That's been a very hard thing for me to let go of as I've explored this style of riding. There is no "head set" in true Vaquero style riding. Instead of focusing on trends in the styles displayed in the show ring we focus on creating a soft and balanced horse by concentrating on their entire body. You definitely want them soft in the poll and giving to your hands, but where they carry the head when they are working is much less important.
Collection is not a head set. Head set can actually be detrimental to true collection when it is done incorrectly. Many of the horses that you see in the show ring (I'm going to pick on AQHA western pleasure because it provides the most copious examples of this) have a beautiful straight up and down head set that is carried level with their withers. However when you watch that horse move, they do not bring their hindquarters forward under their belly. True collection goes from the tip of the nose to the hind feet, and when you are talking about building collection it actually starts in the hind feet and not in the head at all. Because we as humans are terrible at messing up a good thing, we have actually bred horses to look more naturally like what we want them to look like in the show ring. So horses that have a natural level head and neck and a sloping hip that looks like they are already rounded and tucked up under themselves. Those horses look like they travel along in perfect pleasure collection. You can tell if collection is true or not by looking at their stride. If the hind feet are not reaching forward under the belly to at least the back cinch then they are not collected and truly shifting that center of gravity backwards towards the hind end.
I think you can see by looking at that horse how heavy he will feel on the front end. His butt is going to be higher than his head and whithers and there is no way he can round himself up enough to place his hind feet underneath him. The other interesting thing about this style of riding is that because it shifts the weight so far forward and the pleasure seat of the rider so far back on these long bodied horses the rider is always behind the movement of the horse. You can see it when they lope, especially. Instead of the riders hips and shoulders moving in conjunction with the horse they move just a beat behind. Luckily everything is happening so slow that it looks smooth anyway.
Just to be fair, let's also look at the other extreme in Park Pleasure horses in the Morgans, Arabs and Saddlebreds. Those horses are in a double bridle completely cranked into a hollowed out head set. Their heads and necks are back and up creating a hollow in the back and forcing the hind feet out behind them. They almost can't round and bring those hind feet forward. This does allow for elevation in the front end and that exaggerated prancing gait, but it is definitely not collection in it's true sense. If you watch these horses move and are able to take your eyes off their gorgeous elevated front ends to look at the back end you will find that they don't bring their back feet even under their hips. Often all of the action in the hind feet is right under their hocks. For these horses the center of gravity is still right behind the whither but they have inverted themselves through the back and neck so that they are able to move those parts of their body almost independently. You can mimic this a bit if you walk with a severe reverse arc in your back with your butt sticking out behind you and your shoulders cranked back as far as you can with your head elevated as far as you are able. It's not near as pretty on a person!
Park pleasure riders ride so far back behind the center of gravity that the front end is completely elevated. These horses have been bred with long backward sloping shoulders and heads and necks so naturally elevated that they have a difficult time moving any other way. Here is another example of Park Harness horse in full collection that really illustrates the hollowness in the back.
When a horse is collected properly it shifts his center of gravity back closer to his hind feet. A horse's center of gravity when he is just standing around is about at his withers. This causes him to carry the majority of his weight on his front end. No problems, that's how the horse is designed due to spending the majority of his time with his head on the ground eating. However when a horse has to stop and turn and move to avoid getting eaten by a tiger he picks his head up, elevates his shoulders and shifts that weight to his hocks to improve his athletic stance and get the heck down the road to leave the tiger in the dust. This is all something that a horse does naturally.
All of the athletic maneuvers that we ask a horse to do (with maybe the exception of cutting where a horse is down low in the front staring a cow in the eyes) requires a horse to be back and his hocks, supporting at least half of his weight there so he can stop and turn, roll back, canter pirouette, hold a calf, etc. But when you look at the current trends in many of the western disciplines that pretty and trendy "headset" has that horse's nose at his knees with his head at or below level. What that creates is a posture in the horse similar to a dowagers hump in an old lady that has had poor posture her entire life. Try it for yourself. Scoot your butt under you (you can do it standing on two feet) and then drop your head so you are looking at the world from the tops of your eyes. Your shoulders will have to scrunch a little and your back will round at about the 5th thoracic vertebrae. How athletic do you feel right about now? That's the current stance in a horse doing reining. Try and run forward and stop in that curved up ball.
Now, instead, elevate your head and relax your shoulders. Scoot your but under you a bit and create a slight rounding through your entire back. With your head and shoulders elevated more you should feel ready to turn, stop, go forward and react to stimuli around you. Now run forward and stop with your butt tucked under. If you had to stop and roll back your body and go the other way you should feel better prepared to do that.
Now, of course we are two footed animals so the analogy isn't completely accurate, but when we are riding the horse mimics our body position. Your balance and position help the horse to learn how to carry himself. If you want freedom of movement in your horse's shoulders, you need to have elevation and freedom in your own shoulders to communicate that posture to the horse. If your shoulders are hunched and heavy, your horse's shoulders will be too. If you look at the rider in the picture of the reining horse you can see that his body is perfectly mimicked by the horse.
If you are up in an athletic stance on the balls of your feet in the saddle with your shoulders up and back your weight is balanced and the horse is able to feel the movement of your body and mimic it. They can them come up into your hands and move their front end around their back end with fluid movement. When the horse learns that he can trust where your body position is to give him the right cues for what he should be doing with his body you'll be amazed at the harmony that creates. While it may not look like a pretty finished show horse it feels amazing underneath you because it is soft, and round and responsive. That's what a truly collected horse should feel like.
The other great thing about the vaquero tradition is that no two horses are going to look alike because no two horses are built quite alike. You aren't trying to force your horse into a false frame of collection in order to fit the current trends you are trying to create the most balanced and correct posture that your particular horse is able to carry. Here is a great example of Bruce Sandifer, a California horseman training using the principles of the vaquero tradition. It looks a whole lot different that the sliding stop that is currently winning in the reining pen.
That's the kind of collection that we are working for. Head set has no meaning to us anymore. The horse should be soft to your hands (we call that soft feel) and should give at the poll but we aren't going to be picky about where that head ends up as long as the collection goes from the back feet, through the croup all the way to the head and shoulders and into our hands. Here's a great example of it looking different because of how two horses are built. The first one is me and Moony, the Morgan horse, the second is Dan and Salsa, the Quarter Horse. Both are showing collection through their body and soft feel in the bosal.
Collection and soft feel go hand in hand, quite literally and I think I'll explore that connection in the next blog post. Stay tuned!