Episode 140: Uncollected-Is that resistance, stiffness and tripping mental or physical?
I recieved an email awhile back that asked a short question. Here is what was written.
“The biggest question I can’t seem to get a clear answer for is “how do I ask for the collection?”
It is such a short…and seemingly simple question. I explain the underlying issue of collection and why the answer isn’t as simple as applying a few aids correctly.
I explain what collection is NOT and how to identify horses that may be struggling with balance. Sometimes the ‘resistance’ that a rider feels is actally a sign that the horse is unbalanced…and needs a physical fitness routine.
⬇️FULL SHOW NOTES
Stacy Westfall: Hi, I’m Stacy Westfall, and I’m here to teach you how to understand, enjoy, and successfully train your own horses. Today, I’m going to be talking about the subject of collection. I received an email a while back that asked a short question, and here’s what was ridden: The biggest question I can’t seem to get a clear answer for is how do I ask for the collection? Such a short and seemingly simple question, how do I ask for collection? Now, back in Episode 132 and 133, I discussed collection, and today I’m going to look at it from a different angle. I’m going to talk a little bit more about what collection is not or how you can identify a horse that’s not collected. So the first thing I want to start with is what collection is not. So sometimes when people think about collection, I imagine horses and riders that I’ve seen in the past where when I looked at them, their version of collection was pulling and kicking at the same time. And when I go back to the earliest memory I have of somebody trying to explain collection to me, they were using the idea of an accordion, which was not an instrument I was that familiar with, although the concept was in my brain. But I’m not sure it really helped. But it was this idea that you were going to like squeeze things together. And I think that’s where the misconception that it’s kind of like pulling and kicking at the same time would give you collection.
Stacy Westfall: Now, another reason why it could cross a rider’s mind that that might be what’s needed is because there is some sort of framing discussion, conversation that you have with the horse that does involve a level of using something to draw the horse back and something to push the horse forward, which takes you back to that accordion kind of an idea, this–this bringing things together. Now, what’s interesting to me is when I think about it, I think about it more from the idea that it’s teaching the horse to engage their core. So if I ride a horse that feels really uncollected, sometimes that’s like a very early ride on a horse, because when you’re first riding them, they don’t naturally feel collected because it’s actually really interesting to watch how few times they actually need to use a high level of collection when they’re in our normal everyday pastures. I think maybe if they were out in these giant fields and they had some different terrain or different things they were doing, or for sure, if you’ve got stallions that are out there and they’re and they’re fighting and they’re playing and they’re doing all the other things that they’re doing, they’re going to be much more collected than your average pasture puff that’s standing around, at least my house. So when they’re out here, they’re not actually practicing a lot of collection. So they’re actually standing around grazing, eating hay. Maybe they run a little bit here and there, but they’re not really engaging their core very much, which is interesting because that’s a journey I’ve been on too. It’s fascinating to realize how much you can do in your own life without engaging your core properly. And this basically means that when you’re not engaging your core correctly, when you’re not sitting correctly or standing correctly or moving correctly, that you’re uncollected. Now, have you noticed at all that when you are moving your own body in an uncollected way, that you also feel less balanced? That is what I’m proposing is going on for the horses. So I want to just break it into like three levels for you real quick and then I’m definitely going to just focus on the first two. So kind of the three levels of collection I want to put into your mind is uncollected, which is kind of a very unbalanced thing, mid-level, which is just average, balanced, kind of everyday living for you, walking around on your own two feet, not feeling really unbalanced or trippier or unusually sore, and then a high level of balance. That’s something more advanced. If you’re a human, that’s an athlete. If you’re a horse, it’s very often an athlete. Also, maybe it’s just a really young, athletic, naturally athletic horse. But I want to focus mostly on the uncollected and the mid-level just kind of balanced everyday living levels that I’ve kind of divided out here. And the reason I want to do this is because I want to be able to illustrate this for you in a way that you can picture in your own body and possibly in horses you’ve ridden or seen ridden.
