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Women & Horses by Mary D. Midkiff - horseback riding fitness techniques for women

Women & Horses, knowledge for the female equestrian; female equestrian fitness training and riding tips

The Women & Horses Newsletter - February 2008

Jaw, Poll and Neck Tension
by Mary D. Midkiff

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I hope that all of you are having a great start to the New Year with your horses and your own lives. I have been traveling working with various horses and getting to know more and more people within my new community here in the Louisville, KY area.

Over the last few months, every horse I have worked with, all different breeds and disciplines, have been very tight in the poll area, jaw and neck. There are several reasons for this any of which may apply to your horse.

Causes for tight jaw, poll (atlas joint) and neck and Solutions

  1. Teeth and Mouth Issues

    Unlike our teeth, horses teeth constantly grow and are shaped and molded by the jaw glide and mouth movement as they chew their food and graze. If there mouth function is not level, balanced, smooth and properly gliding as they chew problems commence. Problems can also come from eating dense forage with sticks and thorns in it causing soft tissue injuries inside the mouth cavity. As teeth get sharp, broken, uneven and waves are created the horse begins compensating and muscles get tight and sore, headaches occur and the joints begin to overwork in uncomfortable ways which causes inflammation.

    The mouth issues are then carried into the whole body creating tension, bracing and compensating muscle issues.

    Most mouth issues are demonstrated in the way they chew their food and carry a bit. The horse's breath may become foul if there is an abscess or injury in the mouth. Horses will tilt their head, bob up and down, quid or throw their food as they eat, move the jaw in uneven, slow motions, and eat very slowly or eat a little and come back at intervals. You may also notice a great deal of undigested grain in their manure due to lack of chewing and mastication.

    Mouth issues can show up while carrying the bit. The horse will throw his head, shake his head, tilt the head, refuse to go straight into the bridle, fight flexion in the poll, overflex to avoid contact on the bit, get his tongue over the bit and generally be sour or cranky.

    Solutions: Have the horse floated by a professional equine dentist at least once per year. This does not mean a routine check up by a vet with a rasp that does some filing. You want a complete examination and float conducted by a specialist. It is worth every bit of money you have to pay and trouble you have to go to find an expert in this area. Simple filing and a glimpse into the mouth is not a solution.

  2. Horse goes on the forehand or loads the front end under saddle

    A horse in movement (with no rider) will carry approximately 70% of his weight on his front end. In other words he loads the front end with a large percentage of his weight as he moves. The back end pushes and the front end gets loaded and pulls forward and so on.

    When we ride them and add our weight to this natural carriage the horse's front end is now under tremendous pressure and takes a great deal of pounding. In order to compensate the horse will try to lift the head and neck as a counter lever to balance out the load that pounds with every stride on his front legs. This pattern of "going on the forehand" leads to poor posture, stiff joints, muscle tension, tight poll and neck, foot issues from undue concussion, and teeth grinding or jaw clinching out of frustration.

    In addition to the horse being ridden "on the forehand" we have horses that are built "downhill". This means that the horse's conformation is such that his wither is lower than his croup and he will always be compensating when a rider is on his back. This type of horse is susceptible to chronic injury and lameness and a sour attitude not to mention a very uncomfortable ride and difficulty balancing in the saddle.

    Most horses and riders are in this pattern and I see it over and over. I am called in to find out why the horse's behavior is bad and we end up peeling off the layers that lead to the behavior and starting over.

    Solutions: All horses are to be ridden in a properly placed and fitted saddle placed at least one inch behind the shoulder blade (and a flat hand's length in front of the hip for western saddles). The saddle tree should be wide enough to accommodate changes in the horse's muscling, diet, use and age. The saddle tree should also support the rider's pelvic structure and seat bone placement to allow for balance and freedom in movement. And finally the stirrup bars need to be located in a place where the rider's hip joint and leg can operate in alignment with the pelvis and spine.

