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False Collection


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False Collection & Evasions

Relative vs. Absolute Elevation

Pulling that neck up!


Relative vs. Absolute Elevation
Nouveau Dressage - Not All That Glitters...
Held Up with Force
Training the Eye

We strive for collection. In dressage everybody talks about collection. There are whole books written on the subject. But what is it? Well, views differ. And for what it's worth, here's my view on what it's not, and why. False collection.

Relative vs. Absolute Elevation

Absolute elevation of the neck
Absolute elevation of the neck.


Ok, we have to sort out the nomenclature, here. Relative is "the relation something has" to something else. In this case, the relative differences between the front end of the horse and the quarters.


is in this case that it is "not relying on comparison" to anything but itself. Absolute elevation is thus the elevation of the forehand, like what happens when you lift the horse by the withers with a crane. The withers are elevated compared to how they were when they were not lifted.

Absolute elevation of the neck
Absolute elevation of the neck.

So, which one is the correct one when we are dealing with classical dressage? My answer will not be as easy as you first might think! It is easy to learn from reading dressage literature, that the forehand should be higher than the quarters, that the horse should be uphill. One will further read that the correct raising of the forehand is not really that, but a lowering of the quarters. The hindlegs bend, and thus the croup sinks. The whithers are left on the same height as before, but are all of a sudden higher than the quarters. They are in relative elevation compared to the quarters. Relative elevation.

A correct piaffe with a relative elevation of the whole forehand
A correct piaffe with a relative elevation
of the whole forehand.

So we take a measuring stick and measure our horse. Then we have him piaffe correctly, and measure him while he is doing it. Will he be of the same height? Well, apart from it being hard to tell because the horse actually moves some in the piaffe, I would say that he will be higher in front in the piaffe, without comparing it to the hindquarters. A horse of 16 hands will be 16.1 in the piaffe. The forehand will actually be in absolute elevation.

The skeleton of the entire frontleg
The skeleton of the
entire frontleg.

Well, if relative elevation, a lowering of the croup so the withers look higher, is the goal, then what is this? Well, this is a by-product of collection. The weight-bearing hindlegs relieve the frontlegs of some load, and the forehand lifts some. This is so because of how the shoulders attach the frontlegs of the horse to the body. I shall explain...

The  sling of the shoulders seen from the front
The sling of the shoulders seen from the front.

The frontlegs are not attached to the body with any kind of joint. There are, of course, joints between the forearm and the humerus, and between humerus and shoulderblade. Some people think of the humerus and the shoulderblade as parts of the body of the horse, but you will soon begin to think of them differently. The drawing to the right shows a skeletal view of the horse from the front. The shoulderblades are yellow, the humerus is green and the forearm is blue. The thorax also happens to be blue in this drawing, but I'm sure you can tell them apart. The red parts are the muscles that the thorax rests in, slung between the shoulderblades. This is the only thing that connects the frontlegs to the chest of the horse. This is reinforced by tendons in some places. The horse has no collar bone.

A flat and contracted piaffe
A flat and contracted piaffe.

Now it might be easier to see, that if the forelegs were relieved of some weight, the chest might not rest so heavy in the sling, and the withers might rise some. It is even so, that if you piaffe a horse of 16 hh correctly, and then measure his height after he has stopped and is again at halt, he will still be higher. This because the muscles of the shoulder sling have been given a slight relief of the load, and regained some tonus to hold the chest up. When you underfeed a horse or especially deprive him of drinking water, the horse's height can be reduced by inches, because the shoulder muscles cannot hold the chest up properly.

Huge frontleg movement without collection
Huge frontleg movement without collection.

So in collection the horse elevates his forehand relative to the lowered quarters as well as absolutely in comparison to its normal height. This because the hauches lower some, and the relieved forehand rises some. Both changes take place, but of course the lowered haunches and the bending and loading of the hindlegs in all joints, is the cause, and the ride of the forehand is the effect.

Dressage Nouveau - Not All That Glitters...

Huge frontleg movement without collection
Huge frontleg movement without collection.