Stacy Westfall: So when I look at these three examples, the body of the horse that is uncollected or unbalanced, if I watch this horse go around and they’re being ridden in a riding arena, a lot of times that horse will trip more often. And those horses, if you got a horse that trips a lot, you should be talking to your vet and your farrier. And if both of them give that horse a clean bill of health and they say they see nothing wrong, a lot of times it comes back to an uncollected horse because when you’re uncollected, think about walking around with your shoulders slumped and carrying weight on more on one side than the other and not really paying that much attention to where your body is going. And then have somebody put a moving child on your back where you walk around like that and you’re carrying like a piggyback ride. So what’s interesting is this uncollected horse that’s tripping but gets a clean vet check is often a lot better out on trail rides. So the person will be like well it’s interesting, but they feel pretty good on trail rides. I’ll tell you why later. And then another sign of an uncollected or unbalanced horse is that their gaits are hard to sit. So you trot or you canter and you’re like, that is really hard to ride. And you’ll even notice it more in the turns, so if you ask the horse to turn versus going straight. Now, this mid-level balanced horse that’s kind of just got this, we’re just going to call it like an average level of balance, nothing fancy. That horse tends to go out there, you ask him to go through the gaits, it’s kind of easy for them to do. They walk, they trot, they canter, nothing fancy. They, you know, their gaits are pretty easy to sit. You’ll notice that these horses are easier to ride the transitions between the gaits. So, say, going from a walk to a trot, trot to a lope, lope back down to the trot, trot back down to the walk. Those transitions don’t feel nearly as dramatic as they do on the uncollected horse. And then the last time we’re going to look at the high level one, we’re just going to touch it here and say the high level or advanced horse, they’re very balanced, athletic horse, wide range of motion, very adjustable. They just feel like–they feel like riding a sports car. That’s what they feel like. It’s like driving a sports car, but it’s a horse and they just feel like an extension of your body. And it’s very fun.
Stacy Westfall: Now, I just told you a lot of things that were to do with the horse’s body, but I want to ask the question, is collection in the horse’s body or is it in the horse’s mind? I’m going to say it’s both because I totally think they’re related. So if we go back and we look at that uncollected or unbalanced horse again, maybe it’s a young horse, maybe it’s the first 30 days of riding. Maybe it’s an older horse. Doesn’t matter. But what we know is it’s uncollected and unbalanced for some reason, but it’s passed the vet checks and the farrier says everything’s good but we notice it’s resistant in the turns. It’s resistant to bending when you’re in motion. But the confused rider will sometimes stop and ask them to bend standing still and they’ll be like, Huh? Bends when is standing still but doesn’t bend when we’re in motion. What gives? And there’s that resistance in the transitions and that horse appears to pull or lean on the bit. Now, what’s interesting about all of that is, again, that sounds like it’s all in their body, but a lot of times during those things–so let’s take resistant in the turn or resistant in bending while turning. Sometimes when you see it, you’ll see that horse looks anxious-resistant in that and other horses, it’s going to be like a dull-resistant. So anxious-resistant might mean that you’re turning the horse. And when you’re asking that horse to turn, it’s kind of taking these jiggy steps. They’re uneven. Sometimes it’s–it’s going faster. It’s going slower. It’s trying to throw in a rollback or some kind of turn like that. In other horses that resistance comes along with a dullness like it doesn’t want to move forward. You’re asking it to bend and turn. It’s really slowing down. It doesn’t want to go. So when you look at the resistance, when I say resistant in turn or bending, it’s interesting because on top of that, you also have that horse’s mental state during that resistance. And I think that’s why for me, it’s very easy to tie the two things together. Because think