For a horse to be able to be collected, learning to give to the rein and flex at the poll is vital.
“A horse that goes ‘flat’ in his back and his balance, pulls, or gets heavy in the reins, or one that raises his poll to evade rein contact, has to learn to stay connected—that is, ‘on the bit,’” says renowned clinician and trainer Lynn Palm in her book The Rider’s Guide to Real Collection. “The horse is connected ‘over his back’ so energy created by the rider’s legs travels from his hind end to his front and ‘into’ the rider’s hands. This is the first step toward teaching the horse to break at the poll. A horse in a long-and-low balanced frame with a ‘rounded’ spine, giving to the bit, and with his head beyond the vertical, is in the first stage of collection.”
Here’s how to do the long-and-low training exercise Palm recommends when preparing for collection:
Start at the trot on a curved line with contact on both reins. Raise your inside hand straight up 6 to 12 inches. Keep contact with the mouth as the horse raises his head or pulls against the rein. Actively use your inside leg for your horse to give to the pressure from the rein. When the horse feels the upward rein tension, it is difficult for him to keep his head up, especially on a curved line. The goal is for him to give to the bit by lowering his head and neck. If he yields slightly outward on the line you’re riding, that’s okay. Maintain your outside leg and rein aids to support his bend, and don’t let him lose his balance and fall out or the curve could become bigger and wider.
As soon as you start to feel your horse give to the rein, you must release and lower your hand to follow his head downward back to a normal rein position—but do not lose the contact. Also, don’t let him yield outward on the curved line anymore. With both leg aids, encourage him to drive forward from behind, which will give him the long-and-low balance. Continue with even contact to the bit with both reins, thus allowing your horse to be comfortable in your hands, and support his balance and rhythm. You won’t actually go faster, you’ll just cover more ground and achieve an elongated stretch.
While this exercise is mostly done at the trot, you can do it at the walk and, when more advanced, at the canter. No matter which gait you choose, the horse should keep the same steady rhythm. When your horse is in a long-and-low balance, he raises his back up and rounds it by stretching his topline muscles. This allows him to swing his hind legs deeper underneath himself. A fit horse in natural carriage can do this exercise easily and willingly. Younger horses, or horses in the earlier stages of collection, need to be built up slowly. Start with a 70-foot (20-meter) circle, asking your horse to go long and low for one-quarter of the circle.
A horse can go long and low and still maintain a correct balance. This is the balance for hunter under saddle, or any discipline where the horse needs to move with his head and neck in a more level position. The head can be beyond or on the vertical, and the poll and neck in a level position or slightly above the withers. Older, more finished horses enjoy the long-and-low position as a warm-up exercise: It supples their muscles and gets them ready for collected work.
Rider’s timing at the release: Some riders have difficulty at first finding the perfect timing and releasing their hand as the horse’s head goes down. It is important for the horse to understand that when he gives to the bit from your leg aid, he is immediately rewarded by you lowering your hand. Try to follow his head smoothly as you lower your inside rein. Make sure there is no “on-and-off” contact or jerking, or you will lose the horse’s acceptance.
Reins are too loose at release: If you let the reins go loose as your horse gives to the bit, he can bring his head back up, or shorten and quicken his stride. When this happens, reestablish contact, take him onto a curved line, connect him from your leg through to your hands at a trot, and ask him again to give to the bit and lower his head and neck. However, be sure his poll never goes below his withers, or his weight and balance can move more onto the forehand.