I hope that all of you are having a great start to the New Year
with your horses and your own lives. I have been traveling working
with various horses and getting to know more and more people within
my new community here in the Louisville, KY area.
Over the last few months, every horse I have worked with, all
different breeds and disciplines, have been very tight in the
poll area, jaw and neck. There are several reasons for this any
of which may apply to your horse.
- Teeth and Mouth Issues
Unlike our teeth, horses teeth constantly grow and are shaped
and molded by the jaw glide and mouth movement as they chew
their food and graze. If there mouth function is not level,
balanced, smooth and properly gliding as they chew problems
commence. Problems can also come from eating dense forage
with sticks and thorns in it causing soft tissue injuries
inside the mouth cavity. As teeth get sharp, broken, uneven
and waves are created the horse begins compensating and muscles
get tight and sore, headaches occur and the joints begin to
overwork in uncomfortable ways which causes inflammation.
The mouth issues are then carried into the whole body creating
tension, bracing and compensating muscle issues.
Most mouth issues are demonstrated in the way they chew their
food and carry a bit. The horse's breath may become foul if
there is an abscess or injury in the mouth. Horses will tilt
their head, bob up and down, quid or throw their food as they
eat, move the jaw in uneven, slow motions, and eat very slowly
or eat a little and come back at intervals. You may also notice
a great deal of undigested grain in their manure due to lack
of chewing and mastication.
Mouth issues can show up while carrying the bit. The horse
will throw his head, shake his head, tilt the head, refuse
to go straight into the bridle, fight flexion in the poll,
overflex to avoid contact on the bit, get his tongue over
the bit and generally be sour or cranky.
Solutions: Have the horse floated by a professional
equine dentist at least once per year. This does not
mean a routine check up by a vet with a rasp that does some
filing. You want a complete examination and float conducted
by a specialist. It is worth every bit of money you have to
pay and trouble you have to go to find an expert in this area.
Simple filing and a glimpse into the mouth is not a solution.
- Horse goes on the forehand or loads the front end under
A horse in movement (with no rider) will carry approximately
70% of his weight on his front end. In other words he loads
the front end with a large percentage of his weight as he
moves. The back end pushes and the front end gets loaded and
pulls forward and so on.
When we ride them and add our weight to this natural carriage
the horse's front end is now under tremendous pressure and
takes a great deal of pounding. In order to compensate the
horse will try to lift the head and neck as a counter lever
to balance out the load that pounds with every stride on his
front legs. This pattern of "going on the forehand" leads
to poor posture, stiff joints, muscle tension, tight poll
and neck, foot issues from undue concussion, and teeth grinding
or jaw clinching out of frustration.
In addition to the horse being ridden "on the forehand" we
have horses that are built "downhill". This means that the
horse's conformation is such that his wither is lower than
his croup and he will always be compensating when a rider
is on his back. This type of horse is susceptible to chronic
injury and lameness and a sour attitude not to mention a very
uncomfortable ride and difficulty balancing in the saddle.
Most horses and riders are in this pattern and I see it over
and over. I am called in to find out why the horse's behavior
is bad and we end up peeling off the layers that lead to the
behavior and starting over.
Solutions: All horses are to be ridden in a properly
placed and fitted saddle placed at least one inch behind the
shoulder blade (and a flat hand's length in front of the hip
for western saddles). The saddle tree should be wide enough
to accommodate changes in the horse's muscling, diet, use
and age. The saddle tree should also support the rider's pelvic
structure and seat bone placement to allow for balance and
freedom in movement. And finally the stirrup bars need to
be located in a place where the rider's hip joint and leg
can operate in alignment with the pelvis and spine.
There are several pieces which need to come together for
the horse to travel in self-carriage and load the joints evenly.
The horse needs to develop proper posture, alignment and straightness
through ground work, proper leading and under saddle techniques.
There are many exercises I teach to achieve this including
Connected Ground Work and Riding which you can read about
The postural work begins in the way you tie and groom your
horse, to leading, to mounting and riding. And it is present
in your intention all the time around your horse.
The horse needs to develop "carrying" abdominal muscles and
be clear and supple throughout his whole body in order to
evenly load the joints and carry himself. Just because a horse
is in an "upper level frame of collection" does not mean he
is evenly loaded or off the forehand. A horse in self-carriage
loads the hind end joints, engages his core or abdominal set
of muscles, lifts the rib cage, lifts the back, lifts the
shoulder, the wither comes up and the neck and head telescope
out in front of the rider. The horse is very easy to "sit"
in self-carriage, they become very light to ride and gain
a great deal of power. Now the horse has a chance to work
or perform into a very old age and stay sound.
The rider is also an integral piece of this. If the rider
is out of balance, out of alignment, weak in the core abdominal
muscles, tight with the hands, unable to ride with an independent
seat, curls or rolls the feet in the stirrup and compensates
with the upper body and back the horse is always going to
struggle with their own balance and may develop tension in
the jaw and neck to compensate.
Many times riders and trainers will add draw reins, side
reins, tie downs and tight nosebands to try and manage the
horse for the ineffective rider. Again the horse pays the
price of a tight jaw, tight poll and tight neck to try and
perform with equipment that limits their freedom.
And the last piece is to own and ride horses that are bred
to carry a rider in balance. Look for horses that have an
even wither and croup or a wither that is higher than the
croup. This will increase your chances of riding a horse that
can manage your weight in self-carriage.
- Fear-based Training
I also see a great deal of head and neck issues coming from
fear-based training. This is training that teaches horses
to react or move from fear rather than thinking and processing
When horses are afraid or reactive they get tense in their
head and neck and typically go around head high with their
eyes wide open. Then of course you would "fix" that with tie
down equipment, making it even worse. Over time this pattern
becomes damaging and the head and neck become chronically
sore. The horse stays sour and wants nothing to do with humans.
They may tolerate people but would just as soon not deal with
us if they don't have to.
This is where I see horses get dangerous, angry, unsafe and
unreliable. I can't blame them. I'd be resentful too.
Solutions: Start horses in a way where they look to
you as their herd mate and want to be with you. They choose
you over everything else available. When I meet and work with
a horse I always start with aromatherapy, maybe Bach Flowers
Rescue Remedy if needed too, massage, stretches and acknowledgements.
From there we move to connected ground work and they feel
as though they can give up their prey and herd defenses to
me and to the owner/handler and be safe. I can ask questions
and give them challenges for them to think, answer and be
rewarded. Then I allow them time to think, stretch and release
after each movement.
After a few sessions they don't want to misbehave or be unruly.
They enjoy being with us and get very comfortable. We keep
expanding and expanding this experience and take it to the
mounted work and eventually out into the open fields, forests
and horse shows.
- Subluxation and Misalignments
The tightness, tension and inability to flex comfortably
and travel straight through the poll may be due to subluxation
of the atlas joint, cranial bone, cervical spine, and/or jaw
Solutions: Have your horse adjusted by a professional
equine chiropractor as soon as possible. You may or may not
be satisfied with the results from a session so consider trying
several different chiropractors before you settle on which
one is the most beneficial to your horse's needs. Myo-fascial
and cranial-sacral work is extremely helpful in this area
also and there are horse practitioners around the US.
It is incredibly rewarding to feel all the tension and stress
released from a horse and have a soft and supple head and
neck for a change. And the horse is deeply grateful for the
relief as well!
I hope that this newsletter will inspire you to take a look
at your relationship with your horse and their issues. I want
the happiest of partnerships for you and your horse!
I will be at the Michigan Horse Expo as a clinician from March
7-9 in East Lansing. I hope to see and meet all of you and your
horses some day soon!!
Call or write me anytime.