From Equestrian to Pedestrian: Collection & Extension for Fencing on Foot


Abstract (aka TL;DR)

Much of early fencing is assumes an accompanying knowledge of mounted combat and general equitation. It may be that there are implicit equestrian ideas taken for granted by fencers of the time which may prove useful in thinking about fencing today.

In this post we explore Collected and Extended gaits in riding, and how they are mirrored in certain positions of fencing. Specifically:Specifically:

  • Collected and Extended postures and gait dramatically affect mobility, stability, reach, and exposure.
  • Collected and Extended arm positions greatly change the nature of cuts and thrusts, and have major structural implications for fencing.

The thesis of this discussion is that while most fencers are broadly aware of these implications, the Collected/Extended terminology provides an effective framework for:

  • Analysing techniques from the texts with a better understanding of body movement and position, and how this makes key movements effective.
  • Structuring drills and pedagogy to cover scenarios and conditions commonly encountered in a context of Collection or Extension, and how to best respond to them.

Finally it is worth considering that there may be other equestrian principals which mounted fencers took for granted which could also yield useful insights.

Introduction

“Rossfechten”, the art of fencing while mounted.

If you’ve spent any time at all studying Longsword then it’s likely you’ve encountered the term, or at least ideas very much like it. Depending on your experience and interests you may even have delved into the Rossfechten sources, or at least encountered the idea that it’s worth trying to understand these parts of the art, even superficially. For most fencers this is because we are trying to better understand the techniques of unarmoured “Blossfechten”, and have turned to the other sections of the text for clarification and refinement of techniques, usually by looking for contextual clues and technical parallels to the things we are already familiar with. It may be, however, that that in only looking at what is written about the techniques themselves, we’ve actually missed the forest for the trees.

Perhaps part of the value in studying mounted fencing is not in collecting techniques, but rather in gaining an appreciation of concepts and ideas that anyone who has ridden from a young age takes for granted; ideas which may prove useful in our own training.

Two obvious ideas are the idea of a good “seat”, and an appreciation of distance and feeling.

An effective seat is essential not only for balance and stability, but also for effectively communicating with the horse. Correct posture and weight shifting keeps us balanced and in control, and gives subtle cues to the horse. The basics of a good seat directly apply to fencing – the upright posture, the core stability, the slight tuck of the hips, and the propensity not to turn or twist as the balance shifts. Riders rarely have to be taught these things in fencing – true they may have to be reminded of them from time to time when you first put a sword in their hand, but the understanding is already there, “baked-in” to their understanding through hours of riding practice.

A slightly more obscure example is the understanding of distance and feeling working with horses gives. As much time working with horses is spent around them on foot as it is in the saddle (on reflection, considerably more, in fact). Horses shift and move around you as you work with them, even while doing the simplest of things, and you very quickly learn the sway and measure of a horse moving around you; when to yield to its movement, when to gently push, when to step away, and when to follow close. This understanding comes not through drilling a particular skill, but simply by working with the animal on a regular basis. Anyone who wants a preliminary lesson on Fuhlen should spend some time saddling horses or even trying to move them onto a float or into a stable.  

Today, though, we’ll be looking at two different ideas taken from fencing – Collection and Extension.

For simplicity and brevity we’ll consider Collected and Extended to be the only two options, though if you have a genuine interest in these ideas then I recommend you buy a horse… but only if you have decided that fencing by itself isn’t an expensive enough hobby for your liking.

Why Collection/Extension?

“All Art has length and measure.”

Having watched a seemingly endless number of longsword fencing videos over the years it, seems that extension of posture is one of the differentiating parmeters between “styles” of fencing.

Some fencers trend toward a “long” style of fencing – extended stances, sword out in front with a probing point, and explosive lunges.  Other fencers tend to favour the “short” position – compact and fairly upright, hands held well back and approaching under the cover of the hangings rather than long-point. This isn’t to say they didn’t adjust their position, rather that when teaching and fencing they came back more naturally to one state or another as a preferred “resting” point.

Regardless of preferred “standard” position the best fencers were generally those who at the right moment were able to shorten their fencing style, or lengthen it, to adapt to the situation, not just to reach further, but to manipulate their opponent tactically to entrap or deceive them.  In the arena of Longsword we can watch fights with Arto Fama, Martin Fabian, Anton Kohutovič, or Ties Kool, for example, and you’ll soon recognise a distinct preference of extended or contracted position, as well as the rapid transitions between them at the right moment.

