The argument can be made that there are actually only two kinds of things one can do with a horse’s head, no matter what each discipline’s purists would say. There is fashion, and then there is therapy.
Under fashion, according to Deb Bennett, PhD, comes a positioning of head and neck that has no functional relation to improving performance. Bennett would characterize fashionable training as borderline cruelty, coming from no athletic need. Therapy, in her view, includes aiding the horse in finding his own balance, engaging his quarters and softening any resistances he has developed along the way.
A park-type horse, who has backed off the bridle too much and seems to hover just above the bit, is holding his head in a position that’s not related to the engagement of his hindquarters, Bennett says. The rhomboideus muscles of such an animal have been shortened and strengthened through standing in a bitting rig with no accompanying forward motion, she notes, and he has lost the ability to drop his head even when released, simply through hypertrophy of those top rhomboideus muscles.
This type of horse is not so different from an incorrectly trained dressage mount whose rider has forgotten the basic tenets of “long and low” and “showing the horse the way to the ground” espoused by the sport’s fathers. Such a horse has been jammed into “a frame,” to use a phrase Bennett wishes riders would ignore in favor of something less evocative of a posture imposed from outside.
Bennett contrasts these sorts of horses with one whose head carriage is directly related to the increased efficiency of his hindquarters.
The horse is at his most beautiful and athletic when the hocks come under the body and engage, the back bascules and the neck flexes up and out in a telescoping movement, Bennett says. “Flexing the poll is not the most important thing. The poll comes for free if you work on raising the root of the neck.”
Unfortunately, that neck-telescoping gesture can be the cause of some confusion. Merely pulling a horse’s chin back into his chest does not qualify, nor does raising his poll as if he were peering over a six-foot wall. The gesture involves the contraction of a group of muscles located deep in the horse’s neck (the scalenus) accompanied by a stretching of the higher rhomboideus muscles and to some extent the trapezius muscles. And as Bennett sees it, any gadget placed on the horse must aid the scalenus muscles, not hinder them.
How can you tell if your favorite gadget is a scalenus helper or hinderer? One key is to see where it ties into the horse’s neck, and whether it prevents a reasonable stretching out of the nose. The lower the attachment, the more aid it is to the scalenus, Bennett says, but it also has more potential for pulling a horse over onto his forehand. Draw reins and the chambon, if used to pull a horse down rather than “bump and drop” his nose into place, are faulted for this.
Side reins, provided they lie no higher than the fifth cervical vertebra, can be helpful for flexing the neck and serving as a crutch to the scalenus, but cannot simultaneously allow the horse to stretch down. Their usefulness for that reason is limited.
A higher arrangement, such as an overcheck, promotes the hypertrophy and stiffening of the rhomboideus and trapezius muscles and prevents the horse from raising the root of his neck through efforts of the scalenus. But a related piece of equipment, the chambon, is one of the few leverage devices which Bennett considers well-designed for this job. Placed on a fully broken horse and adjusted to neither flap in the breeze nor strain unremittingly, it can be a powerful aid to strengthen the scalenus muscles.
On a correctly adjusted bitting rig, the combination of poll pressure with an upward, gag-like draw on the bit, plus a tie-in below the root of the neck to the girth, is also designed to aid the horse in making a neck-telescoping gesture. He can simultaneously raise the root of his neck and stretch the topline while being longed, and he punishes or rewards himself instantly by merely shifting the curve of his neck. But forward movement is not to be minimized.
“In any workout you have to strike an intelligent balance between stretching the topline and exercises which contract it,” she says, and if you concentrate on the horse’s face and neck the whole time, “it’s like cutting a boat in two-don’t forget the half that has the motor!”
This article first appeared in November 1989 of EQUUS Magazine.