HORSE BEHAVIOUR – Speaking the language part 14

A series by Susan McBane explaining equestrian and scientific terminology in relation to equine behaviour and psychology, and its effects on horses and training . This series is based on a glossary of equestrian and scientifi c terms presented at the First International Equitation Science Symposium, 2005. The glossary description is given in quotation marks, followed by Susan’s discussion.)


This picture shows a perfect example of a horse being given two opposing instructions simultaneously.

This picture shows a perfect example of a horse being given two opposing instructions simultaneously. The horse is well behind the vertical which, in addition to the points detailed this article, is preventing him seeing properly where he is going because of the way equine eyes function. The bit contact is firm and, particularly because a curb is in use, will be causing some pain. His neck is shortened and his poll not the highest point of his outline. The significant bit pressure is telling him to slow down or stop yet the coarse use of the spur is driving him on. Irrational, unethical riding like this is a cause of conflict behaviours or, conversely depending on the horse’s temperament, learned helplessness.


‘The appearance of a horse with a shortened neck posture. As a result, it positions its nasal planum behind the vertical line (the horse’s chin becomes closer to its chest). Such a horse is generally heavy in the feel of the reins or has no contact during locomotion and transitions and, when this occurs, its stop/slow/step-back response is diminished. As the horse offers two independent responses (shortening neck or slowing) to one signal, it often exhibits conflict behaviours.’ THE nasal planum is the area or plane between the horse’s nostrils – part of what horse people call the ‘muzzle’. Being ‘behind the vertical’ means that the muzzle is behind an imaginary perpendicular or vertical line dropped from the forehead to the ground when the horse is seen from the side. (The opposite position, with the muzzle/nasal planum on the other side of that line, is called ‘in front of the vertical’.)

The behind-the-vertical posture is one of those errors in riding which, in the last couple of decades, particularly the last, has, sadly, become so widespread as to be seen in most ridden horses, mainly those ridden and owned by people who want to ‘do dressage’, compete (including show) or ‘make’ a horse ‘go properly’. It seems actually to be taught as a correct way for the horse to hold himself – desirable and beautiful. The whole point of equitation is, or should be, to strengthen a horse by means of specifi c work and exercises to enable him to perform all his natural movements easily under the weight of a rider and saddle. The word ‘natural’ is particularly important here because no horse goes naturally for more than a few seconds when cavorting about for pleasure with the front of his face behind the vertical. yet many riders are keen to have their horses adopt this posture very soon after being mounted whether they are working in the school or going for a hack.



The posture itself can come about for various reasons. Sometimes riders actually pull their horses’ heads in or use various items of training equipment to bring about this posture forcefully, in the mistaken belief that working a horse in that way will develop the correct muscles for being ridden. Often they do it for no better reason than that they have seen other people do it who are ‘better’ than they, so they think it must be the right thing to do. In practice, incorrect musculature develops, and is a sure sign to the knowledgeable that the horse has been incorrectly trained. Some believe that because the horse looks ‘rounded’ and ‘proud’ he is on the bit. Many times, I have heard instructors say firmly and dogmatically to their students: ‘get hold of his head and pull it in so his neck is rounded, and get him between your hand and your leg because you won’t get anywhere till he’s on the bit’, or words to that effect.

It is no wonder, with this kind of bullying and ill-conceived riding technique being widely taught (and by some of our household names), that a horse behind the vertical is thought to be on the bit. This is not so. The state of being on the bit comes from the hind end of the horse when he has been sufficiently strengthened to take a little more of his weight back on to his hindquarters, is able to engage his hindlegs powerfully and more under his belly, raising his back and bringing about a slight lifting of the forehand. This creates lightness in the mouth (rider permitting) and the horse rounds his neck of his own accord as he uses his head and neck to counterbalance the rearward shift of his and his rider’s weight. This natural use of his head and neck as a balancing pole is how roundness comes about: it is a RESULT of correct work, and was why the criteria of the poll being the highest point of the horse’s topline and the front of the face being in front of the vertical were laid down.

Horses quite oft en come behind the vertical voluntarily, without being pulled there, to naturally try to avoid the discomfort of a harsh, too fi rm or blocking contact. It can also happen if the horse has trouble with his mouth or teeth, or is ridden in an unsuitable bit. Known as ‘behind the bit’ and recently covered in this series, this is a sign of signifi cant discomfort or pain, present or remembered and expected. Again, such horses do not carry themselves like this when at liberty, and this way of going is a sure sign of poor horse care and bad riding, past or present. There will be little or no contact with and acceptance of the bit in a horse behind the vertical for this reason, and he is not under good control.

If a horse behind the vertical is, conversely, heavy in the hand, he is usually on the forehand and is leaning on or pushing against the bit. Therefore, he is not in good riding balance and is, again, not easily controllable or particularly agile. I am not talking here of young or green horses who are naturally on the forehand but of more experienced horses whose heads have been pulled or held in and have developed the habit of leaning on the bit.


Holding the head and neck in and behind the vertical like this also causes problems in the throat area. glands in this area are often painfully compressed because of the enforced and unnatural posture, which is known to prevent a horse from swallowing his own saliva, stimulated into production by the bit in his mouth. Sometimes this saliva drools out of the horse’s mouth, frothing and splashing on to his chest, shoulders and legs, but some of it can run down his windpipe which must be a truly frightening sensation for the horse who, because of the way he is being ridden, is not even free to cough it up.

