Speaking the language – Part 23

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 scientific terms published in ‘Equitation Science’ by McGreevy and McLean, 2010, the standard book on the subject. The glossary definition is given in quotation marks, followed by Susan’s discussion.)

BROKEN NECK (OVER-BENT): ‘The appearance of the neck of a horse in which there is (usually) a sudden change in angle (a break in the curve) in the vicinity of the third cervical [neck] vertebra. This is usually a result of persistent use of side reins that are too short, especially during early training, or draw reins that cause the neck to be too flexed and the nasal planum [front of the face, nasal plane] to be behind the vertical. It is believed that there is degeneration of the vertebrae and/or ligaments at the third cervical vertebra. Horses with broken necks generally exhibit conflict behaviours and tend to flex their necks to light rein pressure rather than give the stop/slow/step-back response.’

The term ‘broken neck’, sometimes called ‘broken crest’ (crest of the neck), means that, when the horse is seen from the side, there is an abrupt change in the curve of the top line of the neck roughly a couple of hands’ width behind the poll, and the curve goes downward towards the poll at that point, resulting in that part of the neck being higher than the poll. In some horses this change is almost an angle whereas the top line should be a smooth, even curve between poll and withers, with the poll the highest point.

Anyone who has read any good book old or new on classical riding, on modern equine biomechanics or who has perused the FEI rules can be in no doubt that the correct, horse-friendly way for a horse to go is with the poll the highest point of his head and neck posture and the front of his face a little, or a little more, in front of the vertical, depending on his conformation and stage of training. This information has been readily available for several decades, long before it was written down in any formal setting, and it holds good today. Nearly all instructors used to teach it, and, most importantly, it was always understood up to about the middle of the 20th century that this head and neck posture was the result of correct work, not a pre-requisite of it. In other words, training the horse so that he was relaxed, rhythmical, independently balanced and light in hand would cause him to hold himself in that way.

This smooth curve and self-carried head and neck came to be regarded as beautiful and proud, and as a sign that trainer and rider knew what they were doing. It was understood that the horse’s head and neck were a vital balancing mechanism for the horse, as are our arms to us. The slow, careful, systematic training in gymnastic exercises and the aids, given to a well-schooled horse for the first couple of years of his ridden career, strengthened his body (and mind) so that, without coercion, he carried his weight back a little. He became strong enough, under a rider’s weight, to tilt his pelvis under (‘tuck his bottom under’), raise and swing his back, which is not built to bear weight from on top, and bring his hind legs more forward under his belly towards his centre of gravity.

Using his body in this way and going in horizontal balance rather than on the forehand enabled him to balance his lighter forehand quite naturally, and voluntarily, by pushing and extending (arching) his head and neck forward at first, and then more upward as his training progressed. Nobody made him do it, but because humans tend to look first at a horse’s head and neck, just as we normally look people in the eye when meeting them, this posture, born naturally of strengthening work, became seen to be what we should aim at and, humans being what we are, people began to force it until, today, forcing that posture seems to be thought of by riders, trainers and judges alike as ‘the right thing to do’ – except that it isn’t.

Effects on the horse

When a horse is forced to over-bend, under saddle or during groundwork, in the mistaken belief that he looks good or needs to be in this position in order to work well, it is not possible for him to flex any further to relieve himself of the pressure and restriction, which must often amount to significant pain, in his mouth and body. This results in various defects and problems in training, behaviour and way of going.

The horse’s mouth can become so sensitive that the slightest bit aid can cause him to over-bend or curl under away from the expected pain and discomfort in mouth and neck. It can be less than easy to stop such horses with a light bit aid, get them to shorten stride, slow down or rein back. The conflict behaviour some of them understandably perform can range from running backwards, napping and rearing to bucking, head tossing and twisting, generally doing anything they can to escape the impossible situation into which the trainer or rider has put them.

Another other reaction is that the horse begins to suffer from what is called ‘learned helplessness’: he has learned that he is helpless to relieve himself and simply tolerates being abused in this way because he has no choice. Such horses often remain in this state, which has been described as a type of clinical depression, all the time, not just during work.

It has been known for some time that a horse’s vision is significantly adversely affected when he is made to go in the way described. Because of the structure and function of the eyes and the way they are set, on the sides of the head, horses cannot see where they are going when the head is down and the nose is in. What tremendous trust some must have to continue to work under these circumstances: others must simply carry on as best they can because they have no choice.

There was a bit of a hoo-ha about this a few years ago so a research team did experiments to see how far ahead an over-bent horse could actually see. They ‘discovered’ that, in order to see, horses were able to raise their eyes in their sockets, in other words they could look upwards, and thus could see a few metres in front of them. The magazine reports I read published reassuring remarks for their pro-over-bending readers by concluding that this ‘previously unknown ability’ made over-bending all right, then. I could make various insulting comments about such an attitude and mentality but maybe this is not the place to air them.

‘He has to be on the bit’

The situation has become a serious welfare issue involving dubious ethics and is being made worse by the fact that instructors and trainers throughout the horse world widely teach that this is not only correct (which is isn’t) but also necessary to ‘get the horse on the bit’. The latter idea shows a complete lack of understanding of what ‘on the bit’ means. Judges and stewards, who have the ability and, I believe, the responsibility to stop the practice by penalising those entrants who work their horses in this, to me, inhumane way mostly seem to do little or nothing about it: the practice is rife in warm-up areas and obscure corners of showgrounds and competition venues. The glossary on which this series is based gives a concise description of ‘on  the bit’ and I quote it in full here because of its importance.