Arto Fama showing his characteristic compact style

In looking for a practical language to express these ideas I found that martial arts and fencing lacked a holistic term which captures the nuances of this, but was immediately struck by the similarities to elements of dressage.

Dressage… You Mean that Horse Dance Thing?

Yes, exactly that. After all, dressage is a martial art.

Dressage gets a pretty bad rap by audiences these days. Widely considered painstakingly dull as spectator sports go, the typical fencer has probably spent very little time watching equestrian grand-prix events, and even less considering the principles involved. Like it or not, though, the modern sport of dressage finds its origins in the very same tradition of martial traditions which many people revere fencing. Considering that it is literally a style of riding horses in warfare dressage is very much a Martial art in the most exact and literal sense of the word.

Just as most people would agree that modern olympic fencing is very much different from using a longsword, the modern dressage we see in the Olympics today is equally distant from the dressage practiced by the old masters. However, just as modern fencing teaches many of the higher level lessons as historical fencing (timing, distance, etc), so the same lessons of modern dressage apply to its historical predecessor, albeit with a considerable difference in practical focus.

A river crossing in armour; notice the formations on the left – unachievable without considerable skill in what we now call dressage.

Skipping the extensive and convoluted history of military dressage, for now all we need to know is that the movements we see horses making in sporting competition were once essential for maneuvering a horse on the battlefield as part of a larger formation as well as individually within the lists. Moreover it was elements of these movements which would provide power, mobility, or speed, just at the right moment to make a mounted soldier effective in war, and this is where we’ll bring Collection and Extension come into the picture

Collection & Extension

Collection is best thought of as a ‘compact’ posture during a movement, but is actually a little more involved than that. Proper collection involves changing the balance of the horse through a combination of shortening their frame and bringing their hindquarters further beneath the body. The result of this is that the horse’s stride is shortened, and it’s weight is brought somewhat off the forehand (which is to say there is less weight held on the horse’s front legs, and as a result a little more toward the back).  

Collected Movement

We see this movement most obviously in named movements such as a “collected trot”, however collection and extension exists on a spectrum, and a horse’s movement may be artificially collected even more in the performance of the piaffe or the passage (but that is an entirely different path to explore if you’re so interested).

Extended Movemen

By comparison extension is a dramatic lengthening of posture and reach during movement. The goal here is to have the horse lengthen its stride while maintaining the same tempo. It is important to note that the horse isn’t changing gait (from trot to canter, say), nor is it necessarily moving its legs in a different rhythm than previously, instead it stretches out to cover more ground in the same time, yet still proceeding with grace and without haste. During a typical riding session we might see a rider change from a collected trot to an extended trot and back again multiple times as the need arises, moreso if they’re doing anything like historical/martial dressage.

So This is Just More Horse Dancing, Right?

Yes and no.

The real question is why is the rider is doing these things? If it’s just to show off skill, then maybe dance is the best comparison (just like performance martial arts), but collection and extension have an important purpose beyond simple aesthetics.

When a mounted fencer performs a collected movement (a collected canter, say) the aim is not the collection itself, but a gathering of potential energy and physical resources which can then be tapped to perform useful actions. Collection is like coiling up a spring tightly so we can release it later. We might collect the horse’s movement as part of a holding pattern in preparation for a Levade or the Airs Above the Ground (think of these as leaping/springing motions which again have martial application).  These movements require the horse to gather itself, and launch itself into the air and so collection becomes an essential preparatory movement.

Piaffe & Airs Above the Ground

Likewise collection changes the weighting of the horse, which alters the way it can be maneuvered.  Watch a horse in a tightly collected movement moving around a course and you’ll see that the shorter stride length and more centred weighting can make the horse dramatically more maneuverable in direction changes, volte and so on.

Arne showing the mobility of small movements

On the other side of the coin we have Extended movements. Collection is the natural antecedent to Extension in gait. Movements in Extension can best be achieved by preceding them with a Collected movement which is then released in a forward thrust into an Extended movement. The extension gives speed and ground coverage and, providing greater “reach” and changing the extent of motions without having to specifically break time.

Arne Koets discusses the extreme collected canter as a means of preparing for a surge
If only we were centaurs

The perceptive observer may have noticed by now that people are not horses, and unlike horses we tend to go about on two legs (unless you happen to be a centaur), leaving our forelegs free to do other useful thing like swing swords. This doesn’t mean that the principles of Extended and Collected positions don’t apply, however. On the contrary, while our legs are doing one thing, our body can do another – we can be extended in one modality and collected in another.

