Self-Carriage of the Horse
How a Side-ways turn of the horse’s head, called Lateral Flexion of the Poll Joint, is key to Proper Movement and Soundness of the Horse
By Diana Thompson
This article was first published in the July 2003 issue of California Riding Magazine.
Self-carriage is a movement pattern where the horse literally carries or balances himself (thus the name). The horse does not depend on the rider’s hands, seat or legs for support.
To move in self-carriage, a horse pushes strongly forward from his hind legs and contracts the muscles of his abdomen and the base of his neck. This coordination enables the horse to lift and round his back and lift and arch his neck. The result is movement with power, lightness and grace. When you ride a horse in such a state of balance, he is light in your hand and able to change speed or direction easily. Another benefit of self-carriage is health. This pattern looks and feels effortless because the horse is using himself efficiently. A horse who carries a rider while moving in self-carriage will stay physically sounder than a horse who does not move this way.
At the end of the chain of muscular events that creates self-carriage, when the horse lifts and arches his neck, the horse is able to move his nose in towards his chest to a position where his face is held somewhat perpendicular to the ground. This position of the head and neck is desired by many equestrian sports. For the purpose of this article, let’s call this position vertical flexion.
Achieve Self-Carriage Before Vertical Flexion
From my perspective, self-carriage is the place of balanced movement from which the horse is able to move his nose towards the vertical in a healthy manner. In other words, self-carriage needs to happen before the horse is asked for vertical flexion. The reverse, tucking the horse’s nose towards his chest before achieving self-carriage, actually prevents a horse from reaching it. Strong hands on the reins, harsh bits, draw reins, side reins or martingales that hold the horse’s nose in towards his chest actually tense the muscles and joints of the neck, back and hindquarters that have to relax to produce self-carriage.
I am reminded of this subject every day because I am currently retraining two horses who were ridden with their neck and head in a vertically flexed head set position (nose tucked towards the chest) before they moved with their entire body in self-carriage. Both horses have many physical issues (stiff, tense necks, sore backs and stiff hindquarters) that cause serious problems with their walk, trot and canter. They are also hard to relax emotionally. I find this situation common in horses who have been put into a “head set” position without learning to relax and move freely from the hindquarters forward.
Lateral Flexion Relaxes the Horse’s Spine
In order to help the horse move in self-carriage (and from self-carriage bring his head into vertical flexion in a relaxed manner) I first teach him how to relax his head and neck and allow a small sideways turning movement of the head. I call this movement lateral or side-to-side flexion of the poll joint. The poll joint is the junction between the horse’s skull and first vertebrae of the neck (right behind his ears). The late master horseman Nuno Oliveira called movement of this area, “flexions of the jaw.” He is shown guiding a horse through this movement in the 1989 edition of his book From an Old Master Trainer to Young Trainers.
You can ask your horse to relax and allow this crucial movement of his poll joint while he is standing still, during ground driving and riding. In the article I wrote titled A Bitless Wonder, the text and photos describe how I massage the muscles at the top of the horse’s neck and then ask for the side-ways turn of the head by gently placing your hand on the bridge of the nose and the jaw. The article also shows how I use my bitless sidepull bridle to help the horse relax his head and neck and learn lateral flexion of the poll joint while I stand on the ground next to the horse or ride him.
How Lateral Flexion Works
If done properly, lateral flexion of the poll sparks a wonderful chain of events down the entire spine. The horse becomes very relaxed, moves into self-carriage and is able to bring his nose towards the vertical in a healthy manner. Here’s how it works:
Following the skull, the horse’s spine has 32 major vertebrae (not including the vertebrae in the tail). I think of this line of bones as a long train with many cars (vertebrae) linked together one after another. Lateral flexion, a head-turning motion, takes place when the horse’s head (the engine at the front of the train) turns slightly sideways at the connection between it and the first vertebrae of the neck, which is also called the Atlas or C-1 (the first car of the train). This movement looks like a small swivel motion of the head. The horse’s ears and eyes must stay level as the horse’s head turns a small amount left or right at the very top of the neck.
The tricky part is that the horse can only make this small movement if he relaxes the muscles and other tissues at the top of the neck. This is not something that can be forced. Once the muscles relax and allow the head to slightly turn, however, a wave of relaxation travels down the spine. Following the lead of the joint between the head and C-1, also called the poll joint, the muscles and the joints between the vertebrae of the neck and back unlock one by one down the spine like a row of carefully placed dominos.
Once this head-to-tail relaxation occurs, the horse typically relaxes hid neck and lowers his head. If allowed, he stretches his neck down towards the ground with his nose slightly forward. After the horse takes a few strides in this long and low posture, you can feel power surge forward from the hindquarters as the rear legs engage. Then the horse is able to push forward from his hindquarters, contract his belly and base of his neck to lift his back, arch his neck and move into self-carriage.
Vertical Flexion Follows Self-Carriage
At this point, due to the horse’s lightness, powerful lift of his abdomen and chest and upward arch of his neck, it becomes relatively easy to ask the horse to bring his face and nose in towards a vertical position. The next time you go to tuck your horse’s head and neck into vertical flexion think about doing this sideways head turn exercise and relaxation of the body first. The end result is soundness and sanity for the horse and heaven-on-earth for the rider.
Diana Thompson has worked for 30 years as a professional horse trainer. She is a certified massage practitioner with training in equine anatomy, acupressure and flower essence therapy. She is the author of Acupressure Point Charts for Horses, An Illustrated Guide to 128 Point Locations and Uses. She teaches horse owners how to use massage, acupressure and gentle horse training methods at her Hands-On Horse Careâ training facility in Santa Rosa in Northern California. For more information on Diana’s programs and clinic schedule, call (707) 542-4646 or visit her website: www.dianathompson.com.