Schooling the Horse: The Importance of Lengthening the Neck
By Manolo Mendez, Professor of Classical Dressage
In the paddock or in the wild, we can see horses playing or challenging each other with a naturally collected outline and a flexed poll. But a horse will hold this posture for moments only before returning to his most natural and comfortable stance - head and neck lowered and most of his weight on the forehand. And when he does collect, he will also instinctively lift his back and use muscles, ligaments, tendons and bones all over his body to properly support this posture.
In training for dressage, one of the most damaging things we can do to a horse - especially a young horse - is demand an “outline”. A beautiful outline is something that will, if the training is correct, develop naturally over a period of years. To insist on it before the horse is ready can and does lead to premature breakdown in body, mind – and spirit.
A short neck destroys balance
Since 1988, W. Robert Cook, FRCVS., PhD (Now Professor of Surgery Emeritus at Tufts University, School of Veterinary Medicine, USA) has published more than 20 articles based on research on the causes of bleeding in racehorses. He provides evidence to support his findings that bleeding is caused by obstruction in the upper air passages – ie., partial suffocation of the horse (See diagrams on Page 3).
One of the major causes for asphyxia, according to Prof. Cook, is poll flexion. He claims that “anything less than complete extension of the poll at the gallop constitutes an upper airway obstruction”.1
But before dressage riders dismiss this as non-applicable to their discipline, Prof. Cook also notes that bleeding has been observed in draught horses in slow exercise and horses that are not even being exercised at the time of bleeding. Further, that “as the bit method of control is actually dependent on poll flexion, it follows that, by definition, all horses wearing bits have to undergo varying degrees of suffocation from time to time.”2
He recommends to racehorse trainers that, to prevent bleeding through asphyxia, they should, among other things, avoid excessive poll flexion during training and races, encourage the use of a loose rein, and also encourage the head bob in the horse.
Proponents of “long and low” dressage training dressage recognise that flexing excessively at the poll for any length of time is not natural or comfortable for any horse under saddle. Even horses worked at an advanced level must have frequent periods of relaxation during a training session when they are encouraged to stretch down and out on a longer rein. Long and low also allows for the head bob – ie., the natural movement of head and neck at the walk and canter.
Cook, W. Robert FRCVS., PhD: “Asphyxia as the cause of bleeding and the bit as the cause of soft palate displacement.” Thoroughbred Times, USA, 1999.
Horses have evolved to carry most of their weight on the forehand for most of the time, and freedom of the neck and head is a crucial factor in being able to balance this weight. A green horse has natural balance, but all that is changed when we expect him to carry a rider as well. Now he must find a new balance. This alone may take many months, depending on the horse, his conformation, temperament and natural ability.
Training a horse to perform the higher movements with grace and beauty is not possible without conserving the horse’s natural balance. For flying changes, pirouette, half pass, or any other advanced movement, the horse must have superior balance. A short contact used to create a short neck and to force poll flexion will interfere with this balance.
Take the fly change or the half pass, for example. We should never have too much contact. We should use the reins to gently guide the horse in the direction of the leading rein, then we should change softly, allowing the horse time to organise his legs and adjust all his vertebrae. Superior balance becomes even more crucial for the Airs-above-ground, such as levade, courbette and capriole. Interfere with the mouth, have the contact too short at the wrong time, and you will cause the horse to shorten his neck and thus lose his balance.
How short is “too short”?
Of course, training with too long a neck can cause problems, too. If the horse is not encouraged to seek contact with the rider’s hands, to lift a little, he will never learn to carry himself in a way that will help him develop the muscles he needs.
But how short is too short and how long is too long? How much contact is the right amount to allow the horse to work with his neck in the optimal position? It depends on each individual horse and the level of his training.
In any type of training, the nose must be in front of the vertical AT ALL TIMES. If we force a green horse to work with a short contact he will go behind the vertical in an effort to evade the pain we are creating in his mouth and neck.
A nose behind the vertical causes the poll to become stiff. The neck rolls too much, which makes the top muscles too tense. The muscles underneath “suck up” as the horse tries to support himself in this uncomfortable posture. The seven neck vertebrae become stiff and tense, which causes the rest of the vertebrae (the horse has fifty-four in all, from the poll to the tail) to also become stiff and tense.
With a horse working at a high level we may need more contact, but this is because a horse at a high level has developed the ability and the stamina to hold himself in a collected outline with his poll flexed. It is still a light contact: he does not need to be held there. Shorter contact should always be by-product of physical development, not the means by which physical development is achieved. If it is the means, then it will be the wrong physical development.
Even so, we should not work even a highly trained horse in a collected frame for more than a few minutes at a time. Most of his work should be done on a gentle, fine contact which encourages him to stretch down and out with his neck and head, to seek our hands through the reins. This is called “long and low”.
“Long and low” or “deep and round”?
Long and low is not the same thing at all as the “deep and round” principle, which relies on bringing the horse behind the vertical with a lowered head and a shortened neck.
A. Unobstructed airway with the poll extended and the soft palate in the correct position for rapid breathing.
B. Obstructed upper airway with the poll partially flexed and the soft palate dorsally displaced.
Diagrams reproduced with permission of Dr. W. Robert Cook.
Working a horse deep and round is often achieved with side reins and running reins, and is thought to lift the horse’s back and stretch the spine by enabling the hind legs to come through properly. In fact, when a horse is worked too deep in the neck, his back must arch down. This will indeed cause him to work his back legs harder to compensate, but there is too much movement in the stifle and the hock, and not enough in the body. The hind end is not working in harmony with the front end because the bridge between them - the back - is not moving. With the legs working so hard, they hit the ground harder. This can cause concussion of the spine and hip.
Deep and round restricts the respiratory system and blood supply, and the horse can’t see where he is going. The horse ends up weak in the spine. You cannot always see the damage immediately; it happens over time.
In the beginning was the long neck …
Dressage is an art form and, like any art form, it needs time and the right conditions in which to grow and flourish. The rider and his horse must work together, in harmony, to develop balance, rhythm, co-ordination and skill. We do not teach the horse passage or piaffe or tempi changes: these things he was born to do. But to do them with the same grace and beauty under saddle means we must work within his natural limitations, building his strength and willingness. If we don’t, we end up with a pale copy of the real thing. Allowing him to work with his neck long and low is where it all truly begins.
Copyright © 2003 Manolo Mendez & Australian Equine Arts