it is difficult for the horse and often results in resistance at first. Many mindful riders spend so much time reducing resistance that they don’t understand why you may need to add some resistance and are content to ride their horses on a loose rein however the horse would like to go. However, this is not really benefiting the horse. It is true that lifting the back is very unnatural for the horse, but so is being ridden. In order for the horse to be able to carry our weight and maintain soundness, they must learn to lift their back and engage their hind end. Once the horse understands what we are asking, he will start to look for the stretch since he will find it an easier and more comfortable way of going.

Below is a short video that does a good job of explaining what it looks like for a horse to lift his or her back and become round versus a horse that may have a collected headset, but has a dropped, “hollow” back (i.e. a false headset).

Another important point in this video that I want to make sure to highlight is the time frame this training takes. It take 1 year to develop a horse’s back enough to start working on collection. This means an entire year of working only long and low for the horse to develop the muscles needed to begin carrying himself in collection. It then takes an entire year after this to bring the horse up into collection and develop the musculature for the horse to correctly sink into his hindquarters and lift his withers. So if you do go down this path, which I highly recommend, you have to be patient.

Of course the other thing to consider is why we should pursue a round horse. Especially for my readers that are not dressage riders you might be wondering what the point of all this work is. Below is a video that explains the bio-mechanics of a round horse and the health risks of riding a hollow horse. No matter what discipline you ride a round horse will perform better and stay sound longer. For those of you who know my horses, Lucy is a prime example of a horse who has suffered from hollowing her back. As a racehorse she was not asked to use her back correctly and by the time she was retired from racing at 7 she already exhibited a damaged spine. She is pictured to the right of the video. Note the dip in her back between where the saddle would sit and her hip. Even if she were to have her hind legs farther under her, she would still struggle to raise her back and be round due to the degree of dip in her spine.

If you are still a bit confused, below is a picture of one of my horses, Zephyr, showing how he naturally wanted to move and then showing how he learned to move after his back was developed. Do you see the huge difference in where his hind end is, the length of his stride, and the roundness of this back?

Now I want you to watch this video above explaining how to frame a horse. Note this rider is not engaging the hind end or rounding the horse, she is simply creating a false headset. Although she is fairly soft with her hands and not being terribly effective, she is see-sawing to get the horse to “lean on the bit” as she says. This is what you do not want to do.

Above we see another video of someone see-sawing to create a headset. Although she specifically claims she is not see-sawing, do you see how her hands are moving back and forth to encourage the horse to duck behind the bit? All this does is create a false headset and a hollow back.

Here is yet another video showing a more severe version of see-sawing to create rolkur, also known as ldr (long, deep, and round). Here we see the effects of see-sawing in a more extreme way and how the modern dressage horse is typically trained.

By now I hope you are asking yourself, “how do I get more horse to stretch down so I can teach him or her collection and improve my horse’s health?”. Unfortunately I had a lot of trouble finding good video of this demonstrated, but the one below is about as close as I could find.

In this video, Larry Trocha demonstrates how he wants his horse light and supple. In the beginning, notice how he picks up a rein and the horse yeilds all the way through to his hind end to make the turn. This is the most important part of teaching a horse to stretch. As the horse yeilds his hind end, do you see how he starts to stretch down? Unfortunately this horse is in a curb bit so when he stretches the bit twists in his mouth and causes him to curl slightly and raise his head. If the horse were in a snaffle he would find that stretch much more comfortable. To get the stretch you work on bending and yeilding (also known as disengaging) the haunches every time the horse begins to tense through his body and bring his head up. Eventually he will stay relaxed and stretching. Remember that the horse needs to give all the way through his body so that lifting a rein is synonymous with yeilding the hind end. If you just pull the head back and forth you are see-sawing. Overtime your horse will be more consistent in the stretch and will be able to keep it longer and longer. Once your horse can stretch all the way down to the ground at the walk, trot, and canter you are ready to begin working on collection.

To collect your horse you will use lateral movements to drive your horse forward into the bridle. Then you slowly start to gather your reins up to rock your horse back onto his haunches while being careful not to let your horse drop his back. If he drops his back you will go back to the stretch to round his back again. If you want to learn more about asking for collection, to the right is a great video series showing a horse progressing into collection in a fairly correct way. There are some things I would do differently, but the overall picture is a nice progression of a horse’s training.

Hopefully this article helped clarify collection and throughness for you and will help you get your horse moving better for many more years of enjoyment. Feel free to comment below with any questions you may have and I will be happy to answer them for you.

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