TAKING GOOD CARE OF THE NECK
If we want to horse to move with lightness and balance, we need to ensure the neck is functioning as it’s supposed to. An important aspect of keeping the neck healthy is diversity in training. Varied work encourages the neck muscles to develop and become stronger without subjecting them to repetitive stress which can lead to tension. In practice this means we have to allow the horse to adjust his head and neck position to the demands of training. If we force the head and neck into a static frame, we are overburdening the muscles and opening the door to chronic tension. The head is a balancing tool and we need to allow the horse to use it as such. Short periods of collected work should always be followed by breaks, where the horse can stretch his head and neck and allow the muscles to have a breather. We need to avoid training sessions where we pick up the reins and keep them short for the duration of the whole session. Never use your reins to force the head and neck in a desired position. This will only hurt your horse. Think of the head and neck as an indicator of what is going on in the horse’s body. If the horse is moving with his head held high, he is not in balance. You need to address that by addressing his body, not his head. If his body is in balance, the horse will seek out a lengthened neck position on his own, he will not need to be forced into it. If you force it, you are doing it wrong.
Doing carrot stretches regularly (and correctly), stretches some of the neck muscles and aids in maintaining mobility of the neck.
Another way to take good care of the neck is on the ground. Carrot stretches (when done correctly!) can help keep the neck supple and mobile. Take some time when you are grooming the horse to feel what his neck muscles are like. They should be soft and elastic, not hard and sensitive. If the muscles feel like rock or if the horse resents our touch, this is a red flag. Another indicator of correct or incorrect training is what the neck looks like. Viewed from the side, the neck should look like a uniform structure, with even muscle development. When looking at the neck from above, it should be widest at the withers and it should become thinner towards the poll. If some of the neck muscles are bulging and others are missing, this is a sign of improper work. If the neck is widest around the poll or around the second and third cervical vertebrae, this is a sign of improper work. Another thing to lookout for is a dip in front of the withers in the arch of the neck. This is almost without exception an indicator of the base of the neck being pushed down and blocked in that position. If the horse’s neck is telling you that something is not right, listen to it. Don’t brush it away and ignore it. If you want your horse to be happy and healthy consult an expert to see what changes you should make to encourage the neck to develop in a healthy way.
TAKE HOME MESSAGES
- The horse’s neck is a complex structure and its main function during locomotion is to help balance the body
- A prerequisite for healthy movement is the horse lifting the base of the neck and finding length in the neck
- The horse cannot do this if his head is forced into a fixed position by the rider’s hands or draw reins
- A fixed headset will always result in tension and pain
- Think of the headset as an indicator and never address it directly – by pulling on the reins, instead, always address it indirectly – by influencing the horse’s body