Teaching Green Horse Collection

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Question: I have a green horse that frequently trips with hind feet as he does not have proper headset or collection. How do you go about helping a green horse become balanced and collected with proper headset?

The barn owner where I board has done some training for me but tends to rely on running martingale to teach a horse the proper headset. I do not necessarily subscribe to this because as soon as you remove the artificial aids, you are back to where you started. What do you advocate to achieve collection and headset? What is the proper use of artificial aids? Are there certain types of bits you advocate?

I hope you come my way soon as I am anxious to attend one of your clinics! Of the many I have attended at Equine Affaire and elsewhere, hands down, I have gotten the most out of yours! Although I am far from expert, attending your clinics and listening to your tapes has made a huge difference in my riding and confidence aboard my young horse.
–Looking for a Natural Headset

Answer:
Dear Looking,
Thank you so much for your kind words, but it is your desire for excellence that accounts for the progress you have made. I work very hard to make horsemanship understandable to people and since 99% of all horse problems are rider or handler induced, if we can train and educate people, the horses will do just fine.

Headset and collection are big lofty subjects. First let me say that there is a big difference between headset and collection and they are not necessarily related. A horse might have a “proper” headset but not be collected. Headset refers to placing your horse’s head at a certain level and position, according to the judge’s expectations of the discipline for which you are training. Collection refers to the rounded frame of the horse, when the horse elevates his back and brings his hindquarters up underneath his body in order to have more power and athleticism; it is a natural behavior of the horse and is known as ‘prideful’ behavior. Collection is natural for the horse (although difficult); headset is something that is artificially imposed by the rider.

My Goodnight’s Principles of Riding DVD series will help you understand collection a bit more. Check out Refinement and Collection. In it I address refining your rein aids and leg aids, what collection is and is not, how to use the aids to achieve collection (especially your seat and legs) and how to teach your horse to hold himself in a collected frame once you have asked. I am not a big fan of artificial aids. If you use artificial aids, it is important to know why you are using it, how to use it correctly and to have a plan to get away from the aid so that it does not become a crutch. The running martingale is one of the most commonly misused artificial aids; it is commonly thought to be a device to lower the horse’s head, but that is incorrect. It is actually a training device that prevents the horse’s head from getting dangerously high; it is a fail-safe device that when properly adjusted (with the rings all the way to the horse’s throat) prevent the mouth from getting above the withers. Once the horse’s mouth is above the withers, you no longer have control.

If you try to use the running martingale to lower the horse’s head, it is adjusted way too short and the rings put pressure down on the reins when the head and rider’s hands are in a normal position, breaking the straight line between rider’s elbow and horse’s mouth. This not only puts the horse very heavy on the forehand and stiffens his neck, but it also interferes with the direct line of communication between the rider’s hands and the horse’s mouth. Since the pressure is totally different with the device and without, the horse never learns the correct response to bit pressure and so you become dependent on the device.

Before a horse can collect, he must know how to respond properly to pressure on his mouth. He must know how to give to rein pressure, both laterally and vertically. As he rounds his back and comes into a collected frame, stretching his neck at the withers and lifting in his back, his poll will drop down and his nose will come in, brining his face toward vertical. This is known as vertical flexion. Lateral flexion always precedes vertical flexion and I like to teach the horse both from the ground first.

Lateral flexion is taught by simply sliding your hand down the rein toward the horse’s mouth (about halfway to his head) then slowly and gently picking up and locking your hand behind the pommel (make sure the outside rein is totally slack). You can do this from the ground or saddle. It is important to brace your hand against the pommel so that you do not pull more when the horse gives (instead or releasing) and so that he can not pull your hand forward if he resists (getting his own release). You release as soon as the horse flexes enough to put slack in the rein. Like everything in training, the timing of the release is the critical factor in how long it takes the horse to figure out what you want him to do; the sooner the release comes, the better. For optimal results, you have to release the horse within a half second of the correct response. Every time he releases the pressure off his mouth, drop the rein down on his neck immediately and praise him; then ask again. Work on one side repeatedly, and then work on the other. When your horse softly flexes to the side every time you pick up the rein (slowly and gently so that he has the chance to flex before the pressure on his mouth comes), he is ready to move onto vertical flexion.

I do like to use a bitting device known as the elbow pull for teaching the horse vertical flexion and conditioning him to hold himself in a collected frame from the ground. You can find out more in the DVD Bit Basics & Goodnight’s Bitting System. The value of the elbow-pull is that it is self-correcting, meaning that your timing and response (or lack thereof) is taken out of the equation. When the horse comes into the correct frame, he automatically gets a release of pressure. This also teaches him self-carriage. In my opinion, I do not like the horse to become reliant on contact to hold him in a frame; although many English riders prefer the horse to rely on contact. The other beauty of the elbow-pull is that it mimics exactly what the horse will feel from the rider, so once you are up in the saddle and you use your aids correctly to ask the horse to round his frame, he knows what to do. You should use a snaffle bridle for this type of training. Once a horse is fully trained, you can certainly ask him to collect with a curb bridle on, but he will be responding more to your seat and legs. Most of our finished Western horses work best in a curb (sometimes referred to as a ‘bridle horse’), but we occasionally take them back to the snaffle to work on certain exercises like bending, flexion and collection. These are complex, advanced issues we are talking about and there is a lot of foundational work that precedes these abilities, both on the part of the horse and rider. The additional info on my website’s “Training Library” will help fill in some of the gaps
Good luck to you!
–Julie Goodnight, Clinician and Trainer