Equine connections part 2
The head and neck position of the horse in training
Lieneke Gijsbertsen – Equine Osteopath (ICREO)
Over the last 25 years a lot has changed in the riding and training of the Icelandic horse.
Due to new insights and influences of different riding styles such as classical and english dressage, the way we ride and compete our horses has changed. Nowadays, we want a more round and collected frame in most gaits. In tolt, where we often saw a more hollow shape in the eighties and beginning of the nineties, we now appreciate a more round form with a different head and neck position. This article tries to address the different head and neck positions from a biomechanical perspective and translates this to a practical view on training.
The head and neck position (HNP) can significantly influence the movements and limb loading of the horse. As a rider and trainer, we define the head and neck positions of the horse and therefore are responsible for positive benefits and negative consequences.
For that reason knowledge of anatomy, biomechanics, and well-considered training are crucial in this matter.
The described head and neck positions used in this article are:
HNP1: Free head and neck position
HNP 2: Neck raised, poll high, and bridge of the nose slightly in front of the vertical
HNP 3: Neck raised, poll high, and bridge of the nose slightly behind the vertical
HNP 4: Neck lowered and flexed, bridge of the nose considerably behind the vertical
HNP 5: Neck (extremely) elevated, and bridge of the nose considerably in front of the vertical.
The movements possible in the neck are flexion and extension, lateral flexion, and rotation. Flexion is the downward movement of the head or downward bending of the neck. Extension is the upward movement of the head or upward bending of the neck.
Flexion opens the joints and extension more or less closes the joint. Lateral flexion is the sideways bending of the neck and rotation is the turning of the head/neck. These two are always combined in functional movement.
In freedom the horse uses the head and neck positions for stability in movement. The slower the movements, the larger the range of motion in the neck. As the speed of the gait increases, the neck is held more rigid for stabilization due to co-activation of the neck muscles.
The cervical spine is supported by a ligamentous structure called the nuchal ligament.
This ligament consist of two thick cables of ligamentous structure fused together: the funicular part of the nuchal ligament, and a thinner part; the lammelair part of the nuchal ligament.
The nuchal ligament, along with the neck muscles, plays an important role in the biomechanics of the head and neck positions. This strong ligamentous structure is what supports the head and neck. It is attached to the poll, the withers, and continues over the back as the supraspinal ligament, which attaches at the sacrum. When the head goes down, the tension on this ligament increases so that when the horse is grazing the back is supported and lifted.
We can use this leverage system to our advantage, when riding, to open the withers and lift the back.
All head and neck positions, except for position 5, are giving traction on the nuchal ligament.
In reference to biomechanics, this is an important fact.
Tension on this ligament will open the withers and lift the back, but can extend the lower back (lumbar spine). Therefore, if we are riding our horse in a round or lower form, tension on this ligament will open the withers and lift the back (thoracic spine), which would be something we aim for, for instance, in tolt. The FEIF sports regulations describing tolt state that:
“The horse should move in balance, with strong and active back and active hind quarters. The movements of the front part are light and free.”
If we want the front part to be light and free, we want the withers to be open. This will allow the well trained horse to be able to activate his core and thoracic sling muscles so as to lift his trunk between the withers and move freely from his shoulders.
Because of the continuation of the ligament over the back to the sacrum, tension on this ligament will also mean that it will pull the lumbar spine into extension, and more or less close the lumbosacral joint (the joint between the lumbar spine and the sacrum).
The lumbosacral joint is the most mobile point of the back, working like a hinge joint for flexion and extension. In flexion it allows the hind legs to move under the horse. When pulled in extension, this will influence the capacity of the hind legs to step under in a negative way.
This mainly happens in head neck positions 3 and 4. In these head neck positions, the lumbar spine is pulled in extension by the supraspinal ligament. Therefore, the muscles of the hindlimbs have to work against this strain to be able to bring the lumbar spine into a more neutral position or towards flexion as needed, to bring the hindlimbs under. Mostly what happens, is that in an overly bent neck position, the strain on the ligaments will be high and as a consequence, the stride of the hind leg will get shorter because the hind legs will not be able to step under.
This is a misinterpretation commonly made, as we learned that riding in a hollow frame could be very harmful to the horse, and we began riding in a continuously more rounded shape. Of course, a rounder shape can open the withers, lift the back and therefore be beneficial for the horse, but in our goal to move away from the hollow frame, maybe we forgot to appreciate a more open frame?
Especially in young horses, the muscles of the hind are not strong enough to bring the hindlimbs underneath against the strain of the ligament, when ridden in a too-round bend position. Our main focus should always be on the hind legs, before we focus on the ideal head neck position.
As we see in fig.1 HNP 3 and 4 the hind legs are left behind and the limb loading is mainly on the front legs.
In a position like HNP2, we enable the horse to lift the withers with the support of the ligament and neck muscles. Because of the activated neck muscles and the lighter stretch on the ligament, the lumbar spine is able to flex and the hind legs are able to step under without resistance. This is a position we see a lot in the higher tolt competitions. Riding in this position demands the horse to be trained and strong enough to activate his core and thoracic sling muscles so as to lift his thorax between the withers. When the horse isn’t strong enough, this position will push the withers down and shorten the stride length of the front legs (Fig 8). Unfortunately, we see this happening in tolt frequently.
In a position of HNP 3, the angle of the trachea is far from ideal. The horse can suffer from lack of oxygen as a consequence.
In a lower frame with longer topline like HNP 4 or a similar frame with the nose on the vertical, the weight of the trunk moves more forward and loads the forelimbs. In a fit horse, this frame can be part of training the thoracic sling muscles and lengthening the back muscles. However, if you have a horse recovering from a front leg injury, you want to avoid this extra load on the forelimbs.
When looking at HNP 5, there is no tension on the neck ligaments and in theory, the hind legs are able to step under, but in an too extended frame, the spine is compressed and the withers are pushed down. This can result in the stride length and timing being influenced in a negative way. Also, the spinous processes and the facet joints in the cervical spine are pushed towards each other in an extended frame, and as a consequence, the risk of back injuries increases.
So what is the right head and neck position?
At this point we might agree that HNP 3 is not favorable for the horse due to a possible lack of oxygen inflow. In young horses we might want to avoid HNP 4 because the hind quarters are not yet strong enough to move against the tension of the supraspinal ligament.
Looking at different head and neck positions, every position, when used at the right moment in training can have a beneficial training advantage. We have to consider that is the training advantage bigger than possible negative side effects. The important thing is to translate the different positions to your horse’s conformation and training goals. Also, we have to keep in mind that we may not want to focus on the head and neck position as a goal, but as a result of an engaged hind leg and collection.
Besides the biomechanical influence of the nuchal and supraspinal ligament, the various muscles of neck and trunk influence the capability of the horse to perform in different head and neck positions. These muscles fatigue quickly in a statical shape. It is advisable is to use varied head and neck positions as opposed to using just one head and neck position.
Want to learn more about this subject? Or feedback on this article?
Feel free to email me; Lienekefysio@gmail.com
References: Back,W & Clayton, H (2001) Equine Locomotion Velde van de, S (2018) De invloed van verschillende hoofdhoudingen op de beweging van het paard. Gomez Alvarez et al (2006)The effect of head and neck position on the thoracolumbar kinematics in the unridden horse. Elgersma et al (2010) A pilot study on objective quantification and anatomical modelling of in vivo head and neck positions commonly applied in training and competition of sport horses