Balance, Self-Carriage, and Collection – some suggestions and thoughts

Balance, Self-Carriage, and Collection – it is a journey

by Dr. Mike Guerini (www.dunmovinranch.com

When I show up to give a lesson or teach a clinic, riders often ask me what my secret is too getting collection. Many times people call me and ask if I can come and help them get their horse collected better. After about 2 minutes on the phone – much of the time the person tells me they just want better collection and do not think they need to work on balance and self-carriage. There are times when I hear – well what bit do you use to get collection?

I know that I often frustrate folks when I tell them that to achieve collection…it is long hours of proper development of horse and rider … in terms of muscle and timing (and a great many other things) … to develop collection. I go on to tell them that collection comes after we learn and achieve balance and progress into self-carriage.  I also tell folks that no bit and no amount of pull by the riders hands is ever the answer to collection.

Balance is the ability to move or to remain in a position without losing control or falling and it is a state in which different things occur in equal or proper amounts or have an equal or proper amount of importance.

Self-Carriage is defined as a time when the horse is balanced (has independent balance as stated by Manolo Mendez) and self-maintains his own rhythm, tempo, stride length, straightness, outline and rein and leg contact and engagement.  The horse still needs guidance from hands and legs and core and seat of the rider — but the horse is taking care of balance to them be able to work in a dynamic way.

Just a quick side note — see how self-carriage relies on balance?

Collection Collection occurs when a horse carries more weight on the hind legs than the front legs. The horse draws its body together so that it becomes like a giant spring whose stored energy can be reclaimed for fighting or running from a predator. The largest organic spring in the horse’s body, and therefore the easiest one to observe in action, is the back, including the spine and the associated musculature that draws it together in much the same way that a bow is drawn by an archer. (Collection can only come from a horse allowed and able to move freely – having learned to carry himself through training which lets him develop his own balance and rhythm. – March 24, 2014 by Caroline Larrouilh in an article written and published on the Manolo Mendez website).

So let us get to the point.  I have stated that no amount of pull of the hands, size or type of bit, or even one or two lessons will ever get you perfect collection.  It takes development of balance, which in turn leads to self-carriage that finally allows you to work on the finesse of aids and timing that will help you and your horse achieve collection.

Here are five exercises that I highly recommend you master on your journey to collection. There will be days in which you are excellent in your mastery of these activities…and other days will not be as great…but it is the dedication to the work and development of the horse that will ultimately lead you to success.

Exercise #1:  Learn the footfalls of your horse.  Quite simply, from the ground or when you are in the saddle.  Be able to call out what each foot is doing at any time in the rhythm of the movement of the horse.

Exercise #2:  Learn to direct the footfalls of the horse. Once you know where the footfall is, then you can begin to direct it to change time in flight and landing placement. This ability will help you with developing the rear engagement of your horse that you will need to achieve before we get to collection.

As you do these two above exercises, in the first you are developing yourself as a rider. In the second, you are developing yourself and your horse to work in harmony and partnership.

Exercise #3:  Learn to do the first two exercises without the use of stirrups. You need to make certain that as a rider you can feel the horse and work with the horse and not have your balance compromised by using your stirrups as a crutch.  You need to be able to  balance with your whole body on the back of the horse. You also need to be able to post without your stirrups and achieve the goals of exercise 1 and 2 above (and yes for all the western riders – posting is encouraged at times). You cannot be heavy on your seat bones…you cannot be heavy on your legs…you cannot be heavy with your thighs.  You must be balanced.  (Just the other day Mark Russell said the rider needed to be like a champagne bubble riding on the back of the horse – yes that would be a nice picture of a balanced champagne bubble that did not have the rider leaning on seat or legs or feet or thighs…but rather, the rider would be in a perfect state of harmony and balance on the back of the horse).

Exercise #4: Do the above three exercises with the lightest amount of contact…and occasionally, release any of your contact and determine if your horse maintains the rhythm and tempo.  This exercise begins to tie in a measure of how much self-carriage you are achieving…and remember that self-carriage comes when you have balance.

Exercise #5:  Learn to do the first four exercises while working over ground poles and cavaletti’s. This simply adds a degree of difficulty that requires the rider to focus on balance, movement of the horse and changes in terrain (poles or cavaletti’s) that put the horse and rider into thinking mode.

