I often hear riders at the basic levels say that their dressage horses are collected. I assume they’re actually talking about connection as opposed to collection.
But since I run across this confusion a lot, I want to take some time to explain how to evaluate whether or not a horse is collected.
Many people think that when a horse is collected, he just takes shorter, slower steps. But you can shorten a horse’s strides without actually collecting him.
Think about three things in terms of collecting any gait.
1. The steps are shortened, but the rhythm and tempo stay the same as they were when the steps were longer.
2. The center of gravity must shift back toward the hind legs. That is, there is a loading of the hind legs. In nature, a horse has approximately 60% of his weight on his front legs and 40% on his hind legs. As you collect the horse, you gradually shift that center of gravity back to the hind legs. As a result, the horse begins to take more weight on the hind legs so his forehead can be lighter and freer.
3. When a horse is collected he bends the joints of his hind legs. As a result, his croup lowers and his forehand elevates. Look at the top of his withers and compare it to the top of his croup. In this balance, he’ll have the silhouette or outline of an airplane taking off, or a seesaw where one end is pushed down and the other end goes up.
It’s very important you don’t get fooled into thinking that a horse with a high head and neck carriage is necessarily collected. That’s because if the horse is “hand-ridden”, the rider can lift his head and neck up. But if the rider does this, the withers will stay low. And if the withers are low and the croup is high, there is no collection.
So when you evaluate whether or not a dressage horse is truly collected think about those three things–a shortening of the frame, a loading of the hind legs, and the relative height of the top of the withers to the top of the croup.