Episode 132: When would I start introducing collection to my horse?

“My horse has good basics. We can walk, trot and canter. The groundwork is good…what next? When would I start introducing collection?”
This is a discussion of collection including: what is collection? Is collection different in the western world vs dressage? I discuss the building blocks of collection such as shoulder control, transitions, moving hips and more!


Stacy Westfall: Hi, I’m Stacy Westfall, and I’m here to teach you how to understand, enjoy, and successfully train your own horses. In this episode of answering a question that reminds me of a question I would get all the time at horse expos, different variations of it. Basically, people would come by my booth and they’d say something like, OK, so I have a horse. I can walk, I can draw, I can canter, my groundworks pretty good. Where do I go next? And my translation of this question is I have a horse. He’s got good basics. And now where do I go? Let’s listen to this question and then discuss my answer.

Caller: Hi, Stacy. First, I’d like to thank you for the content you provide in your podcasts and videos. You have helped me find my confidence and love for riding that I thought I had lost forever. In fact, I often have your voice in my head when I’m riding my little colt who I’ve just started this winter. I am hoping to train him to be a reiner. At this point he is walking, trotting, and loping. He’s steering around with two hands and he gives to bit pressure. I am starting to move his body parts around, primarily with your spiral-out exercise. My question is about collection, bending at the poll, and driving straight up into the bit. When would you start introducing this? I have been focused primarily on forward motion as I know that that is what’s most important. But I do realize that I will need to be able to take a hold of him with two hands and drive them up into the bit to change leads and work on slowing him down when I need to. I just want to make sure that I’m not missing a critical part of this foundation. Any support or help or advice or exercises that you could give me for this would be awesome. Thank you so much for all that you do. Happy Trails.

Stacy Westfall: First. Thank you so much for letting me know the impact that my content has had on you. It’s amazing to me how far the information can spread and the impact that it can have. And congratulations on starting your own colt. It sounds like that’s going really well. One of the questions you asked was, when would I start introducing collection? And on one level, I can see the beginning of collection on the first ride, and that basically shows up because it’s the building blocks that create collection that we start doing–technically, we even can start doing that before we ride. We can do that in groundwork, too, because, as you mentioned, forward motion is very important. So forward motion is one of those key components in collection. So if I view it as a series of building blocks, then you can see how I can arrive at the conclusion that, in a way, collection begins on that very first ride. Now, you were very specific in your question and you asked about bending at the poll and moving straight into the bit, which was a fun thing to think about, because I actually talk about this quite often when I’m teaching people with their horses, whether it’s through video or whether it’s here in person at my place. What I think is important to do is pause and think about, what is collection? Now, if I’m teaching somebody for the first time with their own horse and then periodically throughout the teaching of it, I will every once in a while stop and remind them that there’s a long version of this and then there’s a shorthand version. So I’m very aware that as an instructor I use the shorthand version because it’s shorter. And, and I think that’s what you’re doing. When you say bending at the poll, sometimes somebody will say breaking at the poll or getting soft in their face. There’s different ways to say it, but the shorthand version is a short version of a longer, bigger subject. So a lot of times when I say to somebody, OK, we’re going to bring them back to vertical and we’re going to push them up. And when I’m describing it to them, I’m a lot of times walking them through it. And it’s going to involve some version of bringing them back or collecting. Basically, if we look at it like if we start adding leg pressure, what’s going to stop the horse from just running faster? There’s got to be something to collect him to. So there’s some kind of contact on the front end of the horse on the face, and then there’s some kind of use of the legs. So when I am teaching somebody, I’ll say, OK, the long version is this. We’ve got to be able to collect him and compress him, so we need to have something like the reins bringing him back towards vertical while the legs are pushing him forward, because we ultimately want it to feel like those withers are higher, like that that hind end is, is being used, that they’re driving from the hind end, that they’re engaging. And that means that they have to be going up to something. And so this is how we get that idea that it has something to do with breaking at the poll.