Most importantly in all of the above – you must remember to breathe through all that work.

Once you have mastered those five activities … then you and your horse are ready to begin work on the exercises that will ultimately lead to collection.

Please feel free to share this blog.

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Dr. Mike Guerini is a national clinician, author of multiple Horsemanship books, co-inventor of the Equine Hydro-T and specializes in DR 4 Balance – to help horse and rider acheive goals.  Dr. Mike works with riders to enhance their performance based riding, Western Dressage and understanding and welfare and rehabilitation of the horse and you can learn more about Dr. Mike and his 6 C’s of Horsemanship at www.dunmovinranch.com.  Dr. Mike is also part of Coach’s Corral (www.coachscorral.com), an online Horsemanship Coaching program for competitors.

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Frame – Self-Carriage – Roundness – Collection — Do you know the difference?

Frame – Self-Carriage – Roundness – Collection — Do you know the difference?

by Dr. Mike Guerini, Ph.D. (www.dunmovinranch.com)

We take great liberties with the English language these days when we speak, text and, write. Two, Too, and To are often texted as “2” and this is just one example of us interchanging words and letters and numbers so that we do not always have to think about the exact spelling, meaning, or detail of a simple word.

As equestrians, we find ourselves in training or instructing or learning and we get challenged to describe what we are feeling.  We often use words that we think we understand their meaning…but in truth … we heard someone else say the word and we think it sounds correct or powerful or authoritative.

Four words in particular — Frame – Self-Carriage – Roundness – Collection — are often used interchangeably and by that—they are used incorrectly. These words are not interchangeable. The four terms are distinct in meaning, appearance, and feel when riding. Let us begin with defining these words normally, without the equestrian perspective….and then defining with the equestrian perspective.

General Population Definitions of these words:

Frame — to construct by fitting and uniting the parts of the skeleton of (a structure)

Self-Carriage — manner of bearing the body, deportment

Roundness — having curves rather than angles

Collection — the act or process of getting things from different places and bringing them together

Even in everyday use, these words have distinct meanings. Now let us look at them through the eyes of an equestrian.

Equestrian Definitions of these words:

Frame — Horse traveling in a predetermined outline.  Frame has a particular look.  We can influence the frame with natural and artificial aids.

Self-Carriage — the horse carries himself in the best and most appropriate manner for the movement he has to execute. Self-carriage is the result of balance.  This requires time and patience and good equitation for us to be able to work with our horse to be in balance and self-carriage.

Roundness — horse lifts his back so that the hind end can reach under further and the topline can become rounder. Again — This requires time and patience and good equitation for us to be able to work with our horse to achieve correct roundness.

Collection — to shift his center of gravity more over his hind feet by increasing the bend in his hocks and stifles. That lowers his hindquarters, shortens his strides, and means that when he thrusts off the ground, his impulsion now becomes more “up” than “forward.”  The holy grail and top of the training scale.  An often sought after, moderately achieved activity that the horse can sustain for short periods of time (note….it is not good to announce proudly that you rode your horse in collection for over an hour….just not a good plan and likely it did not happen, nor would a good equestrian want it to happen)

Simply by reading these definitions, you can begin developing a mental picture of how they are different and of course how these concepts work together. A multitude of people have discussed these concepts in excellent detail and below I share with you some of the references I use as I continue to advance my learning (See links below).

My challenge to you as fellow equestrians is to become more exacting in the words you use to describe what your horse and you are achieving.  By being more exacting – you will improve your training, develop reasonable and progressive goals, and have more fun and success.

Thanks for reading and please feel free to share this blog to encourage other equestrians to learn more and to develop more exacting standards of language as horsemen and horsewomen.

From Manolo Mendez website — Balance & Rhythm in the Young Horse: Essential to Forward and Self Carriage (first independent balance)

From Karen Rolf – Dressage Naturally — Self Carriage from a Dressage, Naturally Perspective

Meredith Manor – Training Mythunderstandings: The Training Tree: Collection

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Dr. Mike Guerini is a clinician, author of multiple Horsemanship books, co-inventor of the Equine Hydro-T and specializes in western performance based instruction and you can learn more about Dr. Mike and his 6 C’s of Horsemanship at www.dunmovinranch.com.  Dr. Mike is also part of Coach’s Corral (http://www.coachscorral.com/), an online Horsemanship Coaching program that specializes in video coaching and the 5 Ride Program.  Dun Movin Ranch is also home to the Equine Hydro-T (http://www.hydrot.com/).

