Admittedly, I am not a member of the Icelandic Horse
community. Until recently, my exposure to Icelandic Horses has been seeing
them occasionally at an all gaited breed show or the rare privilege of trail
riding with someone who was riding an Icelandic Horse. I am assisting a
client with a four-year-old Icelandic gelding. To help me understand her
horse, my client loaned me a video tape on riding and training Icelandic
As I watched the video, I was captivated by the wonderful
description of a perfectly collected equine athlete. What I saw on the
screen however, was nothing like what was being described. I was left with
confusion about the Icelandic Horse community's understanding of collection.
I couldn't believe the person on the tape had no idea of what collection
was, because he used all the right words. It appeared as if the Icelandic
Horse community had totally redefined the words used to describe collection
so they can say their horses are collected.
I would like to share some thoughts on collection and
describe how to analyze a gait for collection. By sharing my perspective, I
hope to help Icelandic Horse owners understand the dichotomy between how the
Icelandic Horse's movement is described and what the horse is actually
doing--in terms of collection. There is nothing wrong with non-collected
gaits that are natural to a given breed. But it is confusing to describe how
the horse is moving in those non-collected gaits, as being collected.
On their own, feral horses rarely move in collection.
Collection is reserved for those extraordinary circumstances--combat,
procreation, and self-preservation--where improved athleticism is needed.
Collection is a rebalancing which provides the horse with the ability to
change speed and direction quickly.
Being ridden is an extraordinary circumstance. When we place
the restriction of a saddle on a horse's back and add our weight to it, the
improved athleticism from the rebalancing of collection helps him carry us.
The Elements Of Collection
A good way to imagine the mechanics of a horse carrying us
on his back is to think about a suspension bridge. There are two pillars
near the ends of the bridge. The center of the bridge is supported by cables
suspended between the pillars. The cables are anchored securely on one end
and kept tight means of an adjustment mechanism on the other end. If the
cables are loosened, the center of the bridge sags. If the cables are
tightened again, the center of the bridge is lifted.
Engagement of the Hindquarters
First and foremost for collection, there must be an
engagement of the hindquarters; this is the anchor that allows the cables of
the bridge to be tightened. Engagement of the hindquarters requires a tilt
of the pelvis. The lumbo-sacral joint flexes and the pelvis tilts, bringing
the hind legs further underneath the horse. In this position the hind legs
carry more of the horse's weight. The motion of the hind legs when the
hindquarters are engaged is less swinging. The hocks flex more, lifting the
feet and setting them down.
Lifting of the Back
The tilt of the pelvis is accomplished by tightening the
abdominal muscles. This shortens the underline of the horse and lengthens
the top line. As the hind legs of the horse come further forward, the
ribcage is lifted out of the way, causing the back to round up.
Arching of the Neck / Breaking at the Poll
The adjustment mechanism for the cables of our bridge is the
horse's head and neck. As the top line of the horse lengthens, the neck
arches up and forward; the head flexes at the poll as the nose comes down
and in, bringing the face near vertical. This absorbs the extra length of
the top line and helps hold the elevated back.
Collection Vs. Extension
Collection is actually a relative term. When we compare how
horses move, in terms of collection, we are really referring to where their
movement falls on a scale. We could label one end of the scale "collected"
and the other end of the scale "extended."
Looking at trot movements along this scale, from collected
to extended, we see: piaffe, passage, collected trot, working trot, and
extended trot. These movements provide us with a model for determining the
amount of collection in a gait.
The closer we are to the collected end of the scale, the
less forward travel the gait has. The closer we are to the extended end of
the scale, the more forward travel the gait has. Piaffe is trotting almost
in place. Passage is trotting with very little forward motion. On the other
end of the scale, an extended trot is a very ground covering gait.
Reach and Lift
A well-trained horse will make the transition from piaffe to
extended trot while maintaining the same cadence, or tempo of stride. This
is done by trading reach for lift. At the collected end of the scale, the
feet reach forward very little in each stride--the power of the movement is
lifting the horse's body. As the gait is extended, the feet reach more, for
a longer stride, and the power of the movement goes into forward motion. At
the extended end of the scale, this reach is at the physical limit of the
Even though a horse has a short stride and is moving forward
very slowly, he is not collected if he is in ventroflexion. Ventroflexion
means bent toward the belly, or hollow backed. Ventroflexion is the opposite
of collection. It is a result of the hind end dragging out behind the horse,
the neck bending in front of the withers to raise the head up, and the nose
being stuck out. The horse's top line shortens, his underline lengthens, and
the back hollows and drops.
The Physical Development of Collection
Collection and ventroflexion cause very different muscle
development. It is so definite that the muscle development becomes a good
indicator of how the horse is consistently worked.
When we examine the muscling of a horse that has been
developed through collection, we see well-developed muscles along the top of
the neck. The muscles at the bottom of the neck appear underdeveloped by
Conversely, when we examine the muscling of a horse that has
been developed through ventroflexion, the predominant feature is the massive
development of the muscles at the bottom of the neck. In severe cases, the
horse will have the appearance of being ewe-necked. This development is most
obvious when the horse is being ridden with his head up, and nose out,
pushing into the bit.
A horse in collection uses his abdominal muscles to lift his
back. This causes a noticeable definition of these muscles similar to the
"heave line" seen on a horse that has a chronic cough. I have actually seen
people mistake this muscle development from collection, for an indication
that a horse had a health issue.
The increased weight that the hind legs carry when the horse
is collected causes the same muscle development that you see in horses that
are ridden up a lot of hills. There is an increased definition of the
muscles on the back of the upper thigh and the muscle that runs over the
base of the tail.
Analyzing the Tolt for Collection
Examining a movement for collection is a matter of looking
at individual elements and determining where those elements place the
movement on the scale of collection. Once each element is taken into
account, the cumulative effects determine whether that movement should be
called a collected movement or not.
Reach and Forward Travel
The reach seen at tolt is obviously extended. While we could
say a slow tolt is more collected than a fast tolt, the distance between the
feet at the point in the stride where they are furthest apart is
significant. It is this quality that makes the tolt a ground covering gait.
This element places the tolt toward the extended end of the scale.
Engagement of the Hindquarters
If we only looked at one foot, we could easily confuse reach
with engagement; the reach of an extended gait will cause the hind foot to
land quite far under the horse's body. To see engagement of the
hindquarters, we need to look at the entire hind end--the pelvis and both
hind feet--together. We should see a flexion of the lumbo-sacral joint, and
a tilt of the pelvis. The hind legs will visibly be reaching forward of the
hip more than they are swinging behind.
The swinging motion of the hind legs--with little hock
flexion--in tolt, indicates a lack of engagement.
Arching of the Neck / Breaking at the Poll
The neck of a collected horse arches up and forward. The
head breaks at the poll, bringing the face nearly vertical.
The neck of a horse in tolt bends up in front of the
withers; the bottom of the neck is straight and nearly vertical. The head is
held up and the nose out so the face approximates a forty-five degree angle
to the ground. In some cases the face is almost horizontal. Admittedly my sampling is small, but this is the shape I�ve seen in tolt. This shape
indicates ventroflexion, not collection.
Riding the tolt has been described as follows, "You feel the
horse really come from behind. He comes up in front, and wraps around you.
You are totally surrounded by the horse--giving you a deep, secure seat."
This feeling does not come from collection, but from the reach of an
extended gait, and the hollow back of ventroflexion.