‘On the bit: The self-maintained [note – self-maintained, not rider/trainer-enforced] neck and head position of the horse in correct training, where vertical flexion of the cervical vertebrae and atlanto-occipital joint (also known as poll flexion or roundness) results in the nasal planum being approximately 12 degrees in front of the vertical at walk or 6 degrees in other gaits. This posture is intended to improve the balance of the ridden horse (relocating extra weight to the hindquarters) and its willingness to respond to the signals transmitted by the rider through the reins. There are three precursors to the horse being on the bit. The first is longitudinal flexion, followed by lateral flexion and finally vertical flexion. To most people, “on the bit” means that the horse travels with its neck arched and nose tucked in. However a vertical nose does not necessarily mean that the horse is on the bit. On the bit is necessary in horse-training because, as a result of vertical flexion, the centre of gravity shifts posteriorly towards the rider’s centre of gravity. There are various forms of false roundness where the horse is forced by the rider’s hands or with the use of mechanical devices [‘gadgets’ or training aids] to flex his cervical vertebrae.’

(Longitudinal flexion is when the horse pushes his neck forward from its base, and his nose is well in front of the vertical. Vertical flexion involves a higher, more arched neck, again pushed up and out from the base, with the nose just in front of the vertical as described in the above description of on the bit. Lateral flexion is when the horse carries his head a little to the side, although the neck may be straight, so that the rider can just see the outside corner of the eye and the rim of the nostril.)

The broken-neck posture can be seen in horses worked in the way we are discussing even when they are free of any kind of postural restraint, in their boxes or paddocks, because, in lay terms, it seems to deform the neck vertebrae, in the way that badly fitting shoes deform our feet. The neck vertebrae are seven large bones joined by ligaments and other soft tissues, arranged in a slightly lop-sided S-shaped curve. It starts with the atlanto-occipital joint, where the atlas (the first neck vertebra) meets the back of the skull. The second one is the axis, followed by the remaining five. The final neck vertebra joins the thoracic ones between the shoulder blades.

When the horse is forced into this over-bent/shortened neck posture, the neck-line always kinks upwards or ‘breaks’ in roughly the same place, between the second and third vertebrae – the weakest part of the neck. The structure of the ‘chain’ of neck vertebrae is supported by a complex arrangement of ligaments, muscles, tendons and other tissues, which are linked (a major juncture being around the withers) all the way along the back and quarters.

When a horse is forcibly ridden with a restricted head and neck, apart from a ‘broken neck’ occuring, the back muscles (not for carrying weight, anyway) stiffen up and cannot relax to allow the back to swing with the horse’s movement. The head and neck are usually held up and in (on short reins, side-reins or other gadgets), the broken-neck shape occurs as the horse contorts himself to try and escape the various hard pressures he is experiencing. The back drops and the hind legs cannot possibly come forward under the belly sufficiently to produce good action, go ‘over his back’ or ‘come through’ from back to front. He will often ‘throw’ his front legs, (amazingly now a sought-after way of going despite all that it betrays), and show unharmonious, impure gaits.

The famous back muscle, the longissimus dorsi, is a movement muscle, not a weight-bearing one. It attaches to the spine (on both sides so there are really two parts to this muscle) and goes all the way from the neck to the croup. In horses ridden as described, this muscle can become injured, such horses often showing swollen, hard muscling behind the saddle in the loin area. However, it is not only in this area that injury and pain occur. The poll is often painful and the joint at which the break occurs. Because the horse has to hold himself unnaturally rigidly, his whole body probably aches and is painful.

This whole scenario, which we have only touched on here, is the result of harsh ‘hand riding’ and restrictive ground training. We have to admit that there are a lot of people who use horses as goods, stock, tools and vehicles, dispensable and replaceable and perhaps this will always be the case. But many others ride this way because unknowledgeable, if sometimes highly-qualified and competitively successful instructors have ‘told’ them to do so. Perhaps they believe this way is right, or perhaps they simply want to get results, of a sort, because they have to earn a living.

Is there a remedy?

Rehabilitation of horses injured in this way can be long, expensive and not always successful, but horses stand a good chance with good veterinary and physiotherapeutic advice and treatment plus careful management, all aimed at loosening up the back and upper neck muscles, mainly, and giving lots of time for the injuries to heal. The mental and psychological scars can take much longer to heal but once the horse is free of pain, discomfort and distress many become transformed.

Prevention is always, always better than cure. Riding by using sound biomechanical principles and in a classical, soft seat and balanced position, with horse-friendly techniques, is, in my view which is born of long experience, study and a love of horses, by far the best way to go. Ridden and managed humanely and correctly, unlike so very many horses and ponies today, your horse will last for a lifetime of good work which will actually strengthen him up rather than break him down, as so many contemporary methods do, and you’ll have the joy of a long-lasting partnership-type relationship with your horse, plus much more fun and satisfaction in the process, not to mention saving money on vets’ bills – or replacement horses.

LEARN MORE AT: The Classical Riding Club (www.classicalriding.co.uk), the International Society for Equitation Science (www.equitationscience.com), EquiSci for the UK (www.equitationscience.co.uk), the Australian Equine Behaviour Centre (www.aebc.org.au) and the Equine Behaviour Forum (www.equinebehaviourforum.org.uk). 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, co-founder 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’ (see advert this issue). For lessons and clinics in and near Lancashire, ring 01254 705487 or email horses@susanmcbane.com

Author: Features Editor

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