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How Your Horse's Outline Affects His Way of Going

Updated: Nov 16, 2022

On the bit, outline, frame whatever phrase you use, it's always a hot topic between riders, trainers, and dressage judges - in fact almost everyone in the horse world has an opinion on this subject.

Understanding your horses neck, ridden horse, skeleton

First and foremost, the horse's welfare is essential. He must be able to move freely with regular gaits, and allowed to carry his head in a relaxed, comfortable position without restriction.

Where the horse positions his head and neck influences so many things including his balance, movement and performance both physically and psychologically.

Understanding the function and structure of the neck will help us to train with empathy and use exercises and a neck outline that are appropriate for the horse's age, muscle condition and stage of training.

There is a whole webinar dedicated to the anatomy and biomechanics of this subject. Understanding Your Horse's Neck

Also there is a chapter dedicated to this subject in my book Posture and Performance. In this blog I'm going to cover several areas that can be overlooked but are seriously impacted by the position of the head and neck.

How the Head and Neck Position Affects Breathing

For the airways to function at their best, they need to be unrestricted and open. Any artificial head positions, whether created by restraining tack or the rider's hands will cause some restriction making it difficult for the horse to breathe. This is a particularly important consideration when training horses with upper respiratory tract dysfunction.

For maximum airflow the pharyngeal diameter is at its greatest when the neck is extended. The diameter of the pharynx is reduced when the head and neck is flexed. The varying degrees of flexion deemed necessary by some show jumpers or dressage riders reduces the airflow.

Respratory system painted horse

A forced bend at the throat always causes some resistance as the pharynx is compressed and the trachea flexes and shortens. When extremely overbent, the horse may struggle to breathe, ‘make a noise’ as the vocal cords vibrate, or resist the rider's demands by dropping the head or coming behind the bit. In this case performance and comfort may well suffer. Imagine if you were forced to run a marathon with your chin on your chest - it's not possible!

How the Head and Neck Position Affects Vision

The horse needs to position his head in order to focus. Monocular vision allows him to see different things from each eye whilst binocular vision allows him to judge distance.

In order to focus on something in the distance the horse will raise his head. A horse approaching a jump needs to lift his head in order to assess the height and depth of the obstacle.

When a horse is over flexed, his field of vision, which is then directed towards the ground or in some cases back towards his feet, is diminished. With no forward view, and a blind spot in front of him, the horse is forced put all his trust in the rider. He will also find breathing difficult as the trachea is severely restricted and air flow is reduced.

The Damaging Effect of Hyperflexion

The leverage created in this position is often painful for the horse and puts an unacceptable amount of pressure on the small atlanto–occipital joint. Any disruption to the mechanics of this joint can affect the posture of the entire spine. It's used by insensitive riders wanting complete submission from their horse.

How Hyperflexion Can Harm Your Horse:

  1. Tension, strain and potential damage to the nuchal ligament particularly in the upper cervical region

  2. A severely restricted windpipe

  3. Crushing of the soft tissue structures on the underside of the neck

  4. Pressure on the bars of the mouth

  5. Restriction in circulation to the tongue

  6. Excessive recruitment and shortening of the scalene, longus colli, brachiocephalic, sternomandibular and some of the thoracic sling muscles

  7. Constricted intervertebral foramina (spaces through which the spinal nerves exit from the spinal cord) potentially affecting neuromuscular control

  8. Reduction of weight carried on the hindquarters making the horse heavy on the forehand

  9. Prevention of true collection by restricting the ability to step under causing the hocks to trail

  10. Reduced hindlimb protraction

  11. Restricted vision

Hindering performance

When the horse is ridden in an overbent position it has a negative effect on his overall way of going.

Nuchal ligament, ventral longitudinal ligament, supraspinous ligament, painted horse

The nuchal ligament has its strongest attachment into the second cervical vertebrae and the poll. Riding a horse in an extremely overbent position increases the strain on the axis, atlas and occiput. This increases the risk of injury to the nuchal ligament in this area.

Ridden in an overbent position, the jaw, TMJ, atlanto-occipital joint and atlanto-axial joint often become fixed acting as one unit. Lateral flexion at the poll becomes difficult and the horse will try and compensate by using the less flexible mid section of his neck to create bend. As the nuchal, supraspinous and dorsal sacroiliac ligaments are all connected, the entire dorsal chain will be adversely affected thus creating an imbalance that inhibits engagement, posture and performance.

Gadgets, ‘schooling aids’ or forcing the horse into submissive positions are no substitute for slow, sensitive and correct training.

Riding in a Correct Frame

To reduce tension and resistance in the neck and rectify an incorrect outline you need to:

  1. Ride quietly with still hands and a gentle, steady contact.

  2. Incorporate working in a stretching forward and down neck position into your training.

  3. Encourage the horse to work from behind to bring the hindleg under the body to help lift and lighten the forehand.

  4. Always ride forward and make sure the horse is in front of the leg.

  5. Use lateral flexion and bending exercises to promote longitudinal suppleness and submission.

  6. Stimulate the thoracic sling muscles by using lateral work and rein back.

  7. Use canter and fast work to encourage the horse to extend his neck.

Learn more about this topic:-

Understanding your horses neck, painted horse and rider, skeleton



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