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Collecting a Horse & Keeping Him "On the Bit"

What is meant by "collecting a horse?"

This is a frequent question asked by new riders. Let me start by saying that horses can accept a rider's weight in one of several ways, each of which has an effect upon the horse's ability to move forward. If the horse's back sinks away from the weight, this will causes his neck to rise up, and his head and particularly his nose, to rise up in the air, out, or forward. A horse doing this will naturally be impelled to "jig" up and down, slow down, or stop altogether. Conversely, a horse can also round his back or hump-up against the weight, and this will cause his neck, head, and particularly his nose, to drop toward the ground. This is the move you see when a horse bucks. You'll often see both of these moves with untrained or inexperienced horses.

However, as a horse gets more experienced, it's possible to train the horse to neither hump-up against the weight, nor sink away from it. This takes strong back muscles as you might expect. So how do you get a horse to exercise his back muscles? First, you get him to move forward with lots of impulsion from his back end. In layman's terms, get him to stride out freely — urge him forward.

A free striding horse naturally has his nose extended forward. Next, in moving him forward, you "set" your hands lightly so that he moves his mouth forward into the bit with some pressure as he extends. The first few times he does this, he may slow down or stop altogether when his forward movement causes his mouth to put a little pressure on the bit. Eventually, though, you can teach him that you want him not to slow down, but to move forward while keeping a light pressure on the bit. This will naturally cause him to arch his neck, drop his nose to his chest, and to collect his energies rather than dissipate them all in moving forward.

Further, his back end will move under him, his ability to stop and turn will improve, and his back muscles will be working to support both his arched neck and his engaged rear. At the same time, he'll have plenty of power to do whatever it is that you have in mind — this is a collected horse!

You can see an extreme form of "collection" and a horse being "on the bit" right now by going online at msn.com and checking out the Olympic dressage coverage on video. Contrast a horse in the ring working on a routine, with the horse after the event, walking away from the contest. When they're finished the event and walking off, the riders typically let the horse walk out on a long rein, and the savvy horses really take advantage of it, with much evident enjoyment. However, the ones in the ring are all business and have much collection.

Give it a shot with your own horse and see how you do. I'll bet your horse may know more about it than you think.

Kathleen A. Reagan, Esq. is an equine attorney practicing in Braintree, MA, available at www.kathleenreaganlaw.com, has developed a course in equine law at www.concordlawschool.com, and is co-founder and Vice President of QueryHorse, the largest horse information resource on the Internet.

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