How Much Collection Is Needed for Second Level?


Second Level, an important step up, calls for collection for the first time. We explain the requirements of the level.

By Marilyn Heath

Reprinted from the May 2017 USDF Connection magazine

When we study the pyramid of training (the training scale), we find that collection is the top, or the last, building block. Why, then, is collection a requirement of Second Level? Second Level is less demanding than the higher levels, so how is a rider to determine how much collection is needed for the level?

First, riders need to understand that the elements of the pyramid of training (illustration, opposite page) cannot truly be separated. They all are intertwined. From day one in the horse’s training, the rider is working to ensure a clear rhythm and a steady tempo with a mentally relaxed horse that demonstrates an appropriate degree of suppleness, correct contact for the level, energy, straightness, and balance. In other words, the rider does not achieve one layer of the pyramid before progressing to the next.

Collection Defined
The first mention of collection in our national dressage tests is at Second Level. According to the 2015 USDF Glossary of Judging Terms, collection is “at trot and canter, a pace with shorter steps and a more uphill balance than in the working pace, with no sacrifice of impulsion. The horse’s frame is shorter, with the neck stretched and arched upward. The tempo remains nearly the same as in the medium or extended pace. At walk, a pace with shorter steps and a more uphill balance than in the medium walk, with no sacrifice of activity. The neck oscillates less than in the medium and extended paces and the frame is shorter, with the neck stretched and arched upward. The tempo remains nearly the same as in the medium or extended pace.”

The US Equestrian Rule Book (DR 115) states that the aim of collection is “to further develop and improve the balance and equilibrium of the horse which has been more or less displaced by the additional weight of the rider; to develop and increase the horse’s ability to lower and engage his quarters for the benefit of the lightness and mobility of his forehand; and to add to the ‘ease and carriage’ of the horse, therefore making him more pleasurable to ride.” (The complete Rule Book is online at

The Rule Book goes on to specify that the best means to obtain these aims are the lateral movements— shoulder-in, travers (haunches-in), renvers (haunches-out)—and halfhalts. That is why shoulder-in and travers are introduced at Second Level.

DEVELOPMENT OF COLLECTION:Illustration depicts the principle of collection. The diagrammatical lines behind the horses show the increased angularity of the haunches and lowering of the hindquarters. Illustration from Riding Logic by Wilhelm Müseler. Published by J.A. Allen and distributed by Trafalgar Square Books, (out of print). Used by permission.

Here is an example of how lateral movements help to build collection. A correctly ridden shoulder-in (on three tracks and with an angle of 30 degrees) requires the horse to step under the midline of his body with his inside hind leg, thus making him bend the joints of that leg while carrying the weight. Incorrectly ridden, with more than a 30-degree angle and the haunches escaping to the outside, the purpose of the shoulder-in exercise is not fulfilled. The hind legs cross instead of the inside hind leg stepping under the horse’s midline, the joints of the hind leg do not need to bend, and engagement is not accomplished.

The Rule Book goes on to point out that “collection is improved and effected by engaging the hind legs with the joints bent and supple, forward under the horse’s body by a temporary but often repeated action of the seat and legs of the rider driving the horse forward toward a more or less stationary or restraining hand allowing just enough impulsion to pass through.” In other words, by riding half-halts.

What Collection Is Not
The US Equestrian Rule Book emphasizes that “collection is consequently not achieved by shortening of the gait through a resisting action of the legs to engage the hind legs further under the horse’s body.” It goes on to qualify that “the hind legs should not be engaged too far forward under the horse, as this would shorten the base of support too much and thereby impede the movement.” However, “a horse with a too long base of support unable or unwilling to engage his hind legs forward under his body will never achieve an acceptable collection characterized by ease and carriage as well as a lively impulsion, originated in the activity of the quarters.”

As you can see, the Rule Book contains far more than a list of rules. In fact, it should be one of your textbooks for the training of your horse. The Rule Book outlines the purpose of each of the dressage levels, describes in detail the requirements of the basics (including collection), and defines the criteria of each movement.

The USDF Glossary of Judging Terms (available on USDF’s eTRAK database) is another helpful reference. The glossary defines the terminology used in dressage judging and establishes a means of common communication among riders, trainers, and judges.

Second Level Collection
It has often been said that the amount of collection needed at Second Level is that which enables the horse to accomplish the movements of the level with ease. But how does the rider achieve that collection?

Let’s start by looking at the purpose of Second Level. As stated in the Rule Book and at the top of each test, the purpose is “to confirm that the horse demonstrates correct basics, and having achieved the thrust required in First Level, now accepts more weight on the hindquarters (collection); moves with an uphill tendency, especially in the medium gaits; and is reliably on the bit. A greater degree of straightness, bending, suppleness, throughness, balance and self-carriage is required than at First Level.” Producing this “uphill tendency” requires increased engagement.

The levels and tests in dressage are designed to follow the pyramid of training. At Training Level, the horse should go freely forward with a clear rhythm and a steady tempo (the first requirement of the training scale) while accepting contact with the bit (the third element of the pyramid). Moving up to First Level, the purpose of the level is “to confirm that the horse demonstrates correct basics, and in addition to the requirements of Training Level, has developed the thrust to achieve improved balance and throughness and to maintain a more consistent contact with the bit.” First Level requires more consistency of contact and more impulsion (the fourth element of the pyramid).

In order to ride successfully at Second Level, then, there needs to be an increase of engagement, balance, equilibrium, and self-carriage—collection—over the previous levels to enable the horse to perform the required movements of shoulder-in, travers, simple changes, and medium paces with ease and harmony.

Let the Pyramid of Training Be Your Guide
Regardless of the level, each movement in dressage is judged fundamentally on the basics according to the pyramid of training, to evaluate whether the horse is fulfilling the requirements of that level. Does the gait have a clear rhythm? Is it free? Is the horse demonstrating correct and sufficient impulsion for the level? Is there a willing cooperation between horse and rider? Is the horse reliably on the bit? Is the self-carriage appropriate for the level?

Only then does the judge consider the criteria for each movement, factor in any modifiers, and come up with a score for each movement.

Riders should not present their horses at any level until they are able to fulfill the purpose of the level. If a horse is trained in the basics of the level, he should have no problem completing the movements of the test with ease.

Judges appreciate a happy horse. A horse coerced into doing movements above his ability is not a happy horse and, therefore, lacks harmony.

Marilyn Heath, of Naples, FL, is a US Equestrian “S” dressage judge. She is a member of the USDF L program faculty, the USDF L Program Committee, and the USDF Judges Committee. In 2013 she received the USDF Lifetime Achievement Award for her contributions to USDF judge-education programs.


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