A Simple Fencing Parallel

By now most readers will probably have a good idea of where this is going, but the idea is worth exploring a further.  

The The idea of Collected movement “thrusting” forward into Extended movement brings to mind the most obvious case study of collected to extended position – a simple thrust on the lunge.  The technique may have many names, but largely the idea is the same no matter the source: we begin moving in a collected position and then dynamically transition to an extended stride on the lead leg, accompanied with extension of the arms (typically with the arm leading the motion, just like a horse’s forelegs lead the motion).

This brings to mind a transition between collected and extended movements in riding. The gait of a horse even has a “lead leg”, and it is very much possible to perform a change of this lead leg during the riding movement much as we change lead legs in fencing (flying changes are an example of this in practice).

Examples of collected to extended transitions, and continuous extension

Collecting our posture and movements in fencing, just as in riding, serves as a useful preparatory position, or as a way of managing distance cautiously as we advance, then, and the moment of perfect measure we allow the compressed spring of collection to uncoil out into extended posture, spending its energy but granting us reach, forward speed & momentum, and a deep stable end position. This is a trade off: our collection spent we are now in a relatively weak tactical and structural position, our mobility is gone and we’re quite open to attack.

The nice thing about the thrust on the lunge is that it is a holistic example of collected to extended movement, involving all parts of the body simultaneously.

Extended meets collected

This agreement of arms and legs need not be the case – our arms and legs can be doing different things, so we’ll consider the two categories of Collected/Extended in Arms and Legs separately.

Posture & Footwork

The easiest place to begin is with the closest analogue to the kind of collection we see in horses; body and leg/foot position. A horse in collection exhibits a few common characteristics as we discussed earlier:

  • More compact & upright body position
  • More weight toward the rear than they have in extension
  • Hindquarters brought ‘under’ more
  • Resources for a spring forward

In this regard we can draw direct comparisons between the equestrian and the pedestrian. Consider for example two (approximately) contemporary sidesword systems from the 16th century:

Sainct Didier Sidesword

The image above (Sainct Didier) displays all of the markers for collected posture – the body & head are upright, the weight is “under” the rear, and the figure looks ready to spring forward.  

Meyer Rappier

Conversely, in the second image (Meyer) we have the indicators of extended posture – stretched, posterior “back” and weighting further on the foreleg.

In both cases the implications for fencing hinge chiefly on whether the position is static (standing largely stationary), or dynamic (taken as part of a directional movement). Between the static/dynamic and collected/extended we have a number of benefits and drawbacks. These comparisons are largely drawn from experience, though common sense physics applies too

Static Comparison

The most obvious static comparison between the positions relates to stability. Stable positions exhibit a low centre of gravity and a wide base; we all recognise, for example, the inherent stability of pyramids and triangles.

In a Collected stance we are upright with the feet fairly close together.  The hips are “tucked under” us just as we see in the collected movement of a horse, and weight and propulsive power are more focused on the hind-leg than on the fore-leg. In this position we are less statically stable (a good shove will move us backward), but we are able to more quickly move directionally,

Statically in an extended position we are very stable (at least on certain axes), but are typically less able to move quickly in different directions, or change our movement direction midway through a step.

We see that the two have very different characteristics, some of which are summarised below:

AspectCollectedExtended
Weight DistributionMore rear weightedMore front weighted
StabilityA narrow “base” and higher centre of gravity means the structure is inherently unstable.The low centre of gravity and wide base means the posture is stable, particularly along the axis of the feet.
Ability to regain/adjust  balanceExcellent – any change in balance can be rectified with a simple step or movement in that direction.Poor – though stable, once balance is lost a major body movement is needed to regain balance.
ReachShoulders ar upright so reach is slightly shorter.Body is brought forward & gives further reach even with the same arm extension.
ExposureNo excessive exposure due to the posture itself. Everything is equally drawn back with no obvious open targets.The lead leg exposed through its forward positioning.

The lean of body exposes the head somewhat
Potential MobilityGood in all directions – the close foot position means the fencer can step in any directly without compromising the posture.
Movements are more difficult to make, especially those on the lateral lines.  The legs are already extended and the weight grounded, making it difficult to move quickly.