about it, if you’re unbalanced because you’re not comfortable in your own body and your muscles aren’t built up in a way and somebody asks you to do something–I’m imagining right now, like some of those movies I’ve seen where somebody is in some kind of a boot camp kind of a situation and they’re trying to run through like when they put the tires out and the person started to jump tire to tire, and you know, foot in between in the holes and things like that. And you’re looking at that and if that’s not something you’ve done before and you know you’re not comfortable in your own body, it’s going to be like, geez, basically in your mind, you’re thinking, I don’t think I have the coordination and balance to do that. And so it shows up. It’s–it’s in your body and it’s in your mind. And so this is where it gets so cool when you learn how to train horses because you can actually help them increase their balance, increase their confidence, and become more athletic because you show them how to do these things with their body. And my favorite part is that they go out and they use it when they’re playing. So let’s–let’s jump over to this. Let’s talk about that mid-level horse, that balanced horse. It’s a lot of times those horses that feel more balanced in their bodies, they feel more balanced under the rider. And so a lot of times what happens is that horse will feel like–like you go to make the turn and it’s easier to tell with that horse. It’s easier to tell whether the–whether when they’re making that turn, if you have a little bit of resistance there, a lot of times it’s easier in that horse to tell whether it’s coming from a mental or a physical thing. With the uncollected, unbalanced horse it’s actually hard to tell whether the resistance is mental or physical because they’re both so strongly there. In this mid-level horse that you kind of get on and you ride around, it feels pretty comfortable in its body. So what that means is when you go to trot off and you’re trotting around, it feels like when you make the turns, it’s very possible. And sure, maybe if it’s your first time riding this horse, you’d–turns a little bit too wide or a little bit too tight. But it doesn’t feel off balance. It doesn’t seem like the horse loses the rhythm. And just that fact alone tends to make the horses more confident. If you ride a horse that can ride around and make turns and carry rhythm, that horse will be more relaxed and will have a different way of going mentally as well as physically, because that loss of balance, which shows up as a loss of rhythm, is not just physical, it is mental also. So this naturally this–this mid-level horse that’s kind of going around here and its balance, for whatever reason–will discuss those in a minute–if you start feeling a moment of resistance, it’s a lot of times easier to see if it’s like, oh, well, that moment of resistance came from the fact that the barn mate just walked by the end gate and that horse is thinking about asking the question about leaving. That’s more purely a mental question. Hey, I want to go with my friend. They’re over there near the gate. I’m asking you this question. How are you going to do this? And that question may or may not feel like a loss of balance. A lot of times it doesn’t feel like a loss of balance. A lot of times it just feels like they go like, hey, I want to go over there and–and it doesn’t feel unbalanced when you take hold of them to turn them back. The level that they resist again can–can be pointing back and forth between like a loss of balance depending on how quick you were over your hand. Did you unbalance the horse with your own body and and motion and cueing, or was it because the horse is resisting your aide? I hope that in this illustration process, you’re starting to see how that question on the surface when it was asked and it sounds kind of, you know, just simple is like, I want to know the answer to how do I ask for collection. So collection is this horse’s ability to engage themselves, be balanced, and then on top of it, we’ve got that horse’s mind and that as well as the horse’s body. And I think, again, when I look at that question, maybe it’s just me, how do I ask for collection? That to me, when I hear it sound more like it’s about the body, but the body and the mind are tied together, and I hope I’ve helped break that apart for you so you can see a little bit of the complication there.