What is true collection? Is it a headset or is there more to Collection? How do I get collection?

By: Dr. Mike Guerini (www.dunmovinranch.com)

I have received a few questions about Collection and one of my Horsemanship mentors, Charles Wilhelm from Castro Valley California, suggested I blog about the topic of Collection.

Many people think collection is a headset or a particular frame that you put the horse into BUT this is the wrong idea.  Collection is increased engagement of the hind feet having them step further under the body (belly) of the horse.  The front end of the horse rises ever so slightly so that the rear legs can easily step under and forward. For some people a horse in this position is referred to as being “on the bit” or “stepping through.” With collection, we are moving the weight of the horse and rider onto the muscled hindquarters of the horse thereby making the load on the forehand of the horse a little bit lighter.  Collection is the highest degree of self-carriage we can ask a horse to give.

T achieve TRUE collection, the rider must be aware of the footfalls of the horse and ride the entire horse and come to a point of rider and horse becoming ONE.

So how do you start to get collection with your horse?

First, teach your horse to move forward in each gait.  Build a strong foundation of forward movement at the walk and it will give you the basis for correctness and success at the trot and lope.

Once your horse moves forward at the walk, trot and lope, ask for a walk with light contact on the reins.  Then ask your horse for impulsion by using your leg and seat aides to urge him to step forward and under the belly with the hind legs.  These are light seat and leg aides and light hands, not poking, prodding, or pulling with your legs or hands.

While keeping the impulsion, apply light contact onto the horse’s mouth. This light contact on the mouth will help the horse lift up his front end ever so slightly.  As you drive the rear end forward and hind legs reach under his belly, you develop a balance between the front and rear of the horse.  This balance with a light front end and hind legs stepping under the belly is collection.

It is important that you ask for collection for only a few strides at a time as you teach your horse.  I must EMPHASIZE this point.  Riding in collection, especially in the beginning, is the wrong way to work your horse.  Begin gradually achieving collection for short periods of time.  Once you get a few steps of collection, release and let your horse walk freely, then repeat the above process.  Soon you will feel him elevating his back. It will feel like you are riding uphill.

With your younger horses, it is critical that you first teach them to go forward with purpose and energy while riding with the lightest rein contact possible.  Once the horse can move at the walk, trot (or jog), and lope with good impulsion and straightness and balance, only then should you begin to ask for collection.  For those who have spent time studying the Training Scale embraced by the dressage world, Collection, is the pinnacle/top most portion of the training scale and relies on a strong foundation of the elements that precede Collection to be achieved by horse and rider.

Now that we have spoken about the horse element of collection…it is very important to speak to the rider portion.  A rider must have control of his or her body in order to help guide the horse to achieve collection.  Riders who bounce, flap their arms like a chicken, pull and poke and prod in every which way effect the balance of the horse.  Without balance…there can be no collection.  Without rider balance — there can be no horse balance.

So next time you step out to the barn to work on Collection with your horse….take a look at yourself as a rider and make sure you are there to help the horse achieve the goal.  Many riders are not prepared for the mental, physical, and emotional work it takes to achieve collection with the horse.  Shortcuts, headset, training gimmicks….all these can help you achieve false collection — True collection comes with many hours of hard work and finding harmony and balance with the horse.  So when you want to achieve true collection — work for it and realize it will take time.

One final aspect to consider.  When you seek to achieve collection with your horse — realize the potential of your horse, understand the physical abilities of the horse (confirmation, injury, etc.) and work to achieve the collection that he/she can give you.  If you think that every horse you ride WILL and MUST achieve the same level of collection — you are sadly mistaken and a pretty darn poor horseman/horsewoman.

Dr. Mike Guerini is a clinician, author of multiple Horsemanship books, co-inventor of the Equine Hydro-T and specializes in western performance based instruction and you can learn more about Dr. Mike and his 6 C’s of Horsemanship at http://www.dunmovinranch.com. Dun Movin Ranch is also home to the Equine Hydro-T (www.hydrot.com).