Schooling the Horse:The Importance of Lengthening the Neck
By Manolo Mendez, Specialist of In-hand and Classical Equitation with writer Ysabella Dean
In the paddock or in the wild, we can see horses playing or challenging each other with a naturally collected outline and a flexed poll. But a horse will hold this posture for moments only before returning to his most natural and comfortable stance – head and neck lowered and most of his weight on the forehand. And when he does collect, he will also instinctively lift his back and use muscles, ligaments, tendons, and bones to engage his body to support the posture properly.
In training, one of the most damaging things we can do to a horse – especially a young horse – is to ‘demand’ an outline. If the training is correct, a beautiful outline will develop naturally over a period of years, no matter what discipline. To insist on it before the horse is ready can and does lead to a premature breakdown in body, mind – and spirit.
A short neck destroys balance
Horses have evolved to carry most of their weight on the forehand most of the time, and freedom of the neck and head is a crucial factor in balancing this weight. A green horse has natural balance, but all that changes when we expect him to carry a rider. Now he must find a new balance. This alone will take many months and years, depending on the horse’s conformation, temperament, and natural ability.
Training a horse to perform higher movements with grace and beauty is not possible without conserving the horse’s natural balance. For flying changes, pirouette, half pass, or any other advanced movement, the horse must have superior balance and a balanced, strong, balanced neck. A short contact will create a short neck and will create stiffness in the poll. This will interfere with the balance of its body.
“Interfere with the mouth, have the contact too short at the wrong time, and you will cause the horse to shorten his neck and thus lose his balance.”
Take the flying change or the half pass, for example. We should never have too much contact. We should gently use the reins to guide the horse toward the leading rein; then, we should change softly, allowing the horse time to organize his legs and adjust all his vertebrae. Superior balance becomes even more crucial for the airs above ground, such as Levade, Courbette and Capriole. Interfere with the mouth, have the contact too short, and you will cause the horse to shorten his neck and thus lose his balance.
How short is “too short”?
But how short is too short, and how long is too long? How much contact is the right amount to allow the horse to work with his neck in the optimal position? It depends on each individual horse and the level of their training.
In any training, the nose must be in front of the vertical AT ALL TIMES. If we force a green horse to work with a short contact, he will go behind the vertical in an effort to evade the pain we are creating in his mouth, neck, and back.
A nose behind the vertical causes the poll to become stiff. The neck rounds too much, which makes the topline muscles too tense. The muscles underneath the neck “suck up” as the horse tries to support himself in this uncomfortable posture. The seven neck vertebrae become stiff and tense, which causes the rest of the vertebrae (the horse has fifty-four in all, from the poll to the tail) to become stiff and tense.
“Contact should always be the by-product of physical development, not the means by which physical development is achieved. If it is the means, then it will be the wrong physical development.”
With a horse working at a high level, we may need more contact, but this is because a horse at a high level has developed the ability, strength, and stamina to hold himself in a collected outline with his poll flexed. It is meant to be still a light contact: he does not need to be held there. Contact should always be the by-product of physical development, not the means by which physical development is achieved. If it is the means, it will be the wrong physical development.
Even so, we should not work even a highly trained horse in a collected frame for the entire workout but should instead integrate rest periods from collection, allowing him to stretch out from time to time. In general, for a horse that has not reached this level of collection, a lot of the work leading up to collection should be done on a gentle, fine contact, and we should also encourage him to stretch down and out with his neck and head, to seek our hands through the reins. This is called “long and low.”
“Long and low” or “deep and round”?
Long and low is not the same thing at all as the “deep and round” principle, which relies on bringing the horse behind the vertical with a lowered head and a shortened neck.
Working a horse deep and round is often achieved with side reins and running reins and is thought to lift the horse’s back and stretch the spine by enabling the hind legs to come through properly. In fact, when a horse is worked too deep in the neck, this will indeed cause him to work his back legs harder to compensate, but the movement is restricted in the stifle, hock, and body. The hind end is not working in harmony with the front end because the bridge between them – the back – is not moving. With the legs working so hard, they hit the ground harder. This can, over time, cause concussion to the hock and stifle, along with stiffening of the spine and pelvic area.
Deep and round restrict the respiratory system and blood supply, and the horse can’t see where he is going. The horse ends up weak in the spine. You cannot always see the damage immediately; it happens over time.
In the beginning was the long neck
My discipline is Dressage, an art form supposedly and, like any art form, needs time and the conditions to grow and flourish. The rider and his horse must work harmoniously to develop balance, rhythm, coordination, and skill. We are meant to teach the horse Passage or Piaffe or tempi changes: movements he was born with naturally. But to do them with the same grace and beauty under saddle means we must work within his natural limitations, building his strength and willingness. We end up with a pale copy of the real thing if we don’t.
Allowing your horse to work with the neck at a respectable length is where it all truly begins.