Stacy Westfall: Now, this year, my goal with Presto has been to trail ride as much as possible. It’s been an interesting year because we’ve had a lot of rain, and if anybody has any recommendations on riding in the rain, like, I kind of want to get one of the dusters and do that, but it’s also, you know, 85 degrees so I’m not sure if if one of those like dusters is going to be the best choice. Riding in the rain, advice, please send me messages. Anyway, I’ve been trail riding Presto a lot. And here’s an interesting fact. I did the same thing with Willow in 2017. We moved here and I started riding Willow. And my goal with Willow in 2017 was ride her as much as possible out on the trails. Same rider, same trails, two different horses. What’s interesting is I’ve noticed a couple different things because of the two different horses. So one thing that was consistent, has been consistent, is both horses improved physically. Presto has improved physically. Willow improved physically. Both horses improved in their training. Because when I’m out on the trail, I’m not just a passenger. I’m asking them different things. And so their training improved. Now, some other interesting things I’ve observed is that Willow is naturally light, highly responsive, a little bit reactive, and going out and riding a lot of the trails she got, I’m going to describe it as she got like nicely balanced in the bridle. Like, she kind of understood and she felt balanced. Now, Presto tends to lean towards the more dull side. He can get reactive and then that’ll make him feel hot. But he’s generally a little bit more laid back, a little bit on the heavy side. Now, here’s what I find fascinating. He feels great when I ride him out of the trails. I love how he feels out there. But I’ve noticed recently with all the rain when I’ve come back into the indoor that he feels heavier than I initially expected when I come back into the arena. And when I got digging into this and thinking about it from Presto’s point of view and what I’m doing the same and what I’m doing different and how the horses are different and the and things that are the same and different with each horse, I realize that Presto knows, like basic steering. He doesn’t know any of the more advanced body movements. He doesn’t really know like leg yield. I kind of have messed with it a little bit out of the trail. He doesn’t know hip-moving like I couldn’t stand there and just have him do a turn on the forehand. So he is lacking in some of those more advanced body movements with the hind end. And what’s interesting is that I had trained those things to Willow before I went out and started doing this trail work. So those dance steps, basically, I’m going to look at those as like dance steps right now, like, hey, can I move this a little bit here and that a little bit there and adjust your shoulder a little bit here and ask you a little bit there. Presto is functioning at a lower level because I didn’t take the time to teach him the higher level and these dance steps that were there for Willow also combined with the fact that Willow’s more naturally collected. So she’s more naturally collected and I think that helped her tie it together, meaning what I was doing on the trail and what she had learned in the arena, and it kind of tied together. And what I’m realizing with Presto is he moves nicely out on the trail, but the trail is doing a lot of the work for me. So my trails are hilly and rocky and self-preservation is a thing when you’re riding on my trails. And what’s interesting about having to pick your feet up to not trip over a route or a rock or all these different things, is that that type of a motion is beneficial in creating more correct movement. They engage their core. Like, have you ever noticed that if you walk around on a really flat surface all the time, like maybe a school hallway, a gymnasium, an office, that you can get sloppy faster than if you’re hiking on a trail where you’re going to trip on a tree route or a divot or uneven ground? So that naturally makes you engage yourself differently when you go out there. So although Presto feels collected in a way on the trails, I realize half of it’s coming from me and half of it’s coming from the ground and what I’m going to call his self-preservation. So when I come back into the arena, I’m losing half of that because I still have me and the half that I have with him, but I don’t have the ground that’s triggering it.
Stacy Westfall: So another way you could do this, if you were just in the arena, if you’ve ever trotted over lots of poles with a horse, you’ll notice that they carry themselves differently when they trot over those polls because the same thing is happening where the ground or the poles, in this case, are creating that situation, where the self-preservation of, I don’t want to trip over these makes the horse engage their core. I’m going to also make a side note right here, that trail riding alone doesn’t promote correct movement. If you’ve ever seen a human or been a human and you’ve gone out hiking and you had really poor form, so let’s just say that you really hunched yourself over and you were bending at the waist and you were just like slouching while you were out there hiking. That actually is not proper form. And so although you might pick your body, your feet up more so you don’t trip, then what will also happen is you’ll get sore in some unusual spots because you’re not moving in a very correct frame. So it is interesting to study yourself and some of those situations and realize that the way you use your body is influenced by the ground. So, yes, you’re going to pick your feet up more, but it doesn’t 100% take care of the rest of your body. So that’s where you have to learn the proper movement. Well, the same thing could happen with horses. I go out all the time and watch horses and riders because I live behind a state park and–and horses and riders that are out there riding and the horses are moving up and down the hills. But they’re moving in ways that they’re rushing and they’re hollowed out. And what’s fascinating is it took me a while, but I finally realized, like, oh, that is really fascinating. I watch these horses and some of them are building these really punchy, uneven muscles. And it’s because of the way that they’re using their body in a poor form. So, yes, you can still–even though the trails and that’s assuming that your trail’s not super flat and smooth, the trails will help encourage some different movement. But what I am doing when I’m out there that I’m–that’s showing up with Presto is I am helping guide his body movement to some degree so that he’s staying engaged correctly as he’s moving up and down. I don’t let him rush up the hills. I make him take those bigger steps that he kind of wants to avoid by hopping up a hill. And so I make him engage himself more correctly. But at the end of the day, I think it’s just so interesting that–that basically the horses are avoiding engaging those core muscles and doing that harder work. And I realize that that sounds so familiar because I do the same thing. I have had a massage therapist tell me before that I was overusing supporting muscles instead of using my main muscles in a more correct way. And I think that’s just interesting that we can get so out of balance in our own bodies that we can be moving in a way that’s causing us pain. And yet it’s not necessarily just intuitive for us to fix it. And so I think this is where awareness is one thing, but learning how to change the habit is another.
