I can remember the first time I rode real collection on a horse I trained. It honestly wasn't that long ago, and I definitely thought I had ridden collection before then. Boy was I wrong!
There just happened to be a new swing and push in my mare's warm-up that day, and she was only just recently staying straight and over her back with ease so when my trainer asked me to slow and collect her stride I was feeling a little ill-prepared. I had spent some time in warm up thinking about my then-new-found philosophy - that everything we do in training should be low-impact, self-perpetuating and rewarding for both parties. If one finds they're taking regular steps backward, one should examine the variables and try to find what is causing physical or mental tension.
The collection that I had ridden prior to this was clunky, heavy, forced and not at all classical. That day I was determined to ride my horse while staying as mindful of my own cumbersome body as I could. I thought about collection in the trot and on a whim I engaged my core and thought about how to make myself easier for my horse to carry in collection. It's difficult to articulate, but a sort of controlled, steadied feeling came over my core. My balance lowered and suddenly my horse was mirroring my own actions. Her core and spine stabilized, her haunches lowered, and as we came around the corner by [F] I realized that my contact had stayed virtually unchanged. My horse had collected simply from my seat and core. Additionally, my trainer was watching and confirmed that this was, in fact, correct, classical collection. I remember calling out "It's so easy!" while breathless with exhilaration.
Why am I telling you this? Because it was EASY, and prior to the moment where I actually felt it, anyone who told me it would feel that easy would've been met with a major eye-roll.
Of course, I don't mean it was "easy" in the sense that little was involved. There was a lot of isometric control going on, and more than a little mental discipline (internal dialogue: "Don't you dare pull on that rein!" and "Breathe, damnit!") By "ease" I mean the physical exertion and the position in which I rode was filled with a looseness and, at the risk of sounding corny, joy. I swung, and my horse swung; I sprung, and my horse sprung. It lasted for approximately eight or nine strides and I walked and rewarded her. Wowwie...
When you are riding a green, or even a fully trained horse, your aides should be applied in a way that is uncomplicated and without force. How do you know it's correct? The horse gives you the correct response without tension.
I can't tell you how many years I spent thinking this was a myth - a sort of Bodhi Tree meditation on nirvana for the dressage zealots. I believed that you had to use force to create a mechanical understanding before you could create a cognitive one. Yes, sometimes this is true, but what it really boils down to is that if you truly have a clear, correct connection with your horse you can begin to teach new concepts without force.
Have you ever experienced the ease of correct riding and training?