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Head First

Updated: Jun 5

A happy, comfortable horse is something all owners and trainers are striving for. Good management, feeding and training all play an integral part together with correctly fitting tack.

Horses Inside out: Horse in profile

Bridle fit and bitting is now, and quite rightly, seen as being just as important as the saddle and can have a huge impact on your horse’s performance and well-being.

Having a clearer understanding of equine biomechanics and anatomy of the head highlights the huge influence that using a correctly fitting bit and bridle can have on your horse’s way of going.

Also, as social license is starting to be questioned, it is important, whatever our involvement with horses that we have a thorough understanding of the pressures placed upon the horse’s head and the potential problems they can cause. Dental disease, bit and bridle fit can cause poor performance, and it is up to us to learn to recognise the signs when things aren’t quite right.

Bitting and Dental Disease in Horses

Learning a little about the anatomy of the head and mouth will go a long way to help you understand the need for correct bitting. As Dr Chris Pearce explained at this year’s Horses Inside Out Conference, quoting from The Loriner by Benjamin Latchford, published in 1871.

“The bit should be regarded as a key, to fit a lock – the perfect one should match and unlock the potential of the horse.”

He also explained during one of his presentations that there are seven-bit contact points and stressed that when the horse’s mouth is closed, there isn’t much room for the bit. This highlights why correct fitting is crucial and every horse should be treated as an individual.

“It's important to start with a pain-free horse,” says Chris. “There’s no point in looking at changing bits and tack if the horse has discomfort in his mouth. The basic principle of getting the teeth in good order before blaming the bit is crucial.”

Horses Inside out: Equine dentistry

When it comes to poor performance in horses and whether dental disease can be the cause, it’s vital to take a holistic approach. For your horse to perform at his best requires excellent function and coordination between all body systems. However, dental related pain shouldn’t be overlooked as a cause of reduced trainability.

There is anecdotal evidence in horses with dental disorders that show pain reactions, irritability, aggression and poor performance. It’s important that horse owners and trainers learn to recognise this behaviour and why there is the need for detailed, regular full mouth dental examinations.

This topic and others will be discussed in much more detail in our Get AHead seminar on Saturday 2 December 2023. This exciting one-day seminar is presented by Dr Chris Pearce and Gillian Higgins. Aimed at equestrian professionals and horse owners who are keen to learn about the anatomy of the horse’s head and how it can be applied to improve the comfort, training and way of going of the horse.

Horses Inside out: Get Ahead seminar with Dr Chris Pearce

Subjects to be covered will include:

  • Anatomical connections of the head to the rest of the body

  • Bitting injuries and how to avoid them

  • Dental disease as a cause of poor performance

  • Anatomy and problems in the TMJ and Hyoid Apparatus

  • Modern dental practices

  • Tips for bridle and bit fitting

You can watch from home via our live streaming option, or join us in-person at the Royal Agricultural University, Cirencester.

The Role of Bridle Fit

Horses Inside out: Labelled equine skull

It is crucial to have an understanding of the anatomy of your horse’s head. Learning about both the external, visible features and the more delicate internal structures of your horse’s head highlight why it’s so important to handle your horse’s head with sensitivity.

With this knowledge you will appreciate the effect you have on the delicate structures of the head when you are riding and recognise the importance of still, quiet hands and a consistent, even and gentle contact. Also, you will be better equipped lo fit a bridle and headcollar correctly and with your horse’s comfort in mind.

There are many external structures that need consideration when fitting a bridle, here's a bit more detail on two of them .

  1. The Poll is the highest point of the skull and there are many muscles and tendon that attach into the poll. The influential and important nuchal ligament originates here. The poll is extremely sensitive to pressure and is the area that the headpiece of the bridle or headcollar sits and comes into contact with the skull. Even applying light pressure to the bridle or headcollar can significantly influence your horse.

  2. The Nose and the bones in this area need careful consideration when fitting a noseband. It should be fitted below the rostral end of the facial crest and infraorbital foramen, which is the exit point for the facial nerves. A tight noseband can cause pain and may push the cheek against the teeth causing abrasions. It can also restrict tongue and jaw movement leading to muscle tension throughout the flexor and extensor muscle chains.

The Internal Structures

As well as studying the external structures of the horse’s head it’s also important to learn about the inner head structures. There are many complex structures to look at, here are a couple that will be looked at in more detail on the one-day seminar Get AHead.

Horses Inside out: The hyoid apparatus

The complex anatomical and biomechanical connections of the horse’s head - including the hyoid and the Temporomandibular Joint (TMJ) to the rest of the horse’s body mean that comfort in this area can have a positive or negative impact on the rest of the horse’s body and performance.

The Hyoid Apparatus is sometimes referred to as the tongue bone and is made up of five bones which are located at the base of the skull between the mandible and the larynx. It provides attachment for the tongue and some muscles, tendons and ligaments of the pharynx, neck, sternum and even the forelimb.

Although this part of your horse’s anatomy isn’t physically touched by the bit, because the tongue attaches directly into it, tongue restriction can affect breathing, neck position, posture, mobility and protraction of the forelimb.

Horses Inside out: The painted skull on a horse

The TMJ connects the lower and upper jaw through the articulation of the temporal bones, the mandible and surrounding tendons, ligaments and muscles.

Through the temporal bone, there’s a close relationship between the TMJ and the ear – similar to humans, it is the centre of balance. This affects equilibrium, proprioception, and posture. All locomotion depends on the relationship between the axial and appendicular skeleton of which, through the muscle chains the TMJ is key.

Many horses suffer from TMJ pain, which can be result of issues with the teeth, instability and imbalance in the joint itself or stress.

TMJ pain can have a negative affect on:

  • Balance

  • Behaviour

  • Performance

This seminar is going to a fascinating look at the horse's head and you are sure to come away with a whole host of information that you will be able to use to improve the health and welfare of the horse. It is something you don't want to miss.

Learning more about Equine Head Anatomy

Horses Inside out: The anatomy of the head

If you can't join us for this seminar but are keen to learn more about this subject why not take a look at the on-demand webinar Anatomy of the Head, which will boosts your knowledge on this subject and looks in detail at the internal and external structures of the head.

Another great resource is the book Illustrated Head Anatomy This multimedia book investigates and explains the anatomical structures of the head. It studies how these structures influence, and are influenced by, movement, biomechanics, the muscular and skeletal health and performance of the entire horse. This fascinating book also has four short explanatory online videos helping to bring this fascinating subject to life.


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