Guest Author - Susan Hopf
This term and, even worse, the idea of a “head-set” is, from the horse’s viewpoint, biomechanically flawed and has created many misconceptions about proper use of the reins as well as many other aid applications. It has spawned all sorts of gadgetry designed to fix a horse’s head in an arched (and typically too low position) but if accomplished only in the head and neck this “arched” position is damaging to the horse and short-circuits any other aid you may attempt to apply.
To help illustrate just how detrimental it is to both the horse and the effective use of your aids a short course in anatomy and biomechanics is necessary. The horse’s back muscles have only one job and that is to protect the horse’s spine. The spine itself is quite inflexible and when it is disturbed beyond its ability to compensate the back muscles become rigid in order to help the spine maintain its structure. Whenever the head and neck, as a unit, is forced into position it distorts the spine, which also stiffens the back muscles. The neck functions as a counter balance to what goes on behind the withers due to the supportive relationship between the back muscles and the spine – this is why the head bobs and weaves when the horse is in a relaxed walk. You must also realize that the cervical spine (neck) of the horse does not extend out at the withers but does, in fact, begin at a point in the middle of the scapula and then travels upwards toward the poll.
For the following illustration consider the horse a blank slate, without distortions about our expectations.
Enter now the rider – sitting on these back muscles at a critical point in the horse’s balance. The back muscles respond by stiffening to protect the spine before we do anything else but sit upon the beast. In order to convey a message to our mount that we would now like to add motion to the picture we apply some sort of aid to indicate our intent. If you do so in a way that does not disturb the horse and/or the back the horse will comply without resistance. This is easily accomplished by bumping the horse, just behind the girth, with your calf until she takes a step forward – adding to this one step at a time until that lesson is learned. After this lesson you can then introduce balance, which is accomplished by controlling your own back and has nothing whatsoever to do with the reins.
Unfortunately more often than not the first thing people think to do is take up the reins with some sort of contact and then proceed forward – the horse cannot comply in this manner and thusly resistance is born – and even more inappropriate aids – and then perhaps the addition of some sort of equipment. This approach lends itself to more and more resistance by the horse and more and more inappropriate reactions by the rider. The most common resistance from the horse comes from a distortion in the head and neck and the most common reaction by the rider is to pull the head and neck into place by the reins or with the addition of some sort of gadget. However neither is the correct approach because the resistance does not come from the front end of the horse – it comes from under the rider. The rider is either disturbing the horse’s back by moving their body more than the spine can accommodate thusly stiffening the horse’s back muscles or the rider is too rigid and is impeding the energy from the hindquarters from coming through – both disturbs the balance of the horse and the horse then reacts in the only way he can – by protecting himself from our intervention.
The more we try to fix resistances by way of the head and neck the more damaging it is to the horse. There have been recent radiograph studies done that clearly relate arthritic changes in the atlas (the poll) of horses that were exhibiting pain or discomfort to the method in which they were being schooled. Those that continually had their heads pulled toward their chest, regardless of whether the rider’s aim was for a low or high head-set, had so much calcification within the atlas joint that any movement of their head was proven, through electro-reactive readings, to be extremely painful. Of course these animals, as with all of our horses, had little choice but to continue on in some sort of compliance or face discipline for what was seen as disobedience.
As we continue to evolve into a more civil society we must, as conscientious riders, take all of these anatomical and physiological facts into consideration when thinking about how to appropriately school our horses.