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This article explains why the traditional technique of neck and poll flexions can still be a useful training tool for the modern dressage horse. It describes mounted as well as dismounted suppling exercises for the neck and poll, and it lists important dos and doníts that must be observed so that the flexions can serve their intended purpose.
The Old Masters called the poll the "key to the spine and the hindquarters", and they taught that "one is the indisputable master of one's horse only as long as one is the master of the poll" (B.H.v.Holleuffer, 1896), because if the poll is locked, the impulses of the hind legs cannot reach the bit, and the half halts cannot reach the hind legs. Consequently, the circle of aids cannot be completed. Furthermore, horses whose poll is locked up are often also behind the leg because their hind legs are blocked as a result. Their back does not swing, because the stiff poll does not allow their hind legs to step enough underneath the body mass. When the stiffness in the poll is removed, the horse is suddenly more in front of the riderís legs, the back swings more, and the hind legs step better underneath. P>
This stiffness in the poll can be caused by conformational challenges, soundness issues, by past training mistakes, crookedness, or current stiffnesses in the riderís hips or hands. Riderís mistakes, seat flaws, and crookedness need to be eliminated first before the flexions can be beneficial at all. They are not a miracle cure that solves all problems, but they are a useful tool that can eliminate tensions that originate in the poll and neck.
The challenge for the trainer lies in being able to pinpoint exactly which joint in the neck is not moving with its full range of motion, which muscles are stiff, and to stretch those stiff muscles by flexing in the opposite direction, i.e. making them the outside ones. This requires some feel and experience.
Most horses are more supple at the base of the neck and stiffer at the poll. In order for the aids and the impulsion of the hind legs to go through, the neck has to be most solid and most connected at the base and most flexible at the top, just like a tree branch is thickest and most solid where it attaches to the trunk and most flexible at the tip, where the leaves attach.
All horses will try to yield first in the parts of the body that are naturally most flexible, such as the base of the neck. They try to avoid flexing the stiff areas as much as they can, such as the poll in many cases. Unfortunately, the areas in which the horse tries to yield first are not always the parts that we as riders need to flex. In order to be able to access the stiff joints and muscle groups and to make them supple and elastic, we need to stabilize and connect the hyper flexible ones first, so that the horse does not develop any false bends. This stabilization of the base of the neck is achieved through the appropriate interaction between inside and outside rein, as well as through the riderís well-engaged core muscles. Simply put, the looser the outside rein is, the more the neck will flex towards the base. The shorter the outside rein is, the more the lateral flexion will become limited to the poll.
The Old Masters discovered that an uninhibited connection between the haunches and the bit can only be established, if the jowls can be connected to the neck muscles and the head can easily be turned left or right with varying degrees of elevation without losing the connection between the rim of the inside jowl and the neck. The biggest obstacle the rider encounters in this endeavor is the saliva gland. If it gets pinched between the jowl and the neck, it is quite uncomfortable, even painful and can lead to head tossing, rein lameness, and even rearing and spinning around. The thinner the neck, the smaller the jowls, and the thinner and shorter the saliva glands are, the easier it is to establish a connection between the jowls and the neck muscles without the interference of the saliva glands. The shorter and thicker the neck is Ė especially at the top -, the larger the jowls and the saliva glands are, the more difficult it becomes to supple the poll sufficiently for a good jowl-neck connection. Thatís why horses with short, thick necks and fleshy throatlatch areas are generally more difficult to ride on the bit with good elevation than those horses who have a long neck that tapers off towards the poll, whose throatlatch area provides more space.
The saliva gland can be moved out of the way so that it no longer gets caught between the lower jaw and the underneck muscles, if the surrounding soft tissue is stretched and supple. The tool that the rider uses for this purpose is the rim of the jowl. The jowl rim is pushed underneath the saliva gland by positioning and flexing the poll laterally in order to move the saliva gland to the outside of the jowl. In horses who have wide jowls that flare out to the side there may also be room for the saliva gland on the inside of the jowls.