Because of the modern obsession with ‘forwardness’, many horses are forced on to their forehands because of the excessive speed usually demanded, lean on the bit for balance (perhaps the rider is told that she has to ‘support’ the horse in this way) and end up being behind the vertical as well. The problem is in the misunderstanding of the term ‘forward’. ‘Forward’ today is taken to mean ‘fast’. This is wrong: the original meaning of a horse being forward was similar to today’s expression ‘on the aids’ – he is ready to obey any aid within his capability the moment it is given, whether the aid asks for him to go forward, sideways or, indeed, backwards. Overall speed has been substituted, over the past couple of decades, for power, thrust and weightcarrying ability. It is these qualities we want, not speed. The sight is depressingly common of horses on their forehands powering around the arena with their heads behind the vertical, their backs down, their hind legs left behind and their forelegs taking all the impact and, so, extra weight of their excessive speed. The shortened neck posture mentioned in the glossary description at the beginning of this article is the result of the rider plainly pulling in the head and neck, clearly under the influence of the misconceptions mentioned above. This enforced posture blocks the correct biomechanical movement of the horse because he cannot use his head and neck freely.

We do not see, in horses ridden thus, the freely swinging back and dock (which is part of the spine, of course), the neck naturally stretched and arched up or forward according to the horse’s stage of training (and strengthening), the enhancement of his natural limb action and the joyful air of a comfortable horse revelling in his own abilities. Instead we see a muscle-bound parody of an equine athlete with a stiff body, a desperate look in his eye, a rigid back and stiff tail, and an action which gives the impression that he is treading on hot coals. The faults mentioned result from enforced incorrect movement of the horse, compelling him to use the ‘wrong’ muscles for what is being asked of him and resulting in their development at the expense of the ‘right’ ones. They are also more susceptible to injury because they are doing work for which they were not intended.

The glossary description also mentions ‘conflict behaviours’ because the horse is being asked to make two actions from one aid, without having any means of knowing which his rider wants. In any system of riding, pressure on both sides of the bit is initially taught in the early stages as meaning stop or slow down (also used in rein-back). Somehow, as the horse gains experience, he is also expected to understand that it means ‘get your head in’ which almost always involves shortening his neck backwards in a most uncomfortable way. The conflict behaviours mentioned and which horses variously and wisely try out to avoid the unnatural and very uncomfortable posture forced upon them involve trying to stretch the neck any way they can, often by dropping the head (so the poll is no longer the highest point), opening the mouth to lessen the painful bit contact (to which the rider responds by tightening the noseband), coming behind the vertical, going crookedly, moving the head to the side, trying to hold it up in the air depending on the horse, squirming, not responding to bit contact and, if desperate, bucking, rearing, plunging and leaping, shying and spooking or, as a last resort when totally defeated and unable to take any more, lying down.


Correct training and a humane, ethical attitude to riding can prevent all the above scenarios. The level of bit contact to aim for in general, and it should be variable according to circumstances, is a light but present touch on the horse’s lips so that you have two-way communication with him but without pulling back the corners of the lips significantly.

The bit should be comfortable: a snaffle should be such a height in the horses mouth that it creates only one wrinkle at the corners of the mouth and is wide enough to allow you to fit the width of your finger at one end between the horse’s cheek and the bit ring. A well-trained and ridden horse does not need a noseband. If, like many people, you feel that horses look better wearing one, remember that the traditional standard, also promoted by the International Society for Equitation Science, is that you should be able to fit the width of three, or certainly two, fingers between the noseband and the bone on the front of the face. Tight nosebands, padded or not, are a rider comfort blanket which, however, are extremely uncomfortable and even painful for horses – neither humane nor ethical.

The exercises you need to work on to strengthen your horse so that he can take his weight back a little, as described above, are correctly performed transitions and bending exercises. These develop the appropriate muscles for weightcarrying, balance and agility. The transitions are between halt, walk, trot, canter and, of course, back again, and in-gait transitions which means lengthening and shortening of stride within the same, natural rhythm of the horse. The bending exercises involve initially large curves such as minimum 20m circles, long, shallow loops, 2-loop serpentines if in a 20m x 40m school and shallow corners.

As the horse strengthens and finds the foregoing easy you can make the circles gradually a little smaller, the loops a little deeper and so on. you can ask him by means of a gentle but clear bit aid to look around his curves, so that you can just see the outside corner of his inside eye (i.e. right eye on a right-rein bend) and the curve of his inside nostril. Later, you can use shoulder-fore and shoulder-in, which create bend and lighten the forehand, and turns on the haunches/partpirouettes.

Performing the latter when turning corners is excellent for weightadjustment, balance and agility. Also using this technique, try ‘riding a 50p piece’ instead of a circle.

Any good teacher of classical riding or equitation science will be able to help you with the work you need to do, and to do it correctly. I very much doubt that either of them would tell you to ‘get your horse’s head in’.

Further Information:

Also, follow up the links and publications on each site.

(The Equine Behaviour Forum published the full glossary in its magazine ‘Equine Behaviour’. For your copy, send a cheque for £3.50 payable to ‘Equine Behaviour Forum’ to the Editor, Dr Alison Averis, 6 Stonelaws Cottages, East Linton, East Lothian, EH40 3DX.)

SUSAN McBANE has an HNC in Equine Science and Management, is a Classical Riding Club listed trainer and Gold Award holder, cofounder of the Equine Behaviour Forum and a Practitioner Member of the International Society for Equitation Science. Author of 44 books, she is a co-publisher of ‘Tracking-up’. For lessons in and near Lancashire, call 01254 705487 or email

Author: Features Editor

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