Stacy Westfall: Now, it’s important to break it down and really look at what we mean, because it’s very possible for the head and neck to be in a frame–I’ll just call it a frame–where the head and neck is in a position. So let’s say that the face is vertical when viewed from the side and it’s got this vertical profile. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that if the horse’s head is at this vertical, that that they’re collected because collection is about the whole body. We just happened to have this really clear visual of their head at vertical being a piece of that. But it’s very possible for the horse’s head to be at vertical whether, whether we say that the horse’s head is level and at vertical. Let’s just go with that for the image in our mind. So the horse’s head, the poll, is about level with the withers and they’re at vertical. Is that horse collected or not collected? I don’t know, because I don’t have enough information. Because I would also want to know, is the horse carrying more weight on the front end and the hind legs are kind of trailing up behind? So it kind of feels even though you’re on a flat ground, it kind of feels like they’re running to catch up with their front and that’s kind of falling forward. Or is the horse really collected? Meaning that it’s got the hind end is, is kind of gathered up and you can feel that push coming from behind and the withers feel like they are raised even if the head is at a level position. So you’ve got this feeling that this energy is coming up over that horse’s back. And so I’m going to talk in this–You mentioned raining in your voicemail. I’m going to touch on both reining and dressage here, because I think it’s interesting when you jump around between different disciplines to try to figure out what they’re saying, not only in the different terms, but kind of what stays the same, even when the terms change. So I love that dressage has really technical definitions for things. So let’s look at the definition of, of collection or the collected walk, trot, or canter. So this is actually out of the USDA glossary of judges’ terms. So I’m going to read this. It says, “Collections/collected (walk, trot or canter.) At the trot and canter, a pace with shorter steps and more uphill balance than in the working paces with no sacrifice of impulsion. The horses frame is shorter, with the neck stretched and arched upward. The tempo remains nearly the same as in the medium or extended pace. At walk, a pace with shorter steps and more uphill balance than the medium walk with no sacrifice of activity. The neck oscillates less than in the medium and extended paces and the frame is shorter with the neck stretched and arched upward. The tempo remains nearly the same as in the medium or extended pace. Note, it is a common misconception that the hind legs step further forward under the body in collection. This is not consistent with the shorter strides required in collection. In the collected paces, the hind feet are picked up relatively sooner after passing behind the hip and spend relatively more time on the ground in the stance phase.”

Stacy Westfall: I love the detail that dressage has. Again, if you want to find this, I’ll put links in the show notes, but it was from the USDF glossary of judges’ terms. Now, interesting, did you notice that it didn’t mention the poll or being vertical at all? Could you hear how the emphasis was on the body and the weight-carrying and the steps? So I think it’s important at this moment to realize that often there is a broader way that the word collection is used. Especially I’ll take, I’ll take it on the western side and say, I think on the western side of things, oftentimes the word collection has a lot of different variations or strands that go on in it. It’s not nearly as defined as it is in that dressage frame. Now, I’ll say the one thing that I believe really stays the same either way is that that uphill balance is actually desired. Even if I look at–so if I look at reining, it’s desired. If I look at ranch riding it’s desired, if I look at Western pleasure, it’s desired. So I look at the hunter things that are done in the in the, like the quarter horse world. The uphill balance is desired. So that’s kind of across the board that there is this version of that is a piece of collection across the board. Now, whether or not the head and neck is up or down, that you can clearly see as a difference. So this is where we get started. We’re like we’re trying to figure out what we exactly believe. So I think it’s a great idea to look at the different disciplines and kind of push around on it and decide what you believe. So oftentimes I think the term collection is used for a broad set of ideas. So if somebody says collect him together, I think that even sounds different than collected. It might sound like I’m splitting hairs here, but the more you understand what you’re looking for, the more clear you’re going to be when you’re working with your horse. So I’ve shown, Willow, in classical dressage and Western dressage, and now I’m showing her in reining and ranch riding. And when I ride Willow in the reining, I would say that she still feels put together or responsive and somebody would say she looks collected. But here’s the way that I’m going to split it out. I’m going to say she feels collected in her small, slow, canter circles. But when we extend and go into the large fast she feels put together, she feels responsive. And in the Western world, somebody would say she feels collected. But I can kind of understand the dressage version of collected meaning a shortened or gathered up gait. And so it’s interesting to me, one of the most interesting moves that I do would be the run down to the sliding stop, because on the run down to the sliding stop, I 100% want that uphill balance that they’re talking about that happens in collection. I happen to be adding speed. So now I’m not necessarily following what they’re, what they’re describing in the collected thing, but I want that uphill balance as I build and gain speed to go down through and transition into the sliding stop. So in a way, there is a–she is framed up. There is a collected, there is a put-together feeling, and there even pieces of that dressage definition that you could see could be in there. But even in my own world, she doesn’t feel collected like she does in her small slow. My–when I’m collecting her in a small slow, it doesn’t feel the same as when I’m running down to a sliding stop. That’s why I’m proposing that maybe the word collected isn’t what we’re all after all the time. Maybe there is more to it. Maybe it’s responsive and maybe it is willing. Maybe it is soft. There are all these other strands that go through here and it might seem like it’s a language difference, but I really do think it’s deeper than that, because when I’m describing to you how it feels to run down, to do a sliding stop, if I say it feels really collected, then I don’t feel like I’m being specific enough to you to say that her small slow feels collected and her run down to her stop feels collected. That doesn’t– they don’t feel exactly the same. So I need to go deeper in the language to be able to express it, which means that probably more words are needed in here.

