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Collection & extension

From: Sarah

Hey Jessica, first of all, I wanted to thank you for Horse Sense, I have read every message and learned tons from you!

My question though, is how can I extend and collect my 11 year old Thoroughbred gelding? I am 14 years old and have been riding for about 3 years, and took lessons each week for about a year and a half, then leased the gelding I now own for 6 months and took about 2 lessons, now that I own him, I've taken a total of 3 lessons in 7 months. So I am pretty much left on my own for riding, and never was taught how to collect and extend my gelding's stride.

TIA, Sarah Zmuda

Hi Sarah, thanks, I'm happy to know you're enjoying horse-sense!

Don't be in a hurry to attempt collection and extension. You've done very well for someone with so few lessons, and I know that you want to train your horse correctly. And training correctly takes time, because it depends on the rider's ability to develop a horse's body and mind -- over time.

There's a whole list, a sequence, of achievements in training, and collection is at the top of that list... and we start at the BOTTOM of the list and work our way UP. Here's the list -- and remember, read it from the bottom up, not from the top down. ;-)


As you see, it all begins with rhythm. The four-beat walk, the two-beat trot, the three-beats-and-pause canter -- three different rhythms, and it takes time to train the horse to walk in a clear, even, four-beat rhythm, to trot in a clean two-beat rhythm, and to canter so that you can feel, hear, and see the one-two-three beats of the hooves and the pause (the silent fourth beat) when all four feet are in the air.

Once the horse is moving reliably in an accurate, steady rhythm in each gait, the rider can begin to do exercises with the horse to increase his suppleness. Large ring figures, turns, circles, figure-eights, changes of direction, transitions between gaits, etc. -- all of these, if the horse is going steadily forward in the correct rhythm for his gait, will increase his suppleness.

When the horse finds it easy to maintain a steady, pure gait and can bend and flex and turn without speeding up, slowing down, or losing the beat, the rider can begin to focus on sending the horse forward into a soft, steady contact. And when you're at this point, it's useful to start "gymnasticizing" your horse by asking for longer and shorter steps -- this is NOT extension or collection, it's lengthening and shortening. Lengthening means asking your horse to keep its steady rhythm while reaching a little more forward with each leg and taking a slightly longer step with each leg. This is harder work than you might think -- for the horse and for you. ;-)

When the horse can maintain its gaits, bend, flex, turn, and go forward into a steady contact, and when it can lengthen and shorten its stride without losing the rhythm or the contact, the rider can begin to work on straightening the horse -- this means keeping the horse's body straight on straight lines, so that the hind feet track the front feet on the same side. It also means keeping the horse's body BENT like a banana from nose to tail on turns, curves, and circles, so that, again, the horse's hind feet track the front feet. This is so that the horse will be evenly balanced over its four legs -- the only way it can do this on a turn is to BEND its body and track the forelegs with the hind legs. A horse with a stiff, straight body goes around a turn like a motorbike, by leaning into the turn and putting more weight on the inside legs. This isn't stable -- and it shows a lack of suppleness. It also shows a lack of straightness, because "straight" means "tracking straight", which means that the horse's body and balance MATCH what it's being asked to do -- straight body on a straight line, curved body to match the curve of the turn or circle.

By the time the horse reaches this point, it's usually in its second year of good dressage training. As it begins the third year, it takes ALL of these qualities and learns to put them together and offer more energy to the rider -- but CONTROLLED energy, not running-away energy. The rider continues to develop the horse's body and mind, strength and balance and ability and understanding, so that the horse has a great deal of energy which it makes available to the rider. "Impulsion" isn't the same thing as "speed", at all!

"Impulsion" means that IF the rider adds a little pressure with her legs, the horse will step more actively and more forward with its hind legs; IF the rider then opens her fingers or moves her hands forward an inch, the horse will surge forward to fill up that space. This is the very beginning of collection: the rider's ability to ask the horse to step up underneath itself, rounding its back and carrying more weight on its hindquarters. But the rider is only able to get this from the horse BECAUSE of all the previous work! That's what has made the horse ABLE to do what the rider is asking. It takes strength, balance, suppleness, and impulsion for a horse to be able to collect when the rider asks.

And when the horse is able to collect -- when the horse HAS that power at last -- THAT's when the rider can begin to ask for extensions.

Extension comes from collection. The horse that is round, powerful, carrying itself with a lifted back and paying great attention to the rider's aids, the horse that steps more deeply under itself and becomes even MORE round when the rider asks for collection, is a horse that has developed the ability to reach forward with longer strides when the rider allows it to move out. A horse going from collection to extension isn't being PUSHED to extend -- it's being PERMITTED to extend.

So don't be in a hurry, Sarah. Start at the bottom of the list and work your way up. There's no fixed schedule for any of this -- it depends on so many different factors. It's the progression that matters most: your horse must be rhythmic, forward, on the aids, and straight,reliable in its bending and balance, performing good, clean, balanced transitions between and within gaits, before it will have the power to collect and extend when you ask. Just master one step at a time, and let your horse tell you when he's ready to move on to the next one. You'll need help along the way, so try to find a good instructor, or even a good clinician who can work with you every few months. It's not as helpful as good weekly instruction, but it's much better than trying to do it all on your own. That's hard even when you've done it before and know exactly what you want. We all need someone to check on us periodically to keep our riding and training "on track."


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