    There are several pieces which need to come together for the horse to travel in self-carriage and load the joints evenly. The horse needs to develop proper posture, alignment and straightness through ground work, proper leading and under saddle techniques. There are many exercises I teach to achieve this including Connected Ground Work and Riding which you can read about on www.peggycummings.com. The postural work begins in the way you tie and groom your horse, to leading, to mounting and riding. And it is present in your intention all the time around your horse.

    The horse needs to develop "carrying" abdominal muscles and be clear and supple throughout his whole body in order to evenly load the joints and carry himself. Just because a horse is in an "upper level frame of collection" does not mean he is evenly loaded or off the forehand. A horse in self-carriage loads the hind end joints, engages his core or abdominal set of muscles, lifts the rib cage, lifts the back, lifts the shoulder, the wither comes up and the neck and head telescope out in front of the rider. The horse is very easy to "sit" in self-carriage, they become very light to ride and gain a great deal of power. Now the horse has a chance to work or perform into a very old age and stay sound.

    The rider is also an integral piece of this. If the rider is out of balance, out of alignment, weak in the core abdominal muscles, tight with the hands, unable to ride with an independent seat, curls or rolls the feet in the stirrup and compensates with the upper body and back the horse is always going to struggle with their own balance and may develop tension in the jaw and neck to compensate.

    Many times riders and trainers will add draw reins, side reins, tie downs and tight nosebands to try and manage the horse for the ineffective rider. Again the horse pays the price of a tight jaw, tight poll and tight neck to try and perform with equipment that limits their freedom.

    And the last piece is to own and ride horses that are bred to carry a rider in balance. Look for horses that have an even wither and croup or a wither that is higher than the croup. This will increase your chances of riding a horse that can manage your weight in self-carriage.

  3. Fear-based Training

    I also see a great deal of head and neck issues coming from fear-based training. This is training that teaches horses to react or move from fear rather than thinking and processing their education.

    When horses are afraid or reactive they get tense in their head and neck and typically go around head high with their eyes wide open. Then of course you would "fix" that with tie down equipment, making it even worse. Over time this pattern becomes damaging and the head and neck become chronically sore. The horse stays sour and wants nothing to do with humans. They may tolerate people but would just as soon not deal with us if they don't have to.

    This is where I see horses get dangerous, angry, unsafe and unreliable. I can't blame them. I'd be resentful too.

    Solutions: Start horses in a way where they look to you as their herd mate and want to be with you. They choose you over everything else available. When I meet and work with a horse I always start with aromatherapy, maybe Bach Flowers Rescue Remedy if needed too, massage, stretches and acknowledgements. From there we move to connected ground work and they feel as though they can give up their prey and herd defenses to me and to the owner/handler and be safe. I can ask questions and give them challenges for them to think, answer and be rewarded. Then I allow them time to think, stretch and release after each movement.

    After a few sessions they don't want to misbehave or be unruly. They enjoy being with us and get very comfortable. We keep expanding and expanding this experience and take it to the mounted work and eventually out into the open fields, forests and horse shows.

  4. Subluxation and Misalignments

    The tightness, tension and inability to flex comfortably and travel straight through the poll may be due to subluxation of the atlas joint, cranial bone, cervical spine, and/or jaw and mandible.

    Solutions: Have your horse adjusted by a professional equine chiropractor as soon as possible. You may or may not be satisfied with the results from a session so consider trying several different chiropractors before you settle on which one is the most beneficial to your horse's needs. Myo-fascial and cranial-sacral work is extremely helpful in this area also and there are horse practitioners around the US.

    It is incredibly rewarding to feel all the tension and stress released from a horse and have a soft and supple head and neck for a change. And the horse is deeply grateful for the relief as well!

    I hope that this newsletter will inspire you to take a look at your relationship with your horse and their issues. I want the happiest of partnerships for you and your horse!

I will be at the Michigan Horse Expo as a clinician from March 7-9 in East Lansing. I hope to see and meet all of you and your horses some day soon!!

Call or write me anytime.

Happy riding!

Mary D. Midkiff

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