Lately scientist have tried to prove that collection is indeed not a shift of weight rearwards to be placed more over the hindlegs. This, presumably, because they watch a supposedly collected horse, and correctly observe that it does indeed not take any weight back over the hindlegs to relieve the forelegs. (The most famous of which is the Clayton report based on Rembrandt's performance at the Olympics.) But they do not stop here any say:

"Hey, these horses don't shift weight back. How's that?"

Olympic passage
Olympic passage.

But rather they think that
"Since the riders win competitions where collection is terribly important, the horse must be collected. So then collection must not be shifting the weight back, since they don't shift weight back. So let's find out what collection is. "

This somersault of logic is backed up with forceplates, and electrodes, computers and lab equipment to measure what clearly the naked eye can see - horses doing movements on the forehand. Everything is recorded to the last ounce.

'The generals up front and no army behind'
'The generals up front and no army behind'.

They don't stop and think, hey, maybe our base data is somehow flawed? Maybe Rembrandt wasn't the most collecting horse ever trained to GP, and maybe she won on other merits than collection?

What they forgot is that dressage is a difficult thing. It's not like figure skating, where you can use a camera to see if the girl jumps and revolves around her axis 720 degrees like she claims to, and then etch that into your mind's eye, to be able to tell if other skaters do the same. In dressage, the successful outcome of a movement is usually not based upon measurements. It's measured upon impression. Of course the horse has to do his 720 degrees, if he is doing a double pirouette, but that's the easy part to see. What is harder to see are the qualities that training is supposed to have given the gaits and balance.

Totally disconnected
Totally disconnected.

For example:
The horse appears to be extending his trot because I can clearly see his forelegs go horizontal with each forward grasp. I'd need slow motion footage to be able to tell that the hindlegs don't cooperate in this at all. Indeed, some would need a video camera to observe the hindlegs at all, if one listens to the commentators on TV.

Regarding the use of electronic equipment to somehow measure the facts of dressage, Dr Clayton has made some advances, lately, with the help of classical trainer/writer Paul Belasik. The following is from a lecture he gave in 2003:

A correctly elevated piaffe
A correctly elevated piaffe.

"...He also spoke of his work with Dr. Hilary Clayton with the force plates. She had multiple international Grand Prix horses do piaffe on the force plate, she also had Mr. Belasik do piaffe and levade on the force plate. This measured the force each foot was using to get off the ground. The results she found were that most of the horses punched down with their shoulders to lift the front feet instead of carrying more with the haunches. Mr. Belasik said he was very nervous about what the force plate would show when he did his piaffe, then levade. He said if it showed that the horse pushed himself into the levade with his shoulders, then everything he believed and worked on for 30 years was wrong. The force plate showed, dramatically in the levade, that the horse lifted the front by taking more weight in the back. The piaffe also showed more pressure in the back and a lightening in the front from collected trot to piaffe. Needless to say he was relieved to have been vindicated. So it does show, through scientific research that the ability to do a piaffe, by lowering the haunches and taking more weight behind, is real and do-able. That the horizantal piaffes we see in the ring are a result of the horses pushing against the ground with their shoulders. "

Exaggerated frontleg movement with not corresponding action behind
Exaggerated frontleg movement with not corresponding
action behind.

Not very many of those now living and riding/teaching/judging dressage have seen to any extent the correct riding of the classical institutions, or simply a very good rider riding a horse correctly in good balance and throughness. The descreteness of such a show pales in comparison to the modern day breed of warmblood horses who seem to be able to lift their front knees up to chin height no matter what balance.

Exaggerated frontleg movement with not corresponding action behind
Exaggerated frontleg movement with not
corresponding action behind.

And the best example of this lately is the German Westphalian gelding Farbenfroh. Now, I don't know what kind of training this particular horse has been subjected to, so you can't say I'm biased. I also like Westphalians as much as anyone, and adore chestnuts, so don't say I just dislike the horse. As a matter of fact, I think he has brilliant talent.

Exaggerated frontleg movement in a front-heavy in the piaffe
Exaggerated frontleg movement in a
front-heavy in the piaffe.

The Judges agree with me. He comes throwing himself into a spectacular extension of the trot across the diagonal, the like of which you have never seen. At least the frontlegs. The fact that the hindlegs trail and are unsynchronized to the frontlegs, never parallel to them in any way and that the horse is deep in the neck and behind the vertical boring on the bit cannot be seen through the brilliance of those high white socks of the forelegs kicking out horizontally.

