My horse and I have had a very successful week in our training, largely due to some wonderful tips I’ve gleaned from dressage trainer Jane Savoie’s blog. Specifically, I’ve been working on getting Ace to go on the bit and to round through his back and neck.
Like many riders, I didn’t have a good concept of true roundness and collection for a large part of my riding career. I would use my hands to crank my horse’s nose in. I got a nice round frame, but didn’t have a horse who was getting those hind legs engaged and under him, or roundness through the back – both of which are the REAL point of collection.
I’ve been re-educated for a while now on what true collection should be. But that understanding is very different from knowing the correct aids to achieve it – or being able to put them into action. Once I had a good system though, it wasn’t as difficult to teach Ace to collect as I thought it would be.
What does it mean to be on the bit and collected?
Before we can talk about the aids to achieve collection, it’s important to understand what collection is. Collection is when you horse has engaged his hind end and is reaching well underneath himself with his hind legs. This causes him to carry more of his weight on his hind end in a more “uphill” balance. This can be difficult for many horses to learn, as they naturally carry a larger percentage of their weight on the forehand. When a horse has engaged his hind end, his back will come up and round, and develop a lovely swinging motion as he moves. His neck will lower and arch and his nose will come in.
When a horse is on the bit, it means that he is seeking contact with the bit. There’s a light and steady contact with his mouth and the bit and your hands. He isn’t avoiding contact by putting his nose out, or coming behind the vertical, or various other tactics horses will use to avoid your hands. This requires riders to have a soft, light, following feel with their hands and arms.
Here are a few ways Jane Savoie says you can tell when your horse is on the bit:
- You can sit the trot because his back is relaxed.
- In trot, he swings.
- In canter, he springs.
- In both trot and canter, he feels like a bouncing beach ball.
- His back doesn’t feel low or tight. The area just behind the saddle is up and oscillating.
- And if he’s truly on the bit–not just posing with a fake, arched head and neck–you feel like your horse can do anything in the next step. For instance, he can immediately do a transition from the trot into the canter. Or he can easily move from tracking straight ahead into a lateral movement. Or he can promptly go into an extension. If you’re not sure, just ask for one of those transitions. If he can do them easily and willingly, he’s on the bit.
Rider aids to put your horse on the bit
There are three aids you use to put your horse on the bit. When he is first learning, you use them progressively. Once he understands, you use the simultaneously.
Here are the collection, or as Jane calls them “connection”, aids in order:
- driving aids
- rein of opposition
- bending aids
Before you can ask your horse to collect and come on the bit, you need to make sure that he is thinking forward. The first aid in collection is using your seat and legs to drive him forward. He should surge forward energetically when you close your legs. If your horse has trouble with forward like mine did, be sure to first read these steps to teach him to respond to lighter leg aids.
Rein of opposition
Jane explains this as “the outside rein. It’s called the rein of opposition because it opposes too much speed from the driving aids and too much bend from the bending aids.”
After you’ve sent your horse forward, make a fist with your outside hand. This cycles your horses forward energy back into his hind end and gets him to engage his hind legs.
Your inside rein is used to bend your horse (along with your inside leg at the girth and your outside leg just behind). When asking for collection, it’s the third step in the process. After you’ve sent him forward and used your outside rein to cycle the energy back to his hind end, you jiggle the inside rein to maintain the correct straightness and bend. This keeps him from turning his nose toward the outside rein.
Put all together it looks like this:
- send horse forward with seat and legs
- close hand on outside rein
- alternately squeeze and release (jiggle) the inside rein to maintain the correct bend
When you are first learning, apply each aid in three second increments. As soon as he responds by engaging the hind end, rounding and relaxing through his back and neck, release all the aids. This will teach him that he gave the correct response. As his understanding and response improves, gradually ask him to maintain it for longer periods of time. Once he really gets it, you will be able to use all three aids at the same time to put him on the bit.
For more details and explanation, but sure to read Jane Savoie’s article for putting your horse on the bit.
Before you start teaching collection
Before you can ask your horse to collect, it’s important to make sure that he has the strength to do so. Collection isn’t necessarily natural to horses, and they have to develop the muscles and strength – particularly in the hind end – to achieve it. Some great ways to strengthen your horse in preparation for collection include:
- Hill work. Walking and trotting up hills (but not cantering!) is wonderful for strengthening the hind end.
- Ground poles and cavalletti. Trotting over ground poles and raised cavalletti set to your horse’s natural stride will strengthen his hind end.
- Transitions. Transitions up and down are both wonderful for getting your horse to engage his hind end and strengthen it.
You also have to make sure that your horse is forward before you can collect. This is a main reason that I’m just now teaching Ace to collect after nearly a year and a half. It took a long time for him to think forward. As we started focusing on collection this week, I ran through our forward exercises during warm up first. By getting him thinking forward and moving off the lightest of leg aids, he had the energy needed to achieve collection. In about 10 minutes of working on these aids, he got the idea very well – walk, trot, and canter! Even though I was only asking for short periods of collection, he maintained his carriage by himself – seeking the contact, engaging the hind end, and really swinging that back. There’s no feeling like it.