Reshaping the musculature that surrounds the poll is a gradual process that may take some time, depending on the horseís conformation. The rider begins this suppling work with a somewhat lower degree of elevation of the neck. The horseís mouth will approximately be level with the shoulder joint. One has to find the position in which the horse can let his head hang vertically without difficulty. The lower the neck position, the larger the space between the jowl and the underneck becomes, which obviously makes it easier to obtain a vertical head position. The more the neck is elevated, the smaller this space becomes, which makes it more difficult to obtain a vertical head position without resistance. Thatís why one has to start with a lower degree of elevation at first. The elevation is increased gradually, as the suppleness of the throatlatch area increases. To the extent that the elevation of the neck becomes higher, the longitudinal flexion of the neck as well as the poll has to increase in order to keep the horse on the bit. The length of the horseís neck sets a certain limit for how much the horse can elevate his neck without coming above the bit. Horses with short necks canít arch and elevate their necks as much as horses with longer necks. The other important factor that has to be considered here is the flexion of the haunches. The elevation of the neck has to match the tucking and lowering of the horseís pelvis. Otherwise, the back will be suppressed by the excessive elevation of the neck in relation to the degree of flexion of the haunches, i.e. collection that the horse is capable of.
When the poll is so locked up that the horse is unable to turn just his head left or right in a vertical position, while the neck remains laterally unflexed, we have to allow additional neck vertebrae to participate in the lateral bend to find a position in which the horse is able to yield to the pressure of the riderís hand. Itís important that the horse not only turns his head and neck, but that he softens and becomes light in hand as well. The lateral neck bend is then gradually decreased until only the head is turned laterally, while the neck is arched longitudinally, but straight laterally. The nuchal ligament will flip to the inside of the bend when the horse relaxes into the flexion.
There are many different flexion techniques. I will describe a few that I have personally found to be effective with a large number of horses. Flexions can be carried out in the saddle, in motion, as well as at the halt, and they can be done dismounted. You can use a longeing cavesson, a snaffle, or a double bridle. You can even use a hand on the horseís nose and one on the neck, without any bridle, although that is not always as effective. I generally prefer a full cheek snaffle, since it cannot be pulled through the horseís mouth, and it applies slight pressure from the opposite side on the horseís cheek, which makes the effect of the rein perhaps a little milder on the one hand, and it explains to the horse the concept of yielding to rein pressure more effectively, on the other.
Many exercises are easier for the horse to learn when the rider can explain them to him on the ground first, before the exercise is attempted under saddle. I will therefore start with unmounted flexions that can be done as part of the warm-up before the ride. Especially with younger horses it can also be useful to dismount during the ride, do some flexions in hand, and then continue the ride.
- Stand in front of the horse and insert one thumb through each snaffle ring. Cradle the horseís chin in your hands. His head should be vertical. Gently turn his head to one side by applying a light pressure on one snaffle ring. Simultaneously, apply pressure with the palm of your opposite hand against the horseís cheek and turn the horseís head with both hands. Try to keep the neck itself straight at the same time. In most cases, you will find some resistance in the poll at first. Straighten the head again and repeat the flexion in the same direction as often as necessary. Sometimes you have to allow a part of the neck to participate by increasing and decreasing the flexion, until you can reach the poll and the horse releases the tension in those muscles. When you have obtained some suppleness at the very top of the neck, increase the lateral flexion by allowing one vertebra at a time to be included in the flexion. This way, you can scan the neck to find exactly which vertebrae seem stuck together and are not moving. By repeating the flexion you can soften and supple these areas until they move smoothly again. The more the flexion approaches the base of the neck, the lower the elevation has to become, so that the horseís mouth is approximately level with the shoulder joint. When the flexions have softened the horse on one side, they have to be repeated on the other side. When the tightness in the neck and poll has been dissolved and the horse has yielded to the pressure of the bit, he will usually stretch straight forward and down. Many horses will chew or lick their lips as well at that point.
