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"On the Bit???" Correct neck outlines from an anatomical perspective

One of the most common training goals is to achieve a harmonious connection between horse and rider, where the horse responds willingly and softly to the rider's aids.

A term that we hear a lot when training horses and is a key element of this connection is riding the horse ‘on the bit’. However I think this expression encourages the rider to focus too much on the bit and the horse's head. Where in reality to achieve a good outline it is vital to consider the whole horse and not just the position of the head and neck.

With so many negative examples illustrated on social media and in the news I thought it would be good to write an article to look at what riding your horse in an outline means from an anatomical perspective, how to assess it and how to improve it without causing tension or resistance and without even focussing "on the bit"!

Horses Inside Out and Gillian Higgins. Horse being ridden in trot showing skeleton
Riding in a correct outline takes correct riding and training to achieve

What is Riding in a Correct Outline?

What is right for one horse at one time will be different for another horse in another stage of training. Well trained horses should be able to perform in different head and neck positions from stretching long and low to up and collected and anything else in between but force should never be employed to create an outline.

The head and neck outline although may look still to a novice eye, in reality should be dynamic - constantly changing and moving. These alterations in head and neck position which we see between different gaits, movements and directions are vital for maintaining suppleness and 'relaxation'.

The horse's outline is a reflection of his way of going, stage of training and level of conditioning.

The horse should be working forwards into a consistent contact with his hindquarters engaged, his back is lifted and hind legs stepping through and under so that the horse can carry himself and his rider correctly. The neck should be arched and lifted from the underside. This may result with the poll being at the highest point and the nose being carried just in front of the vertical.

However so often focus too much focus is given to the height of the poll and the orientation of the neck. Sometimes rider's try to "get the nose" on the vertical so much that the rest of the horse's way of going is compromised. In my opinion what is more important is the shape on the underside of the neck and the position of the lower neck vertebrae.

It can be helpful to think of riding the horse up into the contact rather than using the term ‘on the bit’, which can cause people to focus too much on what the head and neck are doing and try to create the outline using their reins. All this does is create flexion between the the and and neck which can cause all sorts of tension and discomfort. Remember you’re trying to achieve lightness and connection from the back into a consistent and soft contact.

Assessing a Good Outline

assessing horse neck outline. correct and incorrect. dressage

Here are 2 key points to note with a true good outline:-

1. U instead of Vs

At the throat, the junction between the neck and the jaw should be an upside down 'U' shape not and upside down 'V' shape. The indicates there is space for the soft tissues around the throat. If a 'V' shape then the diameter of the pharynx is reduced. The pharynx, at the back of the mouth, is a space between the digestive and respiratory system, it sees the beginning of the oesophagus and the trachea and is where the epiglottis is located. Importantly swallowing happens here. Compression of it's diameter can reduce airflow and potentially affect swallowing. Overproduction of saliva when a horse is worked "on the bit" is not a good thing as it indicates that the horse is not swallowing.

2. The Neck Underline

The overall shape of the underline outline of the neck from just behind the throat (underneath the level of C2) to just in front of the sternum (underneath the level of C6) should be a straight line or curved upwards (concave) in a good outline. This is an indication that the neck vertebrae are in the correct position with the base of the neck (C4-T1) supported, lifted and retracted. Only with the base of the neck in this up and back position can the horse truly work in a correct outline in both the neck and back. Some horses find this easier than others depending on the breed and conformation.

So often we see horses that do not have the strength to lift the base of the neck and when this happens the outline of the underside of the neck bulges outwards (is convex). The brachiocephalic appears to bulge as the lower neck vertebrae are pushed down into it. This underline neck shape can happen even when the poll is at the highest point and the nose is on the vertical, hence these markers alone are not useful indicators of a truly good neck outline.

assessing neck outline and posture - correct and incorrect neck ouline

Although the picture here illustrates the differing neck underlines in standing, unridden horses. This marker is really useful to look out for with horses ridden in an outline.

Working our horses to strengthen the structures that support the base of the neck is something that we, as horse owners, riders and trainers should be focussing on more than the orientation of the nose. When we focus on this we will also be working to strengthen the back and hind quarters. There are lots of simple exercises we can do to help strengthen the muscles that support the base of the neck (read on!).

If you are keen to learn more about this subject, take a look at the on-demand webinar: Understanding Your Horse's Neck. It looks in detail at how positioning the horse’s head and neck influences back position, outline, movement, performance, comfort, welfare and way of going and I discuss and compares the effects of different outlines.

The benefits of working in a good outline

A good outline is another way of saying good posture - and we can all appreciate the benefits of that!

A good outline is a reflection of good posture and training. Riding your horse in a correct posture is beneficial to the horse's health and performance, allowing him to use his body more efficiently and reduce the risk of injuries. With a correct posture or way of going the forces through the body are more evenly distributed reducing the risk of repetitive strain injuries.

The main purpose of riding in an outline is to strengthen your horse by developing the muscles along the topline as well as his core muscles. This means that his muscles are better able to support himself and his rider, taking the strain off his skeletal frame and joints.

Other benefits include:

  • Improves the horse's posture, strength and flexibility, as well as improving balance and coordination, as it shifts its centre of gravity slightly backwards and engages the hindquarters more. This allows the horse to move more freely and perform transitions, turns and lateral work more easily.

  • Reduces injuries and discomfort that can result from riding with a hollow back, a stiff neck, or tense mouth.

  • Reduces tension in the horse's muscles, joints and tendons, as it encourages the horse to stretch and relax in the neck, back and limbs. This can also reduce the risk of injury.

  • From the rider’s perspective, riding a horse that is balanced, going in a correct frame, with a relaxed, supple back is easier and more comfortable to ride.