Stacy Westfall: So when I begin collecting a horse, which is more of where your question was, it doesn’t look like the highest form of collection in either the dressage or the reining. So what matters to me as I am working with a horse in the stage that you’re talking about and I’m moving up through the whole way that I’m moving up through, what matters to me is that the hind end and the front end match in their level of understanding. So if the horse is breaking at the poll and starting to do what you might picture in the front end of the horse, so they’re softening, they’re breaking at the poll, they don’t look tense in their neck. They might be–that might be a lowering or a rounding or a softness that’s in there, a flexibility, a willingness. That’s great if I’m getting that in the face, in the head, in the neck, in that responsiveness. But what’s going on with the rest of the body? The more they’re doing that in the front and the more I want the ability to collect them from behind. I want a matching frame. So if I really wanted to, if I really wanted to bring that horse’s front end–so just imagine that we’re just looking at the horse from, like, just the head and neck–if I really want that in a real, pretty frame of, of what we’re picturing as collected here, I want to know, what are the haunches doing? Are they just kind of hanging out there? The biggest way to feel this when you’re riding, is does it feel like the horse is, if the head and neck is wherever you’re happy with, what’s going on with the weight distribution in the front end and the back end of the horse? Because it feels like the horse is really heavy on the front end, if it feels like they could trip, if it feels like they are–if their feels like their hind and just feels really light and like it’s just kind of out back there, but it feels a little bit like you’re having trouble slowing the horse down because it’s like, oh, the head is low, but it kind of feels like we’re falling forward, almost like we’re walking down a little bit of a hill and they were gaining speed. Those are signs that the body is out of balance. So it’s just very, it’s very clear to me that it’s easy and quick to tell a horse to drop its head or to “frame up” or come back to vertical. It takes a lot longer to show the horse how to carry the head and neck in that frame and have it reflected in the body and the withers, the hind end and the withers. So in reining, when I run my large fast circles, I let Willow stretch her neck out forward and, and she’ll stretch it out forward and a little bit more downward. Now, that would not be what she would do if I was, you know, doing an extended canter in the dressage ring, I would actually be bringing her up. So what happens in the dressage world is, as I’m kind of bringing that up, I’m asking for her to make this more circular, this more like jump motion. Like she’s almost like she’s pushing off, but there’s an up to it. And in the reining world, we’re all OK that she’s running with their head lower and that there’s this flatter, flatter look to her without–with less jump. But here’s the deal. When I go to slow her down, does she use her hocks and slow down from her hind end, or does she feel like she puts weight on her front end and, and falls over forward onto her front end? Because ideally, when she is running more stretched out, when I shift my weight or I move, ideally she puts her–she brings when she comes back–just because her head is down, it doesn’t automatically keep her withers down. That’s what happens. The biggest problem when people start focusing on the head and neck and they don’t keep the whole body in mind when they start thinking about collection, especially in the Western world–in the Western world, people start thinking about softening and lowering the head. And when they do, a lot of times what they accidentally do is they end up putting a lot of the horse’s weight on the front end. So a lot of times it’s easier to think about raising the head and neck just a little bit to put the, the weight on the hind end. Now, obviously, you can do both incorrectly. You can put the head real low and put the weight down. You can also pull the head up and have the withers down. It’s not a clear indication where the head is, what’s going on with the rest of the body. Wouldn’t it be nice if it was that easy? OK, done with that daydream. So the reality is that we have to pay attention to what’s happening. Ideally, if I could have you focus on one thing, it might be the withers, but that’s the hardest one to feel. So we end up talking to you a lot more about the hind and, and the head and neck and how it all relates, because we do both of those ends as we’re trying to–I like to picture it like this is a marionette puppet, especially when I move towards lead changes. I want to feel like that horse, there’s strings that go up into the air and that horse just feels like it’s, it’s floating up there in the air and it can move its legs real freely, and that’s why those lead changes can happen. And that marionette puppet, when it’s picked up like that, ideally those withers are the highest point and it just feels–even if it’s not physically the highest point, it’s–the withers are the strongest high point. It doesn’t feel–even though their head and neck might be placed wherever–those withers are, the piece that it feels like the string is pulling up through. So it’s like this crest of this wave kind of feeling. And so that’s where I want to be really curious and interested as I’m moving the horse around. And again, that’s why for me, the sliding stop is a great example of this uphill balance while gaining speed where it feels like when you do it really well, that marionette puppet.; The reason the sliding stop can happen so easy is when it feels like there’s this invisible string picking them up from their withers, it means that when I say, whoa, even though they’ve been gaining speed, they can easily drop their hind end into the ground and slide along it because their front end is up and free. They were already in this motorboat-gaining speed kind of a frame. And so when they went to go into the sliding stop, they just had to fold their hocks and their withers were already up to go into that extended trot because the sliding stop is ultimately an extended trot in the front end and a complete halt in the hind end. So just keep in mind, after that entire lecture, that true collection involves the haunches, the withers, as well as the head and neck.