Stacy Westfall: So let’s look at an example where someone buys a horse that comes with some training and some of that training was teaching that horse how to move in a collected frame. When the person first buys this horse, the horse will do this from muscle memory and from the training habit, and what I see happen a lot of times is that the rider will enjoy the ride. They’ll go out there and they’ll be riding the horse and they don’t know how to maintain that moderately collected frame. We’re not talking advanced movements. We’re talking moderate. And what’s interesting is that the habit of being collected is a lot like the habit of sitting in your chair correctly. Yes, I’m talking to you in your car, too. So that habit, as that habit fades, new habits emerge. And for horses, a lot of times that’s their hocks kind of trailing out behind them, a loss of rhythm, especially in the turns, and this overall less put-together feel because their body parts are moving out of sync because they’re just kind of not putting in that little extra effort to engage the core. Side note, have you ever noticed human athletes look more put together in their general movements when they’re outside of their sports? That’s because of that muscle memory going on so that coordinated muscle memory from basketball practice is carrying over into walking around life. So what’s interesting is that about the time that this Ryder begins to notice this lack of bend or some resistance, maybe the horse even starts tripping. What’s interesting to me is that when the rider goes to ask the horse to be more correct again, to get back into the shape, when they ask the horse to move in this better frame, the horse resists. And I totally get it, because even though correct posture is better for me, I totally resist it to. Sometimes I think, why do I resist this more correct movement, why do I resist exercise, which is going to make me long term feel better? And it’s not a hard question to answer for me, because the sloppier way feels like the easier way and it feels like the easy way out right now in this moment, even though it’s a bad, long-term plan. And so what happens a lot of times is that the rider will feel guilty like they’re asking the horse to do something unfair. And so then the horse is being resistant and the rider is feeling this guilt. And so we end up in this little circle where it’s not pleasant because being the one that holds the horse accountable to use their core correctly is sometimes met with resistance like what I’m meeting with my own self when I’m trying to talk my own self into doing this work. So it’s just interesting to me that that resistance to using your core muscles correctly is there in many humans and many horses. I think that it’s, you know, accurate to say that it takes a lot more core engagement to be able to trot or lope for five minutes straight than it does to hang out in the pasture and do what they do when you see them out there. The more I think about this, the first part of this is actually in the rider’s mind seeing the need for at least a moderate level of collection, just the point where the horse is functionally balanced, the majority, let’s say, 80 percent of the time or more. That is the first thing is seeing that need. And then the second part is accepting the role of then being your horse’s coach or athletic trainer.