Exaggerated frontleg movement, hollow back and lagging hindlegs
Exaggerated frontleg movement, hollow back
and lagging hindlegs.

In my book, the way I've been taught, a horse must learn to collect before he can extend, or he will just throw himself forward on the forehand pushing with trailing hindlegs. This enormous and fantastic gesture with the forelegs is what has been taken advantage of and focused on in this and numerous other modern competition horses. And evidently rightly so. Judges seem to appreciate it. No need to tire the horsewith needless collecting exercises. And this is not just for Farbenfroh.

Exaggerated frontleg movement in a triangulating piaffe
Exaggerated frontleg movement in a triangulating piaffe.

This kind of successfull frontleg gesture does not come from the engagement of the haunches that relieves the frontlegs. The horse only has to hold up one leg at a time, and firmly supported on the other, overweighed frontleg, a gifted horse can throw his leg up really high. He really only needs to have his neck erected so that his poll is far away from the forearm, since the muscle that lifts the forearm attaches at the poll.

So you get it all - the poll is high, the frontlegs lofty and scopey and you look $1.000.000. If you only look at the lifting legs of the front end, of course. If you look at the grounded frontleg, or the hindlegs, or God forbid the butt, you see a different story.

Held Up with Force

Some people think that I rant about rollkur riding and overbent necks. But if there's one thing I really really hate, it's when strong riders with a double bridle habitually pull the neck as far up and back as they can, in the name of collection. This is the most detrimental posture a horse can take with a rider on his back. This does not in any way strengthen him and make him a better mount - it only causes undue stress on the frontlegs, the poll area, the base of the neck, the back under the saddle and the hocks.

Head and neck held up with force
Head and neck held up with force.

Some horses seem to be able to handle this. At least they don't break down. They even build plenty of muscle. Quite a few competition horses have over-sized shoulders to their quarters. No doubt, their frontleg tendons probably grow stronger to cope with the stress, just like tough training on firm footing can strengthen a racehorse's frontlegs and tendons, so that he will not break down. But this only happens as the body's "self defence". And that's the legs. They have the resources to strengthen. But the back...

The back, has no sporting chance in this posture. The back is weighed down by the rider. It is lowered by the rider pulling the neck of the horse up into a vertical poise. The horse has no possibility to use the neck to lift the front of the back. It has no possibility to use the neck for balance at all. Any balance mishap will cause the horse's chest to sink deeper between the frontlegs, and the back will hollow even more.

The natural curve of the spine vs the curve created when held up with force
The natural curve of the spine vs the curve created when
held up with force.

The back of the horse is constructed in a way, which makes this posture extremely harmful. Under the saddle, the spine goes from being arched upward in the loin area, to being straight and then hollow so that the spine turns up to become the neck, when out of the shoulders.

This makes the part of the back that is under the saddle quite vulnerable to over-extending (sagging) because there's not much there to counter-act it except for the neck.

Held up and hollowed
Held up and hollowed.

With a rider on his back, this is the first joint to "give" to the pressure. If you train your horse long-and-low (where the joint straightens out) and strengthen him there for some time, regular riding will not be a problem. But if you instead, pull the neck up high, several, by themselves bad things happen. Together, they are disasterous.

As the neck is raised to become vertical or nearly so, the weight of the head and neck no longer rests suspended from the withers by the topline muscles. Those muscles instead pull the neck down, and the weight of the head and neck presses straight down into the kink at the 1st thoracial vertebra.

The nuchal ligament is is stressed at its insertion and over the axis, when the horse is overbent and held there with force
The nuchal ligament is is stressed at its insertion and over the axis,
when the horse is overbent and held there with force

The weight of the neck rests straight down on this sensetive area, where a lot of the nerves from the spinal cord to the frontlegs and body pass. Where the neck joins the body, there's a sharp turn in the spine, so the ligaments and muscles on the underside of the spine is really what is holding it all together.

This area is already hard at work with moving the front legs, and when the horse is on the forehand (which is the norm when held up with force) is also supporting a lot of the bodyweight and the rider's weight.

