Thursday, June 17, 2010

Lets get this straight before we get round

When I was taking dressage lessons from my most recent and favorite instructor she described the role of the reins as for "headset only". As she would often say reins are for explaining "I would like your head here". As a few commenters have said headset is not collection. I could not agree more! I am going to try and share what I know about the ever elusive concept of "on the bit" and collection. I am by no means an expert (obviously) and would love to hear your thoughts. How were you taught to put a horse on the bit? How do you define collection?

To elaborate on what my trainer explained: cues from the reins are really the icing on the cake. In dressage the seat, body, and leg aids communicate 95% of all cues to the horse including gait, tempo, bend, direction changes, turning, etc etc. That is why I can ride my little green bean bridless--because of this concept. What my trainer means by headset is the soft "give" of the pole and also the very minor bend at the pole for circles etc. It really is not much, and it really is the last thing you think about- as in the last thing you ask for and the last cue you give. I have heard this described as riding a horse back to front.

Riding a horse on the bit has a definite feel. To me it feels like all things are possible and the horse can respond instantly to any cue for a transition or change of direction. Having a horse that is soft in your hands to me is the beginning of being on the bit. I think what I find confusing and what seemed to have others just as confused though is: is being on the bit the same as collection?

To me it is not. To me having a horse on the bit is just having a soft horse that is giving at the pole and when supported through the riders legs and seat encouraging him/her to be forward and reaching under your horse is now round and on the bit. I have always thought of collection being an advanced frame used in higher dressage movements like the collected trot, piaffe, and passage. I think on the bit riding is a definite precursor to collected work. Though as Kathy pointed out does a horse really need a specific head set to be collected? If you watch your horses playing and frolicking in the pasture I would say no (especially Kathy's horse Satin, I have seen her perform "airs" in the pasture that would make a Lipizzaner jealous).

That is why there is a dressage training scale. First you want forward. You want your horse to move freely forward no matter what. Then you want rhythm, and relaxation, balance and straightness. Only then do you want to harness that energy and start to shape it. Collection for me is a highly concentrated form of the horse's natural power and energy. When collected the horses front end will be light (so off the forehand) and the driving power will be coming from the behind. A collected horse is ready to achieve the amazing higher movements talked about above like the collected and extended trot, the piaffe and passage.

Recommended reading
Sustainable Dressage on collection
Jane Savoie on how to put a horse on the bit
Regarding horses on how to put a horse on the bit

By the by what do you guys think of the new lay out? Better? Worse?


  1. To me collection isn't at the end of the spectrum. It is the whole spectrum. It comes in degrees. For the normal trot you want collection just not as much as the collected trot. For the extended trot you want less collection than the normal trot and so on. But anytime you are asking a horse to go in a frame you should be asking for some degree of collection.

  2. You've just taken on a rattlesnake's nest, that takes cojones.

    Wikipedia says that "on the bit" is the same as "on the aids."

    Art of classical riding says basically that being on the bit is being collected. says it's acceptance of the bit.

    I always thought it was just a horse who had steady contact with the bit, without going over or behind it.

    I am now more confused than ever.

  3. Yeah I kinda did.... :) but all this wishy-woshy terminology really tweaks my panties :)
    I think they are different because I know a need connection(on the aids) to have collection but you can have connection with out collection.

    Now my head hurts too. But I think I have it!

    "collection is when you horse has engaged his hind end and is reaching well underneath himself with his hind legs. This causes him to carry more of his weight on his hind end in a more “uphill” balance. When a horse has engaged his hind end, his back will come up and round, and develop a lovely swinging motion as he moves. His neck will lower and arch and his nose will come in.

    When a horse is on the bit, it means that he is seeking contact with the bit. There’s a light and steady contact with his mouth and the bit and your hands. He isn’t avoiding contact by putting his nose out, or coming behind the vertical, or various other tactics horses will use to avoid your hands. This requires riders to have a soft, light, following feel with their hands and arms."
    (from one of the links above)

    So sounds like we are in the same page smazourek though which book we are reading I have no clue. Lol. I need a drink.

  4. You might find this article interesting:

  5. I am no where, and I mean no where, near the riding level you are at. Frankly, I am still working on moving forward and getting a rhythm. However, I beginning to understand what you are writing about and my instructor is focusing on communication through leg aids. Two years ago, I would have never have thought that legs were so important!

    BTW, I really like the new layout!

  6. IMO, collection has nothing to do with the head - it has to do with the ability to relax the topline and engage the core - this automatically results in a round, soft outline, bit or no bit, contact or no contact. It all comes from the back, not the front end - too many people "ride the head" and all they get is a headset with no softness or true engagement.

  7. again, GREAt food for thought :) I totally agree that collection and on the bit are not the same thing. Always a hard one in the pyramid to master. I am just excited to get on the pyramid at all lol.

  8. A headset is a taboo word in the arena of dressage.I love the UDBB and there are so many way more knowledgeable people than me there to answer your question so here is a link to discussion of headset/frame/collection.
    I think when you say headset, you maybe thinking of the horse's frame?

  9. smazourek- Thanks I am reading it now, It is very simular to the sustainable dressage site. Did you read that?

    Kate-I agree with you. Being on the bit and collection are different. collection is all about the motor(hind end) and being on the bit is just about the "connection"

    Beth-It totally is! I don't belive in taboo words :). I used the phrase because it was coming from my southern trainer who was very educated and was trained by Olympic athletes but still used it when she means "on the aids" or "on the bit" as I described in my text. What I was talking about when I said head set was just what she said. I think that is the only time I used it? I am not always the clearest writer so who knows! :)

  10. Yeah they hate that word! I think it comes from my trainer's hunter jumper background. As I described already she just meant "on the aids" :)
    Probably trying to dumb it down for me! Butttt
    I like this answer the best-
    Frame? - a surround for pictures.

    Headset? - the pair of thingies in my son's ears, attached by wire to a pounding ipod.

    Collection? ahhhh, one of the goals of dressage training: a coiled spring: potential and kinetic energy.

  11. I have to disagree that collection has nothing to do with the head. A horse that is braced at the poll and locking its jaw cannot be soft and relaxed. The movement must come all the way through from the backend to the front end and that includes the head.

    While it's true that many get caught up in what's happening with the head and don't get the rest of the picture, you can not ignore what the horse is doing with its head either. Again, it is about balance, complete balance both in the movement of the horse and the thought process of the rider.

  12. Yeah that is why being on the bit is precursory to collection in my book. You should not ignore the head but maybe we tend to over emphasize it?

    I like sustainable dressage's discussion of natural collection.
    Looking at our horses in play is a great way to see them naturally balanced.

    Great discussion guys! :)