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Icelandic Horse Connection

Collection in Tolt

An Outsider's Perspective

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 Horses.

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.


Understanding Collection

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.


Forward Travel

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 horse's limbs.


Ventroflexion

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.


Neck

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 comparison.

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.


Abdominal Muscles

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.


Hind End

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.


Conclusion

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.

Gait Chart

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*Joe Andrew's website: Mountain Magic Ranch, CO
**Experiences Along The Way Alpine Publishing
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