The nuchal ligament takes a real beating, too. The protrusion of the poll acts as a lever that pulls the nuchal ligament forward and down as the rider pulls the face of the horseround and in. The ligament gets wrapped around the vertebrae of the neck. This causes extreme stress on the insertion and it causes inflamation, ossification (bone build-up) of the back of the skull. The ligament itself can develop bony nodules and mineralize (enrich in bone matter) and become much less elastic. In a study made in Germany 80% of the dressage/jumper horses had these changes, even in those how did not seek veterinary help for problems of the poll. Read further under Rollkur - Effects on the Neck - The Nuchal Ligament>>

Illustrating the modern ideal of pushing behind and braking infront An unusually bad illustration of selfcarriage, compared to alternative photo unless you want to prove an erroneous specific point
Illustrating the modern ideal of pushing behind and braking
infront. An unusually bad illustration of selfcarriage,
compared to alternative photo unless you want to prove an
erroneous specific point

Dr Hilary Clayton: "Dressage training changes these basic patterns of braking and propulsion. The hind limbs become almost entirely responsible for providing propulsion, which is in agreement with our traditional concepts. The role of the front limb, however, is not what we would have expected. The front limbs lose most of their propulsive thrust, instead they provide more braking, which is used in combination with the carrying force of the front limbs to push the shoulders and forehand upwards and backwards. Therefore, raising the forehand is much more than simply a result of lowering the hindquarters, it is an active process brought about by the action of the front limbs. A crucial component is the ability to use the braking activity of the front limbs to produce self carriage." (http://cvm.msu.edu/dressage/articles/mcpres/usdfbiom.htm#part4c)

Less pushing, more supporting hindlegs - the frontlegs do not brake
Less pushing, more supporting hindlegs - the frontlegs
do not brake

This sentiment is to the detriment of horses al around the world. The holy pushing forces of the hindquarters are nullified by the braking forces of the forehand to get some kind of tug-of-war balance and a slow suspended passage-like movement. The use of the photo of Cynthia Ishoy just says it all. (No shadow over Cynthia, we all have those moments. It's just that the photo shouldn't have been chosen to illustrate self-carriage!)

In the illustration above, from the 1988 Olympics, we see a horse that is pushing the croup up (letting the back sag) with his holy pushing powers, while he is braking with the frontlegs, to get a passage-like movement. If we instead look at a horse that pushes less and supports more, we see the difference in the use of the frontlegs as well. It's not about "opposing forces", it's about prolonging the supporting stance phase (while shortening the push-off) of the hindleg with good bend in the joints, and thus take more load over to the hindlges.

More will be added here...

Training the Eye

A Breyer model in piaffe
A Breyer model in piaffe

Some images seem to etch into your mind's eye, and stay with you forever. Personally, I have a slow-motion sequence of the German Trakehner stallion Kostolany piaffing in the most rhythmical and powerful way I had ever seen. I can see it as soon as I close my eyes. It stays with me as a high goal to strive for. So a picture, or in this case, a short video sequence, can really affect your riding and your goals. And it goes both ways - A bad image can effect you badly as well.

That's why I worry about all those zillions of photos, logos and paintings portraying incorrect piaffes, passages, extensions, etc, that you see every day. If you take 10 logos for dressage related companies (those that have a horse in the logo) you will have 9 that depict incorrectly executed dressage movements. Most drawn horses will have their polls low and their noses behind the vertical, over-extended frontleg, un-synchronized front and hind ends and sticking out rumps. One might think that in a drawing, one would be able to produce a "perfect" movement. But, no.

It is not limited to small companies that cannot afford a more expensive research into the correctness of what is to be depicted, either. It’s the biggest and the best German dressage warmblood breeders, all kinds of big name trainers and Bereiters, writers of books etc, seem to be unknowing of the fact that the logos portray a stylised version of what is incorrect. Or maybe it is so, that they know exactly what they are doing, and depict something that spectators are used to seeing in the competition arena. I’m sure many onlookers would find the logos portraying a stiff “above the bit” horse if they were to portray it correctly, since over-bending has become the norm.

