By Wiola Grabowska
This subject is coming your way thanks to a little Twitter conversation I had last night on #EquineHour with Tail End Jewellery.
I like to think about the horse’s neck and head as if they were a barometer of what happens in the rest of the horse’s body. For this reason I generally prefer not to use any training devices that place the head and neck in a “desired” position.
Sometimes we will deal with the actual physical issues within the neck, head or poll but many a time these issues resolve or greatly improve once the body balance had been addressed.
It is common to try to immobilise the unsteady neck and head via stronger rein connection, variety of bits or perhaps with gadgets like draw reins. This might give the rider an illusion of stability or control but it is not a long term, wellness focused solution.
Body issues that can manifest themselves in neck stiffness or excessive movement of the the neck and head include misalignment (natural crookedness or rider caused crookedness), subtle and low grade lameness, back pain, hollow backed way of going as well as simple loses of balance in a young/green horse.
Before assuming the neck issue is The Issue, I personally prefer to address all the above possibilities. If I work with a rider who is also learning own balance and stability while remaining supple, the neck stiffness or contact issues are secondary to the rest of the body.
However, here is a suppling exercise to try on the ground – best with your instructor or a physiotherapist watching if you have any doubts as to whether you are doing it correctly. It might give you as a rider a better insight into the degree of tension your horse is really holding in the neck:
Poll flexion in-hand. Place one hand on the horse’s neck just behind the ears and the other on the nose just above the noseband. Both hands should be relaxed and never exerting any force on the horse. The “nose hand” acts in a slow, soft on-off manner to bring the nose towards you a little. Visualise all the structures around the atlas/axis joint loosening up as you softly bring the nose to the side. With your “neck hand” you can stroke the muscles you want relaxed adjusting the degree of pressure to what your horse perceives most relaxing. In the photo above, Mojo spotted something in the distance half-way through the release so although he is flexed at the poll he is also fixed in that position. The feel you are going for is one of release of all tension so pay close attention to yourself too…Any impatience or tension in you will affect the horse’s reactions. Horse’s eyes might close a little and ears go sideways a fraction too. Many horses find this exercise really relaxing once they realise there is no force in it. Done regularly and gently, it can help with habitual tension carried in the neck and poll due to issues further down the body. Repeat a few times on each side but bare in mind some horses can be protective about any parts of their body that feel a bit “off” so they can try to pull the head away or shake you off. Don’t force the issue, just repeat calmly a little bit each day.
The flexions in-hand can be developed into ones in-motion to help with alignment and relaxation on a circle as on photos below. If this is something you would like me to blog more about please let me know in the comments and I will add more on this next time.
Please consult your physiotherapist or a vet if in any doubt whether these exercises are suitable for your horse.