Question: I have heard the terms "collection" and "balanced horse" many times and I think I understand what they mean, however, I have heard different ways of achieving those goals. I would like to know what I need to do with my horse to have him collected and balanced.
Answer: This is a good question and I am sure you have heard many different opinions on this broad subject. Here is the short version of my answer, based on my years of experience working with many different horses in a variety of breeds. I have found that this view is shared by some really great trainers that I have worked with. We all agree that a balanced horse is a horse that carries himself. If you were to balance a horse on a scale, you would find that the front is heavier than the rear because of the weight of the neck and head. Normally, horses are heavier on the front end and this can cause problems. The horse that pulls himself along on the front end is not balanced. This makes it difficult for the horse to be athletic. Even a horse with great breeding will not perform well when it is heavy on the forehand.
Leaning forward position
Not collected on the front end
A horse can travel in three different ways. If you watch a horse traveling in slow motion, you can see that the horse may be traveling on the front end, in other words the angle of the horse is down in the front. If the horse is balanced, the front (withers) and the rear (hips) will be level. Collection is when the withers are higher than the croup of the horse. Our ultimate goal is collection with the horse coming through, or driving from the rear. Collection requires good training, time, and a well-conditioned horse. One other critical factor is of course, how the horse is ridden. With these three options for traveling, riders are also a big part of the equation; how the rider rides the horse will determine if the horse is on the front end, balanced, or collected. Your horse will be one of these three, there are no gray areas.
Another important issue is the balance of the horse from right to left. If you are making a large circle to the left, say a 40-foot circle, and the shoulder of your horse drops or leans in, the size of the circle is reduced. That is an unbalanced horse. Or, on that same circle, you make a 50-foot circle because, while you are going left, the shoulders of your horse are bleeding out to the right. In both cases, the horse is not balanced. What we want is for the shoulders to follow the size of the circle that we choose, that is a balanced horse. Finally, do not try to maintain balance or collection by "holding" up the horse. Most people want to do this, but the horse needs to learn to carry himself. The rider needs to release the aids and learn to trust the horse, then pick up on the aids as needed. As the horse becomes more physically conditioned he will be able to carry the position longer, for more strides.
Why are balance and collection important? If the horse is on the front end, resistance is created and there is more pounding on the front legs and hooves which can lead to lameness. A horse that is on the front end cannot perform athletically and excel in whatever discipline you ride. When a horse is balanced, it will be more willing, energetic and less resistant. Resistance itself creates an imbalanced horse. If the horse is pulling on you with the reins, it is on the front end. No horse that pulls on the reins is balanced or collected. The horse must yield to the pressure of your hands. If the horse is resisting and does not move off your leg, it is on the forehand and imbalanced. The same is true for the shoulders. If the shoulders are leaning in or falling out, the horse cannot be balanced, let alone, collected.
On the front shoulder
It is very important to recognize when your horse is on the forehand and not balanced. It is important to teach your horse to yield to pressure from your seat, legs and hands. Once your horse is responsive to the aids, you can use exercises to help develop balance and self carriage. To be successful, your body position must be correct and balanced. Your cues must be clear and consistent. You want to work toward having your horse respond to the lightest cues. The lighter and more obedient the horse is, the better balanced the horse will be. Then you can work on teaching the horse to be collected. Emotionally and physically the horse will be better and you will have a great ride. I hope this helps and I wish you happy trails.