Riding in a Correct Frame

This isn’t something that can be achieved quickly or by using force or gadgets. It requires patience, practice and correct training. Here are a few things to focus on when you are riding to help you.

  1. Start with a good warm-up. Allow the horse to stretch his muscles, loosen his joints, and relax his mind. You can do this by riding him on a long rein at walk, trot, and canter, allowing him to move freely and comfortably. You can also incorporate some transitions, circles, serpentines, and changes of direction to keep him listening.

  2. Establish a good rhythm. One of the key elements of riding on the bit is having a consistent rhythm with the horse in front of your leg. This means that his strides are even, regular, and smooth. Riding forwards from the leg into a still and consistent contact is vital.

  3. Encourage the horse to work actively forwards. So often riders are so busy focussing on 'creating a good outline' that activity within the gait is lost. Remember, it is the activity which allows the horse to go into a contact.

"Forget about the front end and focus on getting the horse to work actively forward from behind."

5 ways to improve your horse's outline without focussing on the bit!

  1. Use canter work to encourage the horse to move and elongate his neck. Canter, particularly when ridden actively forward moves the body and spine in way that walk and trot doesn't. It is interesting to see how much the outline improves after canter work. This is something I regularly demonstrate at lecture demonstrations. For suggestions see:

  2. Use poles to get your horse altering his neck and upper body posture by thinking about his feet. I absolutely love using poles to improve posture and outline. It is a great strengthening exercise and encourages the horse to change his outline on his own. For suggestions see:

  3. Use lateral flexion and bending exercises to promote longitudinal suppleness and submission. For suggestions see:

  4. Stimulate the thoracic sling muscles to better support the base of the neck and the thorax. These muscles are key to achieving a good outline and posture. Learn more about them here:

  5. Use transitions These are another great way to encourage the horse to alter his own the head and neck position. By affecting the balance through repeated transitions the horse will naturally want to elevate the neck outline. Learn more here:

  6. Introduce collection exercises appropriate to the age and stage. Focussing on encouraging hindquarter strength and altering the balance to lighten his forehand will cause the horse to natrually want to alter the head and neck position. Collection exercises do not just comprise of collected gaits, half steps and piaffe! Learn more here:

  7. Take regular breaks. You should also give your horse regular breaks by letting him stretch his neck down or walk on a loose rein for a few minutes. Appreciate the muscular demands of what you are asking your horse to perform. This will keep him motivated and happy. Learn more here:

Dressage and Jumping, lecture demonstration, horses inside out, gillian higgins and Laura Tomlinson

I will be covering this topic and others at the live painted horse lecture demonstration at Hartpury Equine on 23 May 2024. This is an amazing opportunity discover more about how your horse works from the inside out.

And fantastic news... Laura Tomlinson will be the dressage rider at this demonstration with one of her advanced horses. This will give a fabulous opportunity to study and understand how the horse works up through the levels to the very top.

These demos are fun and interactive, and a great opportunity to discover more out equine anatomy and biomechanics. The subject is brought to life with the use of anatomically painted horses and riders wearing a skeleton suit to take your knowledge to a whole new level. You will come away with a clearer understanding of how to improve your horse's posture, movement, comfort and performance, and lots of practical tips and exercises to try with your own horse.

Laura said:

“I am excited to be riding at the Horses Inside Out lecture demonstration at Hartpury in May. As riders and trainers, it’s so important that we learn as much as we can about the anatomy and biomechanics of the horse. With this knowledge we can improve the way we train and care for our horses and ensure that they are as happy and comfortable as possible.”

Understanding the anatomy and biomechanics of riding your horse in different outlines is also discussed in the on-demand lecture demonstration Dressage Dissected. It covers many  popular topics of conversation in the horse world such as; how the horse maintains an outline, the different head and neck positions and how those different positions affect the movement and way of going of the horse.

Understanding the anatomy and biomechanics of riding your horse in different outlines is also discussed in the on-demand lecture demonstration Dressage Dissected. It covers many popular topics of conversation in the horse world such as; how the horse maintains an outline, the different head and neck positions and how those different positions affect the movement and way of going of the horse.

It also studies the very different ways a horse achieves "getting his nose on the vertical". And questions whether this really is the best marker for a good outline? Plus, it discuses what is the correct way of going for improving posture and musculoskeletal health and the positive impact on the horse’s performance.

The Damaging Effect of Hyperflexion

Sadly, we see too many horses being ridden in hyperflexion (where a horse is forced into an outline where its nose is behind the vertical). The leverage created in this position puts an unacceptable amount of pressure on the atlanto–occipital joint and the soft tissue structures on the underside of the neck. Disruption to the mechanics of this joint affects the posture of the entire spine.

Hyperflexion can:

  • Restrict circulation to the tongue

  • Pressure on the bars of the mouth

  • Severely restricts the windpipe

  • Crushes the soft tissue structures on the underside of the neck

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

  • Constricts the intervertebral foramina (spaces through which the spinal nerves exit from the spinal cord) potentially affecting neuromuscular control

  • Reduces the weight carried on the hindquarters making the horse heavy on the forehand

  • Alters limb movement often causing exaggerated movement in front and limiting range of movement behind

  • Prevents true collection by restricting the horse’s ability to step under causing the hocks to trail

  • Reduces hindlimb protraction

  • Restricts vision

Posture and Performance has a whole chapter dedicated to the Positioning of the Head and Neck. This book is such a valuable resource for riders and trainers, providing you with the principles of training the horse from an anatomical perspective.

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I wonder why you show horses behind the vertical when you know so much about the horse body. When a horse is behind the vertical, he cannot engage the base of the neck, he cannot turn in poll, when he cannot bend in the poll he cannot bend the spine, when he cannot bend the spine the hindlegs cannot engage. Try to sort this out.

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Very interesting and informative article.

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Great article. Thank you.

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