The Very Best Single Exercise for Improving Collection

In this excerpt from her new book Finding Your Superhorse, renowned trainer and clinician Lynn Palm shares her favorite exercise for improving your horse’s self-carriage and improving your own riding at the same time.

I clearly remember one summer, when my mentor Ms. Bobbi Steele worked with me six days a week, just sitting-trot circles to learn how to collect her horse Nic Nack’s body from my seat and legs with guidance from my hands. I was determined to succeed with these “boring” exercises in order to achieve a horse that was “collected,” “on the bit,” and “connected”—words I’d heard from Ms. Steele and knew were meaningful when it came to horsemanship.

Ms. Steele’s patient work with me on Nic Nack’s straightness and balance—and shaping our ability to ride a perfect round circle—is how I learned to collect a horse in the ways necessary for higher levels of training.  This exercise was the one we did the most in order to develop the horse’s ability to collect and compact his body in a more uphill balance, thus distributing more weight to the hind legs. It would be so nice if you used your aids once and your horse just stayed on the circle. But let me tell you, this does not happen! For you to have a consistent round circle and control the same tempo in the gait, you must manage the horse every stride. This must be accomplished first by riding a round 20-meter circle and keeping the same tempo in all gaits before you can aim for collection.

Collection is achieved by developing the horse to keep the bend and straightness, thus balance, through many transitions on the circle and doing 15-meter, 10-meter, and 8-meter circles. These upward and downward transitions and smaller circles encourage engagement of the horse’s hind legs, where they bear more weight, thus building power from behind. They also develop an uphill balance, allowing the horse to raise and round his back, and lighten his forehand—his poll comes up and his neck rounds, compacting the horse’s body. This is what we call collection. Developing correct collection takes years, and when you get it, it is amazing how athletic, agile, and light a horse gets in his self-carriage and performance.

Photo by Cappy Jackson

Start by riding a 20-meter circle to the left, and aim to ride a truly round circle. This is not easy! To keep the circle round you must manage the body position of your horse, keeping him bending and straight on the circle at all times. Here’s how:

  • Your left opening or neck rein flexes the horse’s head to the left (the inside).
  • Your left (inside) leg aid at the girth asks the horse to bend his body at the rib cage.
  • The right (outside) rein keeps the horse straight and does not let the neck bend too far to the inside. The outside rein also keeps the horse’s body aligned and straight, so the right hind leg tracks to the right front, and left hind leg tracks to the left front.
  • The right (outside) leg aid keeps the horse’s hips from swinging out and maintains the alignment and straightness on the curving line to the left.
  • Put your weight “down” in the saddle, sitting centered, with your weight distributed equally. (Know that your balance will feel naturally pulled to the outside because of the sensation of centrifugal force, but on a 20-meter circle, you want your weight in your seat bones to be even.) Make sure your shoulders stay back in a vertical position over your hips. When you put weight on the horse’s back in this way, you are giving him the incentive and encouragement to engage the inside hind leg deeper under the barrel. Any time the horse slows down, gets a little “flat,” or wants to fall in or out with his body, sit more. I recently attended a clinic with British Olympian Carl Hester, which I enjoyed very much, and he told every rider, even those already riding Grand Prix, “Sit!” (with a particular emphasis on that ending “t”)! He didn’t want stronger legs and he didn’t want stronger hands—he wanted the riders to sit.
  • Repeat in a circle to the right.
  • When the circle is round, straight, and forward at 20 meters in both directions, advance to a circle of 15 meters, and then to 10 meters. The smaller the circles get, the harder it is to control the horse’s balance. He will lose his balance by falling in and falling out. You need more engagement from behind (the hind legs stepping farther underneath the horse’s body) and more power from the horse to propel him around that smaller circle, so you do have to sit more to engage the hind end more, and with the smaller circle, your weight moves slightly to the outside.

When your horse accepts your leg, seat, and rein aids and grows stronger in his body through progressive conditioning, he will do the circle task with ease and willingness. This means you have achieved balance in your horse, which will make it easier for him to complete difficult transitions, maintain tempo in all gaits, connect his hind legs to your hands, and develop the self-carriage necessary to collect. Ms. Steele always told me that too few people were willing to spend the time we were spending on the circle exercise, every ride after our warm-up. With the tiniest progression, she assured me that we were succeeding—and you can, too!


This excerpt from Finding Your Superhorse by Lynn Palm is reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books. You can purchase the book here