Dynamic Comparison

Our dynamic comparison compares two things – first the benefits of maintaining a collected or extended stride, and secondly the benefits of collected to extended transition while already moving.

A “collected” movement with the longsword is comprised of relatively short passing steps, or short advances, retreats, or lateral motions.  When we move into Extension in, say, a lunge, we kick out with a long movement of the foreleg and propel ourselves rapidly with the rear. Overall the time of an advance in collection and a lunge into extension occupy much the same tempo, but the result is dramatically different.

Again some key differences are discussed here.

AspectCollectedExtended
SpeedCollected movements are relatively short (so they maintain collection), and so don’t cover distance quickly.Very fast both as a single step and a continued movement – the broad stepping covers ground very quickly.

Unless we continue forward with gathering steps or passing the movement in extension is “spent” at the extent, and we can become somewhat “stuck”.
Ability to change directionThe steps don’t take a long time or compromise balance, so we can change direction very quickly.Once committed to an extended movement the momentum of the step and the commitment to the forward balance makes changes of direction more difficult.
ReachSlightly shorterVery long
Ability to change to other strideEasy to change to an extended movement if necessary at any time.Requires a moment to shed momentum to regain collection.

Arm & Hand Positions

Collected and extended positions of the arms are a qualitatively different from the body and legs. Our arm extension doesn’t propel us in any way, and so we must look at the merits of the two position with the arms across a different set of parameters. ‘

Static Comparison

In static positions a large differentiator between the positions is structural.

When we talk about structure we are usually talking about the relative stability of instability of a series of geometries.  Structurally speaking we can consider the human figure to be a number of articulated levers attached to a central “hub” (our body). These levers often form theoretical geometries in two and three dimensions (triangles, quadrilaterals, pyramids etc) and simple machines (levers) which demonstrate an inherent stability or weakness depending on the situation.

Consider the sword held in Langort (sword extended out).  The arms form a long thin triangle extended out, and the entire structure of arms and sword forms a long lever supported at the fulcrum of the shoulders, supported by relatively few large muscle groups well outside the body’s natural centre of balance.

By comparison Pflug (low and on-point) is held close to the body, elbows and forearms locked in close to the torso in a small squat supporting triangle, with a short lever.  It is supported by large core muscle groups close to the body’s centre of balance, and so is extremely strong.

Most of us have seen examples of this in practice. For example, we’ve all watched awkwardly as someone tries to grapple with an extended arm position, usually with disastrous results as they lack the strength to prosecute the attack, and are terribly exposed with delicate limbs extended out.

Even the sources hint at this with the weak and the strong of the sword, the weak being the extended part, and the strong the collected – so it goes with limbs as well.

AspectCollectedExtended
ReachCloser/shorter reach [Arms]Further/long reach [Arms]
StructureTypically stronger as the limbs move closer to the body. This means the strength of the body can be brought to bear more effectively.Weaker except in the forward direction
Exposure“Closed” – arms are not as exposed and blade covers a greater diagonal. “Open” – arms are exposed, blade threatens but does not usually cover diagonal effectively.

Dynamic Comparison

The dynamic comparison we’ll consider is slightly different. First let’s consider the overall movement differences between collected and extended arm positions.

AspectCollectedExtended
Speed/Kinetic EnergyMoving from a collected position is typically swifter than an extended one. A cut from Vom-Tag will usually be faster than a cut from an extended arm position as we can bring larger muscle groups to bear an more effectively use the leverage afforded by the grip.Performing techniques from an extended position is generally slower as smaller muscle groups of the wrist and forearm used, but the powerful acceleration of the shoulders and torso remains untapped.
ReachVery shortMaximal
ExposureSee static positionsSee static positions


There is another set of collection/extension parameters to consider – vertical and horizontal amplitude during limb movement. A horse in collection, for example, moves its front hooves in a relatively low amplitude along the axis of movement, whereas in an extended trot them move to a long horizontal amplitude.  Conversely when performing the Passage, for example, a horse’s hooves with more vertical amplitude than during an extended trot.

A similar example is using a dagger; a stab from above in an “ice pick” grip has great extension in its horizontal and vertical amplitude, while a stab forward in the “French” grip has very little vertical amplitude, but considerable extended longitudinal amplitude.

When considering “how” to cut with a longsword we should think not about finding the “one true and ultimate method” but more about about what we’re trying to achieve with the cut, and collect/extend ourselves accordingly.

