Ask the Experts: Preparing for Collection

How to build your horse's strength for early collection through hill work, cavalletti and transitions.
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How to build your horse's strength for early collection through hill work, cavalletti and transitions.

I have recently begun dressage lessons with my 11-year-old Appendix Quarter Horse. We are riding at Training Level. As I begin to ask for a more collected frame, I find that he has trouble connecting over the back, especially in the trot and canter. He tends to rush and travel heavy on the forehand, and I find I'm in a vicious cycle. When I ask with my legs and seat for him to move into the bridle, he quickens and becomes heavy in my hands. When I try to "recycle" the energy by bringing it back through the bridle, asking him to collect without losing animation, he either gets heavier or slows down. How do I develop the proper balance of activity and collection and help him to "get" what I'm asking? He's very willing, just a little too strong.

Your problem is not unusual. Any horse is likely to have such a dilemma at around Second or Third Level, if not before, and an Appendix or Quarter Horse type is often up against it earlier. Such horses commonly have low-set necks and fairly long bodies, making it difficult for them to lift the forehand within the shoulder sling of muscles.

I am fortunate to have a fabulous horse who allows me to ride all the Grand Prix movements without a bridle, using just a neck rope. I could never have done it without laying the foundation I'll give you. It is gratifying to be able to help students discover that they don't really need to depend on their bridles.

For your horse working at Training Level to have problems when you ask him to become more connected, the issue of strength must be addressed. If he is not strong enough to carry himself, he will rely on you to help him. To a certain extent, this is appropriate, but it should not last more than about two months, and he should feel no heavier than a bag of sugar in you hands. Even though your horse is 11 years old and has shown no evidence of lack of strength, when you ask him to carry himself in a more connected frame, he must use different muscles in a new way. It is incumbent upon you, as his rider/trainer, to ensure that he is physically capable of performing his job when the demands increase.

I suggest incorporating some strength training into your schooling work, keeping your horse as round as you can during all of your rides. Specific work that will help him become stronger includes hill work, cavalletti work-either under saddle or on the longe-and working for short amounts of time in tall grass, deep sand or standing water. Working in tall grass is great. The effect is like working over cavalletti that are always set at just the right distance. If you have a fallow field to work in, you are all set. Snow or standing water or perhaps a stream with a flat bottom serves the same purpose.

I am not sure how much access you have to hills in Ohio; the parts I am familiar with are pretty flat. You don't need a minor mountain, though. A slope of 10 to 15 degrees will give your horse plenty of good strength training. I like to work my horse outside on a hilly surface, and I don't go out of my way to hold him up. Particularly, pay attention to his pushing power on the uphill slope and his carrying power downhill. Teach him to fend for himself. I certainly can't carry my horse through upper-level work, and I don't need to do it at a lower level. Correct his balance, then let him be, so that you are the supervisor and he is the worker. Don't do his job for him.

You can do entire sessions on a shallow slope, or you can do eventing-type hill work on a steeper one, walking up and down it. Walking forces the horse to really carry; he can cheat by simply thrusting in trot or canter. Save trotting for when you know he's already fairly strong and leave cantering alone as it won't help your issue.

Cavalletti should be set at a comfortable distance for your horse. Start on level ground, placing them about four and a half feet apart, and increase or decrease the space between them until you find a distance where he must pick himself up carefully and with power but without changing his stride. You are not trying to develop lengthening here, just more lifting power. Start with three or four cavalletti and work up to as many as six or seven. They don't need to be set on the highest level-start with them touching or nearly touching the ground, then put them on their sides for the medium height. You want your horse to go over them without hollowing, which can occur if they are too high for him.

When I prepared my horse Bordeaux to move up from Intermediaire II to Grand Prix, we spent an entire year longeing over cavalletti for half an hour every day before our regular work. You certainly do not need to do that much with your horse; I mention it to stress the need for strength training, allowing your horse to progress without resistance caused by insufficient power.

When your horse is stronger and on a path toward even better readiness for connection-which you'll see when he does hill work and cavalletti work with ease and without losing stride, straightness or tempo-it is time to look at yourself and your presentation of the question you have asked of your horse. He must not only be strong enough, he must also listen to your aids. My favorite exercise to help horses understand connection and balance is very simple: trot-walk-trot transitions. I am particular about these because they are so powerful in helping the horse understand more collected work without resistance, so that he responds to our weight aids without depending on our hands for support.

The upward transition from walk to trot asks the horse for thrusting power from behind. What you must watch for is hollowing in the transition. Watch Grand Prix jumpers going over huge oxers. Some have tremendous power but may be hollow. Your task is to ensure that the preparation for this transition includes getting him almost too deep, too low, so that when he performs the upward transition, he stays within useful parameters and does not become hollow. As you practice, you will find that you only need to soften the feel of the bit instead of exaggerating his roundness in the preparation. You are better off with him a little too round at first so he really understands to push and not hollow.

The downward transition from trot to walk involves the horse stepping under from behind to transfer the weight backward. This is the really valuable transition to help him become lighter in your connected work. You do not get to use much rein to support him. For now, keep your seat bones light, with your weight more on the thighs, so that there is room for his back to come up and meet you. If you squash his back with deep, heavy seat bones, he will obediently lean on your hands and hollow his back. When his back is always reliably up under you, then you can sit more aggressively and he will still become rounder. Do about 10 strides of each gait before the next transition, more if he anticipates. I usually prescribe 100 of these transitions daily for a month or two. That way, each transition can be a learning experience, and you don't have to get after your horse if he isn't perfect. You will get to do 99 more. It takes about 20 minutes-count the strides in your head for one timed minute and you'll see you can do about five walk-trot sets. It is a great warm-up. Some days, that's all I'll do, because I understand how valuable it is gymnastically to my horse.

You will find that you need your reins less and less as you practice. I find it fascinating to observe just how much I can affect my horse's balance with my weight.

If you want to experiment, try using a neck rope. I don't recommend taking your bridle off. My neck ropes are made of quarter-inch clothesline. Adjust the length so that you can hold the neck rope along with the reins without feeling restricted. The neck rope's function is to remind the horse just where he should be picking himself up, which is at the base of the neck, lifting the neck within the shoulder sling of muscles. I have found that the neck rope also serves to give your outside rein about eight times as much clarity; if you ride with the neck rope alone, you have only an "outside rein" and your weight and leg aids. It's a pretty powerful experience.

A senior Centered Riding instructor, Robin Brueckmann is an USA Equestrian "S" dressage judge and an "R" combined training judge. In 1994, she suffered an injury that curtailed her competitive riding career. Since then, Robin has pursued bridleless dressage, giving exhibitions nationwide. She remains an active clinician and judge.