- Stand beside the poll, e.g. on the left side of the horse. Insert one or two fingers of your left hand into the left snaffle ring. Put either the palm of your right hand or the right fist onto the first neck vertebra, right behind the poll. Apply some pressure with your right hand against the neck while applying steady light traction on the snaffle ring with your left hand towards yourself. The horse has to turn his head towards you, look at you, become light in your left hand, and soft under your right hand. When this yielding and softening has been achieved at the top of the neck, move your right hand down to the next vertebra and repeat the flexion, until you reach the base of the neck. With your right hand you can feel lumps and hard areas in the underneck musculature where the range of motion is compromised. You can also frequently see sections of the neck (especially in the C3 - C5 area) that initially remain straight and appear stuck together, as if bending were not possible. As the neck becomes more flexible, the hard, lumpy areas disappear, and so do the straight sections. The lateral bend of the neck forms a uniform curve, and the musculature becomes soft and smooth.
The horse stores emotions in these tight muscles. You can often observe that the horse is tense and agitated at the beginning of the flexions. As the physical tension leaves his body, he will also become calm and mentally relaxed. When the left side has become soft, go to the right side and repeat the flexions.
Under saddle, flexions can be done in several different, but related ways. They all share in common that one rein has to connect the base of the horseís neck to the shoulder and determine which part of the neck participates in the flexion by passively resisting more or less, while the opposite rein asks actively for the flexion. The framing rein straightens the neck again after the flexion. The rider should never flex in an alternating sequence of right Ė left Ė right Ė left. That would amount to see-sawing, which compromises the stability of the base of the neck, and it shortens the neck. Instead, the flexion can be repeated several times in the same direction, e.g. flex left, straighten, flex left again, straighten, etc.
This can be done at the halt or in motion. At the halt, the horse should carry his weight squarely and evenly on all four legs. If one or both hind legs are out behind the horse, the body mass of the horse will lean against the flexing rein and the rider will encounter a great deal of resistance. As soon as both hind legs are brought underneath the body mass, this resistance will disappear and the flexion will go through.
In motion, the flexing rein aid can be applied either when the front leg on the same side is on the ground, or when the hind leg on the same side is on the ground. Each can have a different effect on the horse.
Before flexing, the rider should scan the horseís body first with the rein to determine the level of resistance/stiffness in the horse, so that the horse does not feel ambushed by the flexing aid and does not lose trust in the rein contact. Like all aids, the flexing rein aid should be a probe into the horseís musculature as much as it conveys a request or a command to the horse. In other words, the flexion is a diagnostic tool as well as a therapeutic tool.
The flexing aids themselves can be applied more softly or more firmly, more slowly or more quickly, and they can be longer or shorter in duration. It is the horse and the specific context that determines what is needed at any given time. However, the flexions should never deteriorate into fiddling with the reins, yanking on the reins, or see-sawing.
It has to be emphasized that flexions are only gymnastically useful if the muscles on the outside of the bend stretch, while the muscles on the inside of the bend contract. Flexions that donít stretch the convex side of the horseís neck have no gymnastic value. They only shorten the neck and make it instable.
Another important rule is that any rein aid, including not only half halts, but also flexing rein aids, can reach its destination and achieve its objective only if it is supported by the riderís seat, weight, and leg, i.e. if the riderís core muscles are well engaged, while the surface muscles are relaxed and soft. It is especially important that the wrists, fingers, gluteal muscles are relaxed and that the calves donít grip.
As a general rule of thumb, one can remember that the riderís leg aids bring the horse to the seat. The seat brings the horse to the bit, and the hand can then receive and recycle the energy, half halt, frame, flex, or elevate, depending on what is needed at the moment. Before the driving aids have brought the horse to the bit, the hand does not have anything to work with and must therefore not be used actively. Once the horse has arrived in the riderís hand, the hand refers the horse back to the seat. The riderís weight always has to support any rein aid. Otherwise the aid will not make sense to the horse, and the horse will consequently either brace against it or fight it.
The leg on the same side as the flexing rein aid has to hug the horse in order to support the rein. It also prevents the shoulder from following in the direction of the flexing rein pressure, which is a common evasion when flexing towards the horseís stiffer side.
The framing rein and knee prevent the shoulder from stepping away from the rein pressure, which is a common evasion when flexing towards the horseís hollow side.
The calf on the outside of the bend prevents the haunches from swinging away from the rein pressure, which is a common evasion when flexing towards the horseís stiffer side.
The calf on the inside of the bend prevents the haunches from swinging to the inside, which can happen when flexing towards the horseís hollow side.
