The body of a horse can move in ways that promote soundness or in ways that increase the risk of lameness and injury. This is why I believe in developing horses from a platform of self-carriage, as it is only in a state of self-carriage that a horse can use himself correctly. If a horse is not moving in self-carriage, the rider will need to hold the horse in whatever “frame” the rider is aiming for. Attempting to hold a horse in a certain position will always be problematic to some degree, for as I have discussed in previous articles, self-carriage is something that has to come from the horse, starting in the mind and manifesting throughout the entire body. One of the best ways to test whether you are holding your horse in a forced frame is to ask yourself the following three simple questions:
1. Do you use your reins to try to change your horse’s head position? The way I see it, the first rule of good riding is that the reins are not to be pulled on. Your goal is to make a contact with the reins that allows you to feel your horse, and for him to feel you, but that is all. Feel does not make your horse defensive, causing him to overbend or brace against your hands.
2. Do you feel a continual pull or weight in your reins? If you have weight in your reins, there is some degree of forehandedness and brace in your horse, which is his only possible response to being held in a frame.
3. Do you find that your horse bounces from light to heavy, light to heavy in your hands? The horse responds to rein pressure by tucking his chin to relieve the pressure (the “light” phase the rider feels), but remains inverted. The back is still hollow, the base of the neck is still low, and the hind end is still trailing. This unbalanced posture causes the weight of your horse to fall forward, he then catches his balance on the reins, and this creates the heaviness again. He then tries to relieve that pressure by once again tucking his chin, and the whole thing becomes a perpetual cycle.
In my last article, I explained some preliminary groundwork exercises to get you started, and, in this one, we’re going to continue that work by talking about how you can encourage correct lateral rotation of the poll.
The importance of being able to softly rotate or flex the poll laterally cannot be overstated. The poll is where the cervical spine connects with the skull and is thus the gateway to the hindquarters. If the poll is braced or twisting, you will often find that your horse is stiff through his whole body. True rotation of the poll allows your horse to use and balance his head and neck, essentially getting the weight of those parts “out of the way” so that the hind end can activate and come under your horse’s centerline with ease. Engaging the hind end is the key factor in establishing balance because when the hind end steps under your horse’s centre, he is able to hold up his own shoulders, as well as support your weight in the saddle – both critical aspects of self-carriage.
When the poll is rotating correctly, the jaw turns slightly into the neck as the skull softly gives in the direction of the bend you are asking for, and the plane of the jowl remains perpendicular to the ground, allowing the ears to stay level. If the poll is twisting instead of flexing correctly – a common problem – the ears will not stay level. Another common problem is that you may interpret bending of the neck for flexion of the poll. You need to be aware that your horse can bring his nose to your boot and still be braced in the poll, so it is important to recognize the difference between bending the neck and rotating the poll.
Groundwork Equipment for Flexing the Poll
Before attempting to ask your horse to flex at the poll under saddle, it is extremely useful to teach this exercise from the ground first. This is best done using a traditional lunging cavesson with your lead clipped to the ring at the top of the noseband, as having your pressure coming from the bridge of the nose encourages the poll to articulate correctly. If you use a halter with the rope tied or clipped to the bottom, the halter tends to twist, creating pressure that promotes counterflexion and/or twisting of the poll, neither of which is what you want. Clipping to the side of a halter that has side rings works better than clipping to the bottom, but it still doesn’t give the same clarity of effect as having the pressure come from the top of the nose, especially when the horse is just learning.
If you don’t have a lunging cavesson, but do have a rope halter, I have come up with a simple rope halter modification that works well for this exercise, which I call the “cowboy cavesson.” To create one, all you have to do is wrap your lead around the noseband so that the pressure the halter exerts comes from the bridge of the nose (see page 32). You want to start with a rope halter that fits well, as a loose halter will twist, even with the wrapped lead on it, while one that is too tight will not give you room to wrap the lead.
Be sure you are not applying too much pressure on the lead rope. If you are pulling on your horse, he will brace against it. Flexion of the poll is a subtle question that should only be asked with feel and clarity, not force. Try not to set your horse up to be defensive by attempting to make him respond, as his mind needs to stay present, calm and willing, and the muscles in the neck must be relaxed in order for him to release his poll. If you want your horse to follow a feel softly, the request you put into the lead should match the response you are seeking, and will, therefore, be equally soft.
The Poll Flexion Exercise
Assuming that your horse knows how to relax his head and neck upon request while standing and walking (see May/June Horse Canada), you are ready to start teaching rotation of the poll. I like to begin this work without the halter on, but it can be done in the halter or cavesson as well. I start by laying my hands on the horse’s head, one over the bridge of the nose and the other on the side of the cheek. I then use gentle pressure directly from my hands to ask the horse to turn his head just slightly. Keep in mind as you do so, you are only asking your horse to flex laterally at the first joint of the neck, so you are not looking for a big bend or movement.
If your horse is rotating the poll laterally, the ears will stay level. If one ear gets higher than the other, the poll is twisting rather than flexing correctly. The nostrils should also stay level, and the muzzle should not come in too much or tuck downward. If the muzzle does either of these things, you are getting bend in the neck, and you only want flexion in the poll at this point.
When you can get an easy flow of flexion to either side with just your hands, try it with the cowboy cavesson or a true cavesson, and you can also try it with a snaffle bridle or sidepull. You can always go back to helping your horse answer your request with your hands again if he is struggling. Once you can do the exercise standing, you are ready to try it in motion from the ground. Ask your horse to soften his head and neck, carry that into a walk, then ask for rotation of the poll. Don’t expect your horse to hold it for more than a step or two at first – this is something you build over time.
Another important note: at any stage of this exercise, don’t do a lot of repetitions all at once. Only ask two or three times before you give the horse a break, as working with his head is a sensitive request. I believe it is important to understand that while the yield you are asking for in this exercise is small, it has great meaning to the horse, for releasing at the poll opens the door to the entire body, and your horse knows this. We must never underestimate the fact that when a horse truly gives his body over to our request, he is no longer using it to protect himself, and this makes him extremely vulnerable. His willingness to do this shows that he is placing great trust in you, so you must make it your highest priority to honour that trust and prove that you are worthy of it.