Charles Owen Williamson on Collection: From Range-bred Broncs to High School Dressage

Charles Owen Williamson on Collection: From Range-bred Broncs to High School Dressage

[CONTEXTUAL NOTES FROM KM: Charles Owen Williamson’s name (1894-1977) was on everyone’s lips through the 1950’s, 1960’s and 1970’s as the “go-to” Western trainer and instructor for riding across the disciplines. “Dr. Williamson is that rarity of rarities-a Western horseman who has had a wealth of experience in handling ‘wild’ horses, range-bred broncs, and yet understands the benefits of elementary, secondary and superior dressage, and can put them effectively to work. No theorist, he has spent a lifetime practicing what he teaches,” explains some of the flap text on his famous book “Breaking and Training the Stock Horse (and teaching basic principles of dressage)”. (First published in 1950. My copy is sixth edition published 1976, Charles O. Williamson, Hamilton, Montana. Illustrations by Carl Hoobing and Sherman Hayes.)

Williamson received a degree in veterinary medicine and headed West to wrangle wild horses and guide visitors to Yellowstone National Park. According to former student Harold Lyon, who emigrated from Canada to Montana after participating in a clinic with Williamson, the latter saw high school horses performing at a Montana circus, and he was fascinated by “how much that rider could get out of those horses.” Williamson sought out the Argentinian trainer after the act, who ignored him until Williamson began speaking with him in Spanish. In a 30-minute session he absorbed a mass of classical training methodology, more information, he said, “about real horsemanship than I had learned in all my life before.” And he then began reading the works of French master James Fillis, a serious advocate of the classic principles of collection and légèrité, or lightness.]

(Caption Page 56; “Collected and working on the haunches. This means that he has been taught to respond absolutely to hands and legs.”


In order to teach a horse collection, begin using the legs strongly, which causes him to push his hind feet farther under his body and to start moving forward faster. At the same time, begin using the hands lightly on the bit, exercising much judgment as to how strongly to use them, in order to cause the horse to gradually raise the head and flex his neck at the poll (just back of the head), not at the withers (which would of necessity produce a low head).

Keep up this simple process, constant and intermittent use of hands and legs until the horse at an instant’s indication will gather himself with hind feet well under body, head slightly up, nose down, forehead almost perpendicular. If you have used light hands, by this time he will be traveling and performing with lower jaw relaxed and soft against the bit. Sometimes it helps materially to give lessons from the ground in flexing the neck at the poll when the reins are fingered.

This is done as follows: Stand at the left shoulder facing in the same direction as the horse, reins across the horse’s neck or the saddle. Hold to saddle to steady yourself. Grasp both reins in left hand about six inches from the bit. Begin working the hands lightly backward and slightly upward (to raise the horse’s head) using fast intermittent pulling and slacking (a tremor) in order to induce the horse to flex his neck at the poll. At first this usually has the opposite effect and the horse “shoots” the muzzle forward. Do not fight this movement, but give when he takes, and immediately begin over.

Soon you will feel the muscles of his neck and jaw relax and his muzzle will be brought “in” forward his chest. Slack immediately and let him know he has pleased you. Wait a few seconds and repeat. Never keep up any procedure on a horse in training until he is tired of it–“soured”. In a lesson or two, he will “give” his mouth to you at only a slight action from your hand.

By using the same procedure when mounted, the horse is is soon traveling forward with chin “in” and lower jaw relaxed, when the legs are used sufficiently to keep him on the bit. When this is the case, the hind feet will also be well under the body. It is absolutely necessary that he travel and perform with soft, relaxed lower jaw. A mere “tucking in” of the chin and muzzle is not sufficient. A horse traveling with a hard, tense under jaw and holding the bit tight in his mouth, cannot possibly be light, which is the case in so-called hard-mouthed horses.

Only light hands and constant use of the legs can produce the desired result, and it is not produced in a few lessons. It requires many lessons, much patience, and hard work, but the end result is worth any effort. After you have made one horse light, you will understand this method and will consider no other.

Producing lightness in a horse is the essence of fine horse training. (Pages 55-56)

[ANOTHER NOTE FROM KM: Performing “flexions” with the head and neck of a horse has to be taken on very carefully and very seriously. Multiple elements about the individual horse, its conformation and previous training, affect the horse’s ability to respond successfully and comfortably to the flexion training. For example, horses with thick throat latches, issues with TMJ or poll or neck damage, and much more, can be challenged and made uncomfortable and/or painful. Please check with your vet, equine chiropractor or equine bodyworker for their input before you begin.)


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