Both seatbones, both knees and calves prevent the horse from stepping backwards. The horseís desire to go forward must always be noticeable.
If the shoulder follows the rein pressure, the horse leans onto this shoulder and remains stiff and braced in the neck and poll.
If the shoulders drift away from the flexing rein, the neck becomes disconnected from the shoulder, and the horse leans onto the shoulder that is opposite the flexing rein.
If the haunches swing in, the horse leans onto the outside shoulder, and the neck and poll remain locked up.
If the haunches swing out, the horse leans onto the inside shoulder, and the neck and poll still remain locked up.
If the horse steps backward, he gets behind the leg and falls onto the forehand. These are all common mistakes, common evasions that result in crookedness and an uneven weight distribution, which prevents the rider from accessing the poll or the hips of the horse with his aids. In any of these cases, the rider has to let the horse take a step forward and halt square again before another flexing aid can be applied.
The poll should remain the highest point throughout the flexions.
- The simplest version of flexions under saddle is to keep the passively framing rein close to the base of the neck and the withers while shortening the actively flexing rein without moving the hands very much from their normal location. If a horse is very stiff, or tries to push the shoulder towards his stiffer side, it can help to rest the hand of the stiffer side on the withers, or to fixate the rein with the thumb on top of the withers. That way, the horse canít push through the framing rein so easily.
- Moving the flexing hand horizontally inward and away from the withers has an elongating, stretching effect on the neck muscles on the outside of the bend.
- If the rider wants to elevate the neck more and connect the jowl more to the neck muscles, s/he can lift the flexing hand straight up, with an almost straight elbow. This has an unlocking effect on the poll, and it can be used to increase the horseís shoulder freedom when the front leg on the same side is in the air. By lifting the rein in this fashion, the rider can take the weight of the horseís shoulder on the same side and transfer it into the hind leg on the same side. If the same aid is applied when the front leg is on the ground, the weight of the shoulder can be transferred to the diagonal hind leg.
One big danger of flexions consists in the rider disconnecting the base of the neck from the shoulder of the horse (outside rein too loose), which would sever the connection between the haunches and the bit, while the poll would remain locked up. In the most extreme case, a neck like that will wag back and forth like a dogís tail every time the rider touches the rein.
An experienced, tactful rider can feel exactly which part of the spine is yielding, which muscles are stretching, and which ones are resisting. It is crucial for the success of the flexion that the rider accesses the proper part of the spine, i.e. where the tight muscles are located that need to be stretched out.
Another potential mistake is that the neck gets short and rubbery as a result of incorrect flexions (especially see-sawing). When the flexions are done correctly, the neck becomes longer, and the top line stretches in a longer arc into the riderís hand so that the aids go through without getting stuck in stiff muscle blockages and without disappearing through a disconnected joint. The outside muscles of the neck are then stretching as much as the inside muscles are flexing and contracting. Flexion without stretching of the antagonistic muscle groups is counterproductive, as already mentioned above.
Suppling flexions that unlock the poll and neck used to be a common tool in the gymnastic development of the riding horse. Nowadays, they seem to be largely forgotten. Most contemporary riders, if they have heard of them, probably associate them with Baucherism and French dressage, but they also used to be practiced every day in the German and Austrian dressage tradition, including the cavalry and the Spanish Riding School.
Flexions are useful whenever a horse is locked up in his poll/throatlatch area or in the neck musculature. The more problematic a horseís poll and neck conformation is, the more he will need the flexions in order to obtain a good rein contact. But even horses with very good necks can benefit from the flexions to eradicate subtle, hidden blockages that might otherwise be difficult to locate and eliminate. As a result, the horseís posture and gaits will improve, the back will swing more, and the aids will go through more effectively.
So, one could summarize, that the flexions teach the horse not only to yield to pressure, but to yield in a specific area that the rider determines. They also stretch the neck musculature on the outside of the bend, and they unlock the poll and neck vertebrae. They can be considered a gray area between training and physical therapy for the horse. You know that your flexions were successful, when the neck forms a longer arch, when the rein contact is softer, steadier, and more even, when the back lifts more, when the rib cage expands into the riderís legs more, and when the horse is more in front of the leg.