Stacy Westfall: Now, I want to review the stage that I think you’re at with your horse. So basically I talk a lot about elementary school, high school, and college. I’m going to leave college out of this right now. College is actually some of the stuff I was just talking about with the lead changes and the sliding stops. It’s like upper high school to college kind of stuff. But I want to come down and focus here in elementary school and high school, which is where I think you’re describing that you are with your horse. So as a review, in elementary school, I’m working on forward motion. I’m working on getting the horse to bend and follow the nose, making sure the gas pedal works. They understand my legs. And I actually want to teach them that when there’s less gas pedal, that that means that they’re allowed to slow down and that the bend and the turns will actually help slow them to the stop. And then as I get to higher level elementary school, that’s as you described, I’m starting to do like the spiral out. So for me, that spiral out is that introduction. I’ve been focused in the beginning on the inside rein, only and steering and following the nose. And those are the ways that I can stop that horse from bucking and rearing and things like that. And then as that horse continues to advance in elementary school, I then start introducing the outside rein, and I start teaching them how I can lead the shoulder out, how I can allow the shoulder in and–to go back in. And then when I’m moving up into high school, one of the things that to me is this clear defining moment between the elementary school and high school stages is the ability to counter bend. Because when the horse learns how to go from bend, which is, say, turning to the left and you can see the left eye, and then you could lead the horse out into counter bend, which would be you maintain that left bend as you then take that right rein and lead them out into counter bend. And so now you’re going to the right. But you can see the left eye as the horse starts to understand this. When they really get it, the horse understands it’s about the shoulders. So at first the horse thinks the head and the shoulders are the same thing. Like you take my head to the left, I go to the left with my shoulders. You take my head to the right, I go to the right with my shoulders. But as we start to advance, we actually want to teach the horse that we can isolate the shoulders from the head and neck. And so that’s what the counter bend does a really good job. It teaches the horse that we can control the shoulders and interestingly, the counter bend that spiral out in that counter bend, when you take it all the way up to counter bend, is usually when you start first finding vertical. Because to get to the counter bend, you’re going to have to use your legs to keep the horse going forward. So you’re going to be working on the earliest versions of collection in the form that you were specifically asking about. Now, what’s really interesting to me is that the horse has to go through a process of learning to understand the purpose of the inside rein, and the outside rein. And so it takes a little bit of time to be like horse, these are what the inside rein does and this is what the outside rein can do. And here are all the different variations and the horses are going to ask a bunch of questions and you got to get those all answered until–you’ll know when it happens. I can see when it happens, when I’m watching riders, when I’m reviewing videos and stuff. I can see it because of the way the horse responds that the resistance changes. It’s–the resistance is completely different or it’s gone because a lot of times that resistance is actually a question. So the horse is like, I don’t understand why you’re pulling on both reins. What do you want me to do? And then when the horse is like, oh, you want me to move the shoulder, then what happens is suddenly they start moving the shoulder a lot easier and they don’t feel heavy on the reins because they understand, oh, it’s about the shoulder. I thought it was about my face. Sorry about that. Now I understand it’s about my shoulder. And then you’re like, oh, wait, it’s about the shoulder and their face. And then wait, we’re going to introduce hip movement. So after I get the bend and counter bend really good and I feel that break through where it doesn’t feel like I’m forcing the horse–and I don’t want to use that word force like this is what I’m promoting but what I’m saying is, as you’re leading that horse out, it’s just like when you’re teaching one to lead, there’s times that you’re like, do I feel like I’m dragging you a little bit? This feels like heavier pressure. You’re showing them the way because there is a certain amount of pressure that you’re putting. When they get it, you feel that softness, you feel that understanding, you feel that lack of resistance. You feel what we call willingness. And it’s just because they didn’t understand. I want all that to happen before I introduce the hip movement. So when I can isolate the shoulders, do the bend and the counter bend, I know that the horse really understands this is about the shoulder movement while staying forward and engaged. Then I start moving the hips around and then as I start getting–moving hips around, that’s when I do actually get another level of engagement. So it’s almost like I’m, I’m unlocking these stages as I go up through.

