False Collection & Evasions
Relative vs. Absolute Elevation
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
Relative vs. Absolute Elevation
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.
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.
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
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 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
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.
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.
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?"
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
'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
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.
"...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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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 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.
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 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
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
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
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
More will be added here...
Training the Eye
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
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
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
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:
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
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
"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
"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