The comfort and health of the horse’s poll is one of the central keys not only to its performance but more importantly to its short and long term soundness. In this post, Manolo takes a look at the link between poll health and training.
In Manolo’s experience, rather then a grouping of delicate and complex anatomical structures which have an influence on all the horse’s systems and are thus critical to the horse’s musculoskeletal / central nervous system and biomechanics health and soundness, the poll is too often considered by equestrians from a training theory standpoint only. Through that lens, the poll exists outside the physical and emotional realities of the horse’s body and mind.
Reduced incorrectly to just the superficial real estate behind the horse’s ears, extending over C1 and C2 on the crest of the neck, under the mane bed, the poll is discussed in terms of its relative height rather then in terms of COMFORT, RANGE OF MOTION, SUPPLENESS and SOFTNESS. For the real landmarks of the poll, look at Manolo’s two hands in the upper right corner pic.
Discussions take place between proponents of different postures according to different Schools and Eras but do they take into consideration how the poll fits into the horses overall wellness and wellbeing?
Along with the horse’s mouth and jaw, the poll can be a battlefield.
As a rider pulls, the horse braces his tongue and poll. Muscles stiffen, tighten, spasms form, knots develop. The areas from between the back of the skull to C2, on the crest of the neck and on the sides of the neck become flat or hollow, muscles, tendons and ligaments feel ropy. Inflammation sets in.
Sometimes, instead of flat and dry, the horse will have muscles on both sides of the neck that bulge out dramatically in an otherwise flat neck.
The horse wont welcome any touch on these.
Rather then elastic and well formed swimmer’s muscles these will be more akin to the muscles found on puissance lifters and bodybuilders and not conducive to great range of motion and suppleness.
Horses will shy from having the top of their cheeks, poll, and upper neck petted.
As a rider is uneven in their contact, the horse becomes crooked in his poll, muscles develop asymmetrically, vertebras become crowded, DJD (degenerative joint disease) set in in the form of fusion and early arthritic changes. Horses can also develop calcification where the nuchal ligament attaches to the back of the skull.
An indication of a possible problem is a horse that tilts its head slightly to one side or the other and cannot place his nose under its ears. Unaddressed this misalignment will begin by affecting the horse’s muscles, then tendons and ligaments and eventually its bones.
The tilt may become “cemented” resulting in a horse who physically cannot straighten its head and may bear the brunt of much frustration and escalating aids from a rider who is unaware of the problem.
Horsemen and women who observe such horses moving may notice that in some movements, the head tilt is reflected in the placement of the horse’s fore feet.
As a rider keeps a horse collected for long periods of time and the horse becomes fatigued, he will tense his entire topline and his poll muscles will become sore. It does not matter if the rider is riding in front of the vertical and poll at the highest point according to the stage of training.
If a posture is kept too long, that good posture will become a bad posture and introduce tension.
Damaged vertebras and inflammation can also impact the spinal chord and the horse’s central nervous system, slowing down or disrupting commands sent to the body and the information the body sends to the brain in return.
Horses stumble, are slow to pick a lead, move disconnected. Reflexes are dulled which can create a danger to horse and rider. A contracted sore poll, a blocked poll means that cervical joints are blocked.
Just like in humans, if there is one blockage in the horse, it affects every other joint in the body. This mean that a sore, crooked, blocked, stiff, painful poll will have a reverberating effect throughout the entire body and how the horse uses his back and is able to use his pelvis – and how it uses its legs since leg movement is linked to back movement.
Finally, just like us, horses can develop tension headaches, TMJ and dental issues from poll pain. Because of the postures that create poll problems, horses often also experience deficit in blood flow and oxygen to the brain and face. As a result, horses do not see as well and their mouth and tongue lose some feeling. This affects their confidence and their response to the rider’s aids.
Besides learning to identify through feel, observation and touch wether a horse has an uncomfortable poll — See below the link to Equinology’s outstanding, well illustrated, step by step guide to all the poll muscles, their function, their patterns of disfunction and to massage them — what a rider can do to better understand how to avoid poll problems is to watch horses walk, trot and canter at liberty and under the saddle of a good rider.
What they will notice is how the horse uses his neck and head and therefore his poll differently in each gait.
In walk, a supple, loose and flexible (what we want) horse will move its neck slightly side to side with each stride, his head oscillating slightly. In trot, the head and neck do not move very much whereas in canter the horse uses his head and neck again in a forward, forward, forward motion requiring a supple poll.
Watching a horse doing lateral work and showing bend through the whole body from ear to tail and comparing one direction to another is another way to better understand the healthy vs. unhealthy range of motion and positioning of the poll – and the connection of the poll to the horse’s pelvis’ use and alignment and the entire spinal chain.
What happens when the horse poll is blocked in position by a fixed hand, or when the horse braces, trying to push his nose out against a backward hand action?
• Does the horse fill with tension?
• Does the quality of the horse’s movement change?
• Does the fluidity of the horse’s lateral movement suffer?
•Is it a back or a leg moving action?
•Are the horse’s joints absorbing motion elastically or is the horse hitting the ground heavily?
• Is the horse carrying himself in independent balance and eventually self carriage or is the rider finding the horse heavy and hard mouth or has the rider simply accustomed to carrying the horse in one set posture regardless of the horse’s responses.
Beyond reading articles and books it is in the act of observing, touching, and experimenting gently that the role and importance of the poll can be learned, the relationship between poll health, movement, posture and training can be understood, and a horse’s overall wellness can be restored or enhanced.
© 2013 – Manolo Mendez Dressage