Stacy Westfall: Now, I start controlling the hip movement, and that’s a great way to show the horse how to shorten the strides. So let’s, let’s look at it like this. The horse understands how to bend and counter bend and now I’m using the reins to communicate to the horse’s front end, to the head, the neck, and the shoulders. And the horse totally understands that because we’ve spent time on it. Now I start introducing the hip movement that gives me the ability to do some of these lateral movements and those physically shorten up the steps. And so it is a great way when you start, when you get to that level, to start shortening up and getting those shorter, more collective steps when you have the control of the shoulders and the hips. It’s not–for me in my world, I’m not in a rush to get there. It’s not a super quick process because I really want to make sure they understand that shoulder control first. Now between those two, while I’m working on the shoulder control but the horse isn’t quite ready for all the hip movement because I don’t want wiggly Willow–Yes, Willow, when I introduced a lot of the hip movement and lateral movement, I ended up with Wiggly Willow, which meant that she was trying to move all body parts, all kinds of different directions, all the time. That’s a lot of questions. So you definitely–that’s a stage that happens but I want to make sure that the earlier stages are really solid so that I’m prepared for the day that I choose to meet Wiggly Willow and answer all those questions. Then they go through that stage, they get all their questions answered, then you have lead changes and things happening. So before I get to the point where I introduce the hip movement, because it can make them feel real wiggly, before I get there, the other tool I have for working on collection in the earlier stages are my transitions. So that would be transitions of gait and transitions inside the gait. So that would mean, for example, can you go from a walk to a trot? OK, that’s good. Now can you go from a halt to a trot? So that’s an upward transition that teaches the horse how to push forward. That one doesn’t sound like it collects them that much, but it balances out this one. So what’s going to happen is now you’re like, now you’re up in your trot, I want to say, can you bring that trot to a smaller trot before you let it go down to a walk? So now you’re going to start seeing different ranges inside of your walk and different ranges inside of your trot and in your canter. So you can have like your regular, or in dressage terms, your medium canter, then can you make it a collected canter before you let it become a trot? Same thing in the trot. Can you go from your regular– that would be like a, like a, a Western word–can you do your regular trot, your medium trot, your, your average trot, whatever words we want to use here. So your middle trot, here’s your middle trot. Can you bring it down to a very collected trot or jog before you go to the walk? And so those transitions inside the gait from, from collected trot. From, from medium trot to collected trot, those, those transitions up and down, collected, medium, extended, and back down extended, medium, collected. As you go up and down through those, then you’re going to be working on the horse’s balance, which again is in their body, which is that ability to get the hind end to carry weight and push, but also to keep that front end kind of more elevated than the hind end. And so that is what we’ve agreed that all the disciplines want is that that uphill balance happening. So you can actually start working on that a lot in your transitions. So if you start doing trot to halt and halt to trot, you’ll start to be able to really feel the, the horse figuring out how to be ready to push forward. And you’ll feel that they’re they’ll learn to keep their haunches a little bit more under them so that they can push off into that trot. And that if you come down through by collecting them back and then taking them down into that halt, then they’ll learn how to do that. They’ll learn how to do what Willow knows how to do in her large fast to small slow. She knows how to go from this, you know, skimming across the ground. But her first thought is to collect herself by coming onto her hind end, not what is most natural for many horses, which is to just jam extra weight onto their front end.