I want to start with the breyer horses, and not particularly because they are somehow the worst. They’re quite cute, so it’s not that. It’s just that there are many models, and some correspond very well to how we “want” to see dressage horses. There are some of the piaffe and there’s one of Flim-Flam at the canter and quite a few andalusians just standing normally, and they are all overbent and BTV. There’s a cute trot figure of an appaloosa, where the hindlegs lag in the trot. Quite a few of the horses have stocky necks that are ewe, and have unsynchronised limbs and sticking out rumps.

When I was a child, I would draw horses all the time. I didn’t know anything about horses’ movements or bodily build-up in any way. So many of my creations from that time show overbent horses with their legs left and right and sticking out rumps and sway backs and swan necks. Because that’s what I found the most expressive.

I have heard similar stories from adult riders who claim to know a bit about dressage, too. That a piaffe where the rump sticks out looks a lot more powerful and moves more so it is more dynamic. Most all dressage riders love the flicking toes in the extended trot. Some post on forums asking how to get their horses to flick. Some defend it as “the horse’s personal way of expressing himself” and there is some truth to that. Some horses begin to flick as soon as they lose a little balance in the extensions, and some will never do it. But it is still a balance flaw, and not a beautiful way of expressing the gaits!

So you can really say that any picture or sculpture that shows a horse doing a movement, will look better to most people if the details are excessive. If the horse arches the neck in piaffe, we need to really arch it to make it look even better.

I think that’s OK when it comes to Breyer horses. Barely OK. But when the same thing happens when they erect a huge sculpture of the late Donnerhall, that is just too much! Some will argue that it’s his crest that sticks up, but on this statue you can tell that the greates bend in the neck is between the 2nd and the 3rd vertebrae. His withers are not raised and his croup is not tucked. And even if they wanted to be true to nature and depict him as he really looked in the arena, they could at least have looked for pictures where he was a little more correct, even if the correctness was the result of a mishap! There must be some correct pictures of this world famous stallion!

And now we gently enter into the chapter on photographs . If you look through the exquisite photo displays of the databases of our great horse photographers, like Arnd Bronkhorst, Phelps, Hippofoto, etc you will see that there are millions of photos to choose from. Even if you want a photo of a particular combo at a specific competition, there are still many. Like Anky van Grunsven’s ride on Salinero in the World Cup final in Düsseldorf 2004. Dirk Caremans has 35 photos of her, 42 of Sven Rothenberger, and 28 of Edward Gal. Either one of them winning, it should be easy to pick a photo where they look good. 1 out of 28-42 photos must be good. But sometimes, there isn't even one showing a correct horse and rider, and some of the times (I would say, mostly) they pick the most extreme one, like choosing a still from an action movie for the cover. Grrr.

Kyra has a popular series of videotapes out, where she describes everything from communication to collection and training the mind. A lot of it is good, and it wouold be even better, if one didn't look at the footage.

The following are her voice-over comments on collection in general and the succession of footage that are in the background as she says it, to illustrate: (my translation)

Working trot, starting out behind the vertical
Working trot, starting out behind the vertical

"By nature, the horse supports 70% of its bodyweight on the forehand, and with the rider sitting behind the withers the horse is even more weighed down in front."

Collected trot, still behind the vertical
Collected trot, still behind the vertical

"So we want to displace the weight backwards and to be able to do that, the horse must support more weight behind."

Passage, still behind the vertical
Passage, still behind the vertical

"For that to be possible, the horse must bend the joints of the hindlegs more, and that's why the croup lowers."

Piaffe, still behind the vertical
Piaffe, still behind the vertical

"As the forehand becomes lighter, the horse can erect the neck and with the poll as the highes point, move the nose in towards the vertical."

What she's saying is old news, but totally OK. What we're seeing meanwhile seems to have nothing to do with her voice-over whatsoever. The horse is as front heavy as ever, and the nose could be approaching the vertical from behind, if the gods were willing, but unfortunately they are grumpy today. I find it strange, to write and say such a thing, and then presumably watch ones own tape, and somehow be able to see what isn't there. It is so glaringly obvious.

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True Collection


False Collection


The 1/2-Halt & Positioning


Lateral Movements

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