The pinnacle of dressage training, collection can only be achieved when all the other scales are well established. The hallmark of the well-trained dressage horse is true collection, with a shortened body, increased weight on the hind leg, and an open neck reaching softly to a smooth and consistent contact.
Progress towards collection is inextricably linked with muscle building and the gymnastic work of the horse. Young horses are simply not strong enough to show collection, and should not be expected to. It takes time for a youngster to learn to balance the weight of the rider, and this must be achieved before work on collection can be introduced.
The more the hind end develops, the more the rider can ask for it to carry the weight of both horse and rider. It is often easiest to start this work in the canter, riding smaller circles while keeping the jump and impulsion. Be aware that this will be difficult for the horse in the early days – we need to be careful that we don’t get carried away and ask for too much too soon.
One of the most difficult things is learning how to time the forward driving aids and the sensitively applied half halt in order to shift the weight of the horse onto the hind end. This requires co-ordination and feel from the rider, and many people will find it helpful to have a trainer help them from the ground in the early days. It is of utmost importance to remember that collection does NOT mean slowing down, in fact the rider should feel that the horse increases its impulsion and energy in the stride. A useful thing to think about is the feeling of holding for an extra stride between fences on a keen horse – you want that sense that the horse is pushing forward with energy, and the rider is able to half-halt this energy uphill.
Of course, in the pursuit of collection, it is important that the rider does not forget the previous scales – and revisits them when necessary. If the rhythm, suppleness, contact, impulsion or straightness start to wobble, it is vital to go back and address the root cause instead of trying to improve them within the collecting work.
Collection is the culmination is years of hard work and training along the dressage scales. It is the most difficult to master but will bring the greatest to reward as the horse becomes lighter, more expressive, and more able to achieve the high level exercises. It requires feel and diligence from the rider to train successfully without losing the basics, but with patience and training this sort of work will improve the horse beyond recognition.