The opinions expressed in previous entries may or may not express the current opinion of the author.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010


I've recently had a little epiphany about collection.

The great desideratum of collection for both humans and horses, is release at the poll, aka the atlanto-occipital joint.

As an Alexander student, and teacher, I have spent many hours, days, and years attempting to release my poll or to induce others to do so.  I am all too aware that these efforts are often forced, and actually involve a stiffening of the neck and, rather than a dropping of the head from the atlanto-occipital joint, more of a pushing of the head/neck forward from the region of the seventh cervical vertebra (C-7).

A true release of the neck involves a dropping forward of the front of the head, while the back of the neck below the poll actually releases backwards.

The same is true of the attempt to collect horses. The horse's head should "nod" forward from the poll, while the rest of its spine should release toward the tail, allowing the hind legs to come under. When you look at photos of dressage horses, it sometimes appears that their necks are drawn forward towards their heads, in a misguided maneuver similar to the tendency of humans to push their heads forward from C-7. I have been guilty of inflicting this on horses myself.

The term flexion is itself a misnomer.  To flex implies muscular effort.  Whereas collection begins above all in a release at the poll.

I have been struck, looking at KFH's horses, how upright their necks seem compared to what I'm used to.  I believe this is because they are truly releasing at the poll, and their cervical spine is able to release back toward their tails, which allows their quarters to drop.  Another horse which has struck me in this same way is the amazing palomino bullfighting horse Merlin. (Not that I'm condoning bullfighting.)  He displays intense collection, and usually on a loose rein.

Many photos of competitive dressage horses suggest a horse pulled in two different directions - from the withers forward going one way, the quarters going another, and the middle lost in between.  They can't really "sit down," because their necks are being pulled away from their tails.

The other difference which strikes me is that while competitive dressage horses' profiles are typically vertical, or behind the vertical (nose behind eyes), Klaus's horses and Merlin have profiles which are ahead of vertical (nose ahead of eyes).  

I think it may be possible to use reins to ask for or suggest a release at the poll, but it is a contradiction to compel a release.

In Dancing With Horses, pp. 56-57, Klaus has some interesting observations about how we attempt to force the horse into a frame resembling collection, and in so doing lose the essence of collection. He believes that true collection originates in the hindquarters.  I'm not so sure, because I'm pretty certain that in humans it originates in a release at the poll. Either way, it can never be forced.

One of these days, I'm going to find myself on the back of a horse again, and I'm going to try to find a way to discuss these issues with the horse.


  1. This is so interesting! The way competitive dressage has evolved seems to be about creating a headset rather than true collection. I used to ride dressage when I was young, and the profile had to be significantly ahead of the vertical. In competition, profile on or behind the vertical were penalized. The other thing was that the degree of uprightness of the neck very much depended on the breed of the horse and the level of training they were at. Baroque breeds like the Spanish horses are naturally built far more uphill than arabs and thoroughbreds, who often combine high head carriage with inversion. Inverted horses were ridden long and low until their backs muscled up and and they started to come through from behind.

    When I ride Cassie, (who was completely inverted when I got her) I try to encourage her to keep her head low, at wither height, with little or no contact on the reins. She is only a baby, but she is beginning to use her hindquarters. When she does, I can sit to her trot comfortably and we feel like one. If she doesn't come through from behind, I can't sit her trot, because it jars me.

    I never thought of myself as having a poll! Probably because I'm not very good at releasing it, unfortunately.

  2. That's interesting that you were taught to keep the profile ahead of the vertical. I guess things have changed. Google-image search dressage horses, and the vast majority have profiles behind the vertical.

    It's true that Spanish horses are uphill naturally, and more compact front-to-back I think. I think the high head carriage of TBs which results in inversion is a kind of panicky high head, with a tense throat area. Also, if you pull the head in, the horse is going to learn to pull its head in by tightening its neck muscles in front.

    I know well the jarring not-through trot feel!

  3. Things have changed in dressage unfortunately, and there is no way I would compete now. Being behind the vertical has serious physiological consequenses for a horse, apart from the fact that they can't even see where they're going! Maybe this is why Klaus insists on collection starting at the hind quarters, too many people are just focused on achieving a head set, which of course has nothing to do with collection at all. It makes sense to me, as I was taught to ride a horse 'back to front'.

    Cassie came to me with that panicky high head you describe, very tense in the throat and big bulging muscles on the underside of her neck. I looked at a picture I took when I just got her and I had actually forgotten how bad she looked!

  4. Sandra, if you want to try releasing your poll, you could try this. But only ever think about it, never try to do it, because doing involves tightening, and you want release.

    If you're like me, you have a bump of some kind on the back of your skull at the base. Locate that spot mentally and envision a hinge just in front of it. Think of that hinge releasing to allow your eyebrows (or nose) to drop down and forward. But at the same time, think of the little bump releasing back and slightly up.

  5. Thanks June, I'm going to try this!