Stacy Westfall: So that rider’s mind piece we can’t escape from it because sometimes people will put the subject of collection into a spot that feels out of reach. I’m picturing it way up on a high shelf, out of reach. And what happens is that in their mind, they think, I don’t need to work on collection, something like this. Like I’m not showing. I’m not doing all those fancy things. Collection’s not something I need to work on. And I want to tell you that if your horse has signs like a lack of rhythm, resistance during turning, tripping, the vet can’t figure out a reason why, you probably have a collection issue. Here’s a test. This won’t diagnose high levels of collection. But this is an interesting thing that you can go out and do and figure out how close to that passable daily, just functional balance level your horse is or isn’t. Maybe we could look at it like a minimum baseline goal. Maybe that could be what it could be. So what I want you to do is observe your horse’s balance while you lunge him in a circle. So put your horse on a on a lunge line that’s 20 something feet long. I think mine’s 24 or 25 feet long. Put him on the lunge line. Have him trot a circle around you, not just one. Can they trot six times around you carrying rhythm? Are they pulling you out? Are they falling in? Are they trying to stop? Can you get rhythmic trotting? How’s that look? If that goes well, can they lope five times around you carrying the rhythm? You can hear even in this little test that you’re going to have a little bit of a training issue, but also you’re going to be able to see that balance component. And that’s what you’re looking to try to see. Now, as a side note, the balance that the horse develops in the trot is not exactly the same as the lope or the canter because they’re mechanically different gaits. So that’s a different thing that you can look at. Was the trot easier than the canter? Was the canter easier than the trot? Did one of them feel impossible? Like these are some of the things. Which one did they change rhythm more frequently in? The trot, the canter? Did you see the same issues or different issues on that circle? Now that you’ve done that and you’ve got the circle size established, maybe there’s marks in the dirt or at least like the area that you were working in. You can kind of see the tracks vaguely on the same day or on a different day. Go out there and mount up and ride and repeat the same thing. So is it hard for both of you to trot the same size circle multiple times, same size as what you were lunging? Can you trot that six, seven, eight times with rhythm? Does that feel easy or does that feel really hard? Now, keep in mind that when you ride, you want to have them bending on that matching circle. That probably was happening when you were lunging because of the nature of you standing in the middle and then being out at the end of the line. But we want them bending their their spine if we were looking from above on that same circle. So is that horse bending on that circle while you’re riding it? And can it carry rhythm six, seven, eight times in a row trotting around there? And then if you guys are up for it, how is the canter or the lope? Can they carry that? What’s the same or different? If it didn’t go well on the ground work you can probably skip it for the riding unless you happen to know that you’re just really weak in–the horse is really weak in the ground work and that you guys canter things like this all the time. But test it and see what’s the same or what’s different. If this feels easy, if you can have that horse trot around and lope around on the lunge line and it looks pretty balanced, carries good rhythm, you repeat the same thing riding it, you probably have a passable level of collection. If it feels like it’s a challenge because there’s a lot of rhythm change, there’s, you know, inconsistencies because the way the horse is pulling or doing these ducking and diving and different things like that, it’s time to take a look at why, because you might be writing it off as a training thing where you could just use your aides a little bit better. And it might actually be a physically challenging thing for your horse because they actually need to learn how to use their body in a way where they can collect and balance themselves and some of the symptoms are loss of balance and stiffness on the turns.
Stacy Westfall: I’ve been mentioning my new course on establishing collection, and in that course I actually show exercises that can be done at the walk and the trot to begin developing collection. I then show you how to take those same exercises and move them into the lope. And I still think the best part of this is that the videos include riders like you training their own horses at home. They’re doing these exercises. They’re learning how to move the body parts around. They’re practicing what Presto is about to start practicing. They’re practicing what Willow knew when I took her out and started trail riding. And yes, Presto is going to be volunteering his videos so that you can also watch him as he learns this, because I think it will be so cool in another year from now when you can actually see Presto’s first ride in the steering course and then next year when you’re watching Presto doing flying lead changes in the collection and lead change course. And I think that will be a really fun journey for people to be able to see because it shows it’s totally possible. Thanks again for listening and I’ll talk to you in the next episode.
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