  • If I want to cut through targets then I will need extension on both the vertical and longitudinal axes, allowing my arm geometry to be one large connected unit.
  • If my goal is to give an ultra-fast sniping cut ending on point then I am better off working in collection vertically, but extension horizontally.
  • If I am trying to cut into a short parrying to control my opponent’s blade and threaten them with the point prepared to thrust, then acting in collection on both the horizontal and vertical planes is he best choice.
  • Finally if I’m looking to suppress downward against an attack (such as we might see in Meyer’s sidesword, for example) I might work in extension vertically but collection horizontally.

The upshot of this is that there is no “right” way to cut, rather there is a series of tradeoffs and advantages depending on the tactical situation – one might decide in the moment (Indes!)

HorizontalVerticalResult
ExtendedExtendedA large parabolic cut excellent for cutting all the way through targets with power.
ExtendedCollectedA more ‘linear’ cut which is excellent for getting on-point with the opponent in the quickest possible way.
CollectedCollectedAn abbreviated cut which gives a short cut with a low hand position ideal for offsetting (versetzen) and being ready on-point for a follow up technique.
CollectedExtendedA chop down useful for suppressing incoming hard strikes.

So How Does this Help My Fencing

Basically it doesn’t… At least until we take the time to think about it.

Even a small amount of practical experience quickly shows us that an extended arm is easier to move around than a collected one, or that we can lunge better from collection than extension.  Intuitively we generally all know this to be true, though I daresay there isn’t one of us who has attempted a hasty remise off of a spent extended thrust or cut, only to find ourselves overeaching too much to effectively defend or attack.

This is where Collection and Extension com in. Just like Vor and Nach give us a framework for thinking about timing and initiative, so Collection and Extension grant us a theoretical framework for considering posture and structure.

This framework might aid us in developing drills or interpreting techniques from the sources. For each interpretation we might consider which fencer is in the Vor and which in the Nach, and why that’s the case, but we can also consider whose posture is collected at different stages of the technique, and why.

If there is a technique which I know the text says ends in a grapple then there’s every chance my arms should be in collection. After all, the parameters for collection favour structure over reach. Alternatively if I’m trying to plant the point on someone in a hasty advance, I should probably be in extension. Am I in the krieg? Well I’ll probably have to move my centre of balance around quickly, and I certainly need structure, so I’ll be collected in my posture and my arms. When practicing I can then pause and assess my collected/extended status to see why the technique might not be working for me.

This goes for drills too. Why not build drills where fencers actively explore collected and extended postures and movements for themselves, then discuss them. This process of discovery can be an important step in a fencer’s development, and it has been shown that discovery helps embed lessons better than simply laying out the solution. This is a critical part of reteaching the “basics” – why spend so much time on simple cuts from Vom Tag both in drill and practice? So we can feel the differences in extension and collection in different scenarios, of course.

Just like Vor and Nach, very soon you’ll be seeing extended and collected positions everywhere, cataloguing their benefits and drawbacks from experience, and applying those lessons to your own fencing. Until then ponder this; if a simple idea like Collected/Extended movement can yield an interesting new way to look at the well trodden material from the glosses, who knows what other secrets riders may be hiding without even knowing it.

This, however, I leave up to you.

1 thought on “From Equestrian to Pedestrian: Collection & Extension for Fencing on Foot

  1. Thank you! Very good exposition.
    As an aside, much of the criticism of modern dressage (and I think you allude to this) centres precisely on the “collection” issue – contestants are showing, and judges accepting, movements as “collection” which are nothing of the sort, but are artificial postures drilled into the horse with torture like “Rollkur”. One of the roots of the problem is that modern horses tend to be long-backed, and look stunning in extended movements but find true collection difficult, while the medieval and early modern war-horse was short-backed. Short-backed horses collect easily and naturally, but their extended gaits are not as impressive, so they get penalised by judges.
    My principled objection to your article would be that for me, collection in the horse is a dynamic matter – in battle, a stationary horse is a dead horse. In a human, by contrast, the fighting stance (aka, for me, “collection”) is of necessity static. I take your point on movement on foot, i.e. that it can be “collected” or “extended”, but I would argue that in the Krieg, all movements have to be “collected” until you commit to an attack, at which point, against an opponent who has good control of Mensur, you have to extend – if you don’t, you come up short and/or your opponent, with extension, will hit you.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.