Working Horses in Circles – Part 2 – The Myth of Collection

I was talking about my recent ponderings around the effects of chronic circular motion on the horse’s body, specifically how those effects can show in the hooves.  These thoughts were sparked by a great article I read on Facebook by Danvers Child of Foxtail Forge & Farriery, called “Going in Circles”.

So here’s Danvers again, in the last part of his post, which focuses on collection:

“First and foremost, the horse is designed to be heavy on the forehand. We fight against that concept, asking them to engage their hindquarters, to “collect,” and to give us impulsion. And they’re capable of doing so… but they’re not designed or “programmed” to sustain such activity for any length of time. When they do this in “natural” settings and situations, they’re playing, they’re being startled or frightened, or they’re showing off. None of these are sustained activities.

Likewise, when they do engage, they’re generally bolting forward, jumping sideways, or leaping upwards. And they’re typically doing that with a burst of speed and energy, not in slow motion.”

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All kinds of excitement and movement both linear and lateral – new horses being introduced to a range herd.

Aha! So we’re into another can of worms – even collection, that holy grail of virtually every form of horsemanship, is not meant to be sustained by the horse’s anatomy! Well that’s a mind-boggler, if you’ve been, like any well-educated horseperson, convinced of its constant necessity.

I never felt good poking and prodding my horse into a collected shape. Even when training from the ground, I couldn’t ignore the pained look in my (ridiculously expressive) Arab/Andalusian’s face as I tried to convince him I knew better than he did how his body should move. No, the best collection I’ve ever felt is riding bareback on a loose rein past a field full of rowdy youngsters – Spero pulled himself up into his “WHO DA MAN” stance and did his best fancy-pants-dance, and the jolt that punched through my abdomen and out my head was beyond exhilarating. I’d already promised I’d stay off his face, negotiating that my primal human/monkey cling response when nervous could be relegated to his mane if I lost my composure, instead of the invasive claustrophobia of gathering up the reins (he hates his face being effed with – fine, so do I!). The fear I felt when he collected naturally, for a real purpose, was what was so exhilarating – I knew he was ready to scoot, jump, lunge, or fly in any direction, and woe would be my slow human form, left paddling in mid air like Wile E Coyote off the edge of a cliff. He didn’t, thankfully – maybe because I didn’t give him reason to by pulling on his face!

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Wild mustang in gentle collection at dusk after a storm. Being wigged-out by my human presence was what prompted this posture in movement.

Which got me to thinking…how could he possibly call up that energy of possibility, that true collection, back when I was kicking him around and around an arena, especially when I lacked the subtlety, skill, and force of will to communicate the unnatural concept to his body? And especially when he, like most domestic horses, was punished or at least discouraged from flighty, spontaneous behaviour – which is actually at the heart of true collection? And what, really, is the point of circles? All I can think of is: human convenience. Making the most out of smaller spaces and compensating for human limitations. And maybe something about humans liking things contained and tidy. Huh.

I’m not sure where all this leaves me, except with even more curiosity and openness to learning, whether that’s about hooves, anatomy, psychology, relationship, or purpose – because the more I find out, the less I feel justified to do to my horses. But I can say that every time I’ve listened, every time I’ve taken their word over everyone else’s, I have been rewarded, though never how, or even when, I hope or expect to be. Like now – two years ago, I took the halters, ropes, whips, and confinement away all on a whim. All on a deep, persistent feeling that I was missing something. I was left with almost nothing – just a huge ego-smack (surprise, they didn’t want to do anything I wanted to do!) and a new opportunity to build relationship another way. And years later, I find myself wildly grateful and still learning from them every single day.

So if you do work with your horse on a circle on a regular basis, and you’re reading this and struggling to take it in, or feeling some uncomfortable feelings, try not to despair, react, or defend. Just consider. Just see if you can open, a tiny bit, to the possibility of something more, or something different. Is there something that’s been bothering you, something you feel your horse might be trying to tell you?  What if you listened – really listened with an open heart? What if you changed one thing and…everything changed?

Working Horses in Circles – Part 2 – The Myth of Collection

7 thoughts on “Working Horses in Circles – Part 2 – The Myth of Collection

  • May 17, 2015 at 4:51 am
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    This line you wrote:

    “I was left with almost nothing – just a huge ego-smack (surprise, they didn’t want to do anything I wanted to do!) and a new opportunity to build relationship another way.”

    Makes me think about all the horses that go lame, in order to get a point across. I remember one horse – a very expensive eventing horse – who would go lame every time his owner listed him for sale! This happened four times over the course of a couple years before she finally accepted that he wanted to stay with her. She hasn’t tried to sell him since, and he hasn’t gone lame again.

    Reply
  • October 20, 2015 at 10:42 pm
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    Well, as you can see, I’ve just discovered your blog. Good for you, for not being afraid to say the unthinkable about collection. I’ve always felt that this was an “emperor’s new clothes” situation of the first magnitude, but when everyone shouts you down for suggesting that, it gets tiring! After many years of intensive “natural horsemanship” study and lots and lots of riding, I finally listened to my horse. She was tired of it! We do very little in the way of organised or structured anything, now. I’m pretty sure I could still ride them, if I had to, and that they would still let me. I jump on bareback sometimes. It’s enough for now. We are friends again. Sometimes my ego misses all that, but why should that be their problem?

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    • October 27, 2015 at 4:41 pm
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      Kris, Kesia gave me “Empowered Horses” by Imke Spilker and I think you would REALLY love it. May open up a new doorway for you with your horses…

      Reply
  • January 5, 2019 at 1:45 pm
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    “the more I find out, the less I feel justified to do to my horses”

    This is exactly what I am going through since a couple of years and even more the last months. Really interesting article, thank you!!

    Reply
    • January 5, 2019 at 3:11 pm
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      You are so welcome Jitske – it is an endless, fascinating, challenging and heart-opening transition to start listening deeper and deeper. If you care to share, let us know what you’ve been experiencing lately!

      Reply
  • January 10, 2019 at 5:31 pm
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    Really well said. …… Thankyou for speaking out !!!!!!! Xxx

    Reply

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