It sounds to me as though you are doing all the correct things. My first suggestion with a young horse is to always keep your expectations a bit lower than you think they should be. Very often we want so much for our horses that we actually get ahead of ourselves. Having said that, and along the same thinking process, I would start with the very simplest exercises, which for me is stopping and backing. I would do a lot of walk, stop and back, trot, stop and back, and then finally canter, stop and back.
While doing these transitions, it is very important for me that I am trying to keep the horse’s head up, not pulling it down into flexion. If these transitions are done correctly, your horse will come up and back, get light, and then when you are able to reward him by relaxing your hands, he will put his neck out and his head down.
In and around your collection work be sure to also include as much forward work as possible. It is very tempting to do too much slow work and to ignore the forward and fast work. For me the forward work is always the most important, and then mixing in some slow and collected work is also important.
In a general sense, I would suggest that you slow down a little, expect a bit less, and enjoy the process. Given enough time, I am sure your young horse will catch on to what you are asking and give it to you. Each horse works at his own pace and some take a bit longer than others. Time, patience and reward are the pieces that will give you what you are after.
It is very important to not try to teach a young horse about collection before their stifles are strong, and they understand go forward and stay in front of leg! The best way is to LET THEM LEARN instead of trying to TEACH them by forcing collection on them at an early age.
Circles are the #1 most useful exercise in allowing a horse to learn how to collect their stride by engaging their hindquarters. Horses hate to be off balance, so some small circles, followed by immediately going forward again, followed by small circles, are very helpful, as your horse will be thinking to go forward and stay energetic in the small circle. I always ask for a few straight strides of collection, followed by a spiral of three circles, gradually getting smaller, using outside leg, then galloping forward again.
Another exercise would be to do some rollback turns into the rail, first at the trot, then at the canter. This teaches them to lighten the forehand. Again, they are learning where to put their feet to make the shorter stride happen, you aren’t teaching them.
Finally placing two poles 8’ apart in various parts of the arena will help the horse learn how to shorten the stride without losing impulsion. The key to continuing to have a three-beat canter, is continued impulsion. I like to think of collection as gathering energy, rather than slowing down the stride.
Hope this helps. But remember too much collection at an early age can be detrimental to a young horse both mentally and physically!
A four beat canter as you work towards collection is most successfully fixed on a bending line. This will improve both the three beat and overall balance of a true canter rhythm. As a rule, the straighter you keep them, the more they can ‘run out the front door’ and land on the forehand. I love working the haunches-in down the long side of the arena at the canter with the bend to the outside.
This encourages the hind legs to step under and through, thus building more strength and hind end balance. It’s kind of like a leg yield down the track. You will see how difficult this exercise is when you first start. They have a much harder time landing on the front end, because by moving them from your leg, you naturally place the balance more on the hind leg. Once this becomes easier, you can gradually work it onto a circle-in haunches-in, the end result being a canter pirouette.
The goal is always to create a supple back so the true energy can travel through the body to the correct balance point. ~ Happy trails!
My first question for you would be the age and breed of your horse? “Young Horse” can mean anything from barely under saddle at three, through an eight-year-old jumper at the international Young Horse level. Also different breeds and individuals typically have an easier or harder time carrying themselves in a shorter ‘frame.’ I will assume your mare is between four and six years of age and average warmblood or warmblood cross type. My second question is what you are attempting as far as “collection” goes? True collection requires a great deal of strength through the horse’s back and hindquarters to carry their weight in a different manner than a horse typically uses. It is the pinnacle of the training pyramid and takes years to achieve. On the other hand a shortening of stride, while maintaining forward impulsion, is a far different matter. Young horses – once they have achieved a rhythm in all three gaits along with a relaxed attitude towards contact with the bit and a consistent forward response to the leg (both without losing rhythm or a calm state of mind) can be asked for short periods moving with a shortened stride. By short periods I am talking about two or three strides at a time, not laps of your arena! Much of the time you’re shortening should be followed immediately by an opening of the stride so that your horse does not lose her “push” from behind and evade the stress of carrying her weight with undeveloped muscles by simply slowing down and losing a true canter beat. She won’t resist the extra work if she learns that she won’t be asked to do it for longer than she can manage at the time.
Whenever a horse begins what we refer to as a four-beat canter it almost always means the rider is attempting a false sort of ‘collection’ by simply restricting the head and neck and forgetting the hind quarter which are controlled by your primary aid – your leg. Make sure you are riding “from back to front,” not the other way around!
For younger horses who either are easily ‘burned out’ with too many demands in their flat work, or that have such a naturally forward stride that they shorten with difficulty, I like to play with the odd exercise that requires SHORT periods of collection on their part to accomplish. An example would be while riding along a fence line, take a track away from the fence at 45 degrees until you have sufficient room to execute a 180 degree turn back toward the fence. When you horse is just a touch past half-way into the turn use you leg or a ‘cluck’ to ask her to move forward promptly out of the turn. Once your horse understands and you are smooth with your aids and timing working at the trot, you can begin reducing the space you allow her to execute the turn. She will learn to sit back on her haunches a bit, lighten her forehand, and push out of the turn from behind. This exercise is good for a young jumping prospect as they learn to produce proper ‘collection’ when needed without strong aids from you. It is not suitable for a future dressage horse. As you begin small gymnastic exercises in your jumping training, your mare will learn collection in the stride before take-off, something that is necessary for both jumpers and hunters to assure a jumping bascule. Unlike dressage horses for whom collection is a primary goal of years of training, most jumping horses only need real collection to assure a good jumping arc and for shorter turns in the jumper arena.
Always remember to ride your mare from back to front, think of fun exercises that will teach her how to collect herself when necessary, repeat things two or three times not endlessly, and give her the time she needs to mature and gain strength. You will appreciate for years to come the result of consistent and considerate training that you afford her now.
Fundamentals of Flatwork: Advanced – Chapter 12 – The Accordion
In this FREE excerpt from the Advanced section of Fundamentals of Flatwork Bernie shows us one of his favorite exercises to enhance the longitudinal elasticity of the horse’s back.
Running Time: 1 minutes and 32 seconds
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