Stacy Westfall: Have any of you ever been cantering or loping or. Oh, please, hopefully not running and asked a horse to slow down or stop and they went bam, bam, bam with their front end because they, they’re like, hey, here we are stopped. And you were like, I think I broke my teeth? Yeah. I’ve ridden that a couple of times, so. Especially in my youth when I had those horses that would run real fast but didn’t really know how to stop. So if you’ve ever felt that that is a great example of the horse not carrying weight on the hind end, because the reason the stop was so jammy, is because they were stopping on their front end, which is a very unpleasant experience for the rider. So these are the exercises I use as the building blocks of collection. But now I have a question for you. How clear are you on the purpose of each rein? So which rein moves the shoulder out when you’re riding with two hands? Which rein should not move the shoulder out? Which rein moves the shoulder in? Spoiler alert, both of them can do that one. When is it appropriate, though, for the inside rein to move the shoulder in and when is it appropriate for the outside rein to move the shoulder in? And how do you decide when to use one versus the other? So if you want to take a little bit of a closer look at this, I actually have a free download on the beginning of my steering course. On that page is the very first module, and you just click on it and it’s totally free to download it. And there’s other samples there. But my course that I launched last year called The Complete Guide to Improving Steering and Teaching Neck Reining is all about the shoulder control I was just describing. That engagement, that level of being able to move the horses in or out. It really thoroughly explains the inside rein, how to ride with both reins, the outside rein, how to transition between them, and how understanding all of this teaches your horse to neck rein. And I’ve seen students that had horses that didn’t neck rein that taught their horses how to neck rein. And it was really cool because I was just watching one the other day and she was ponying a horse and I said, isn’t that really nice how you can like pony because you can neck rein? And she was like, yeah, I took this really amazing course last year, and I cracked up laughing. So if you’re looking for step-by-step instruction for understanding the training and learning the correct rider aides, and creating excellent steering, I highly suggest my course on steering and neck reining and you can find that over at my website, stacywestfall.com. And all of this is really fresh on my mind because I’m also editing my next course that is establishing collection and introducing lead changes. So that one sounds like it would be exactly what you’re looking for. But I’m telling you that the steering course sets you up for the establishing collection and introducing lead changes. Because I did not put all of the same steering stuff into this course because the steering was the beginning of this. That’s the foundation. It’s the building blocks that then lead to what picks up in the Establishing Collection and Introducing Lead Changes course that isn’t out yet. So that one’s not there if you go look for it, yet. And then one final thought. In June, I’m launching a group course where there will be live teaching and live video reviews. So that’s going to be a chance for those of you who join to actually be able to get a live video review where I tell you what stage I see, what I see you need to work on, what you should review, what would be coming next. Those are the things that I’ll be discussing in that group coaching. So with the group coaching and the workbooks that are in there and the video reviews, I better jump up here and get busy editing some videos. Thanks for listening and I’ll talk to you again in the next episode.

Announcer: If you enjoy listening to Stacy’s podcast, please visit stacywestfall.com for articles, videos, and tips to help you and your horse succeed.

Links mentioned in podcast:

The Complete Guide to Improving Steering & Teaching Neck Reining: Step-by-step instruction for understanding the training, learning correct rider aids, and creating excellence in steering


  1. Rosa on May 28, 2021 at 12:59 am

    Great podcast, thank you Stacy. Comes at the right time for me, I’m struggling with my filly to get her collected.
    I’m originally a dressage rider but have now taken on reining which is my passion. My filly is getting very soft and broken at the poll, but I’m struggling getting her to lift her shoulders and withers.
    Your podcast is food for thought, so are your other episodes.
    Thank you for helping me ride my horse better.

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