Horse¢â‚¬â„¢s the Poll the central keys not only to horses ... ... placement of the horse¢â‚¬â„¢s fore feet

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  • “In my experience, the poll is too often considered by equestrians from a training theory standpoint only and discussed only in terms of its relative height rather then in terms of • COMFORT • RANGE OF MOTION • SUPPLENESS and SOFTNESS.

    Riders use contact to create postures without always understanding the consequences to the horse’s body and mind, of blocking or injuring what are delicate and complex anatomical structures with an influence on all the horse’s systems. These structures, once damaged, are difficult or even impossible to repair.

    Discussions take place constantly on social media between proponents of different training techniques and postures but, in my experience teaching riders from different schools around the world, the health of the poll is not well understood by the differing camps.

    A Closer Look by Manolo Mendez


    Horse’s Poll

    The comfort and health

    of the horse’s poll is one of

    the central keys not only

    to horses’ performance

    but more importantly to

    their short and long term

    soundness. In this article,

    we take a look at the link

    between poll health and


  • Along with the horse’s mouth and jaw, the poll can be a battlefield - whether a rider practices modern or classical dressage - because of contact. Soft, giving,

    Left hand checking the poll, right hand cupping the atlas. Note the horse’s quiet eye and listening ear.

    supportive, tactful contact is hard to achieve, regardless of one’s training philosophy.

    As a rider pulls, the horse braces its tongue, jaw and poll, muscles stiffen, tighten, spasms form and knots develop. The areas from between the back of the skull to C2, on the crest of the neck and on the sides of the neck, become flat or hollow, muscles, tendons a n d

    Atlas (C1)

    Axis (C2)

    ligaments feel dry and ropy. Inflammation sets in. Sometimes, instead of flat and dry, the horse will have muscles on both sides of the neck, behind the ears, that bulge out dramatically in an otherwise flat neck. The horse won’t welcome any touch on these areas. It may even evade touch and become aggressive when attempts are made to touch or pet it there or on the cheeks, ears or side of the neck.

    Instead of supple and elastic the muscles that control the poll will be short and tight, restricting not just the motion of the horse’s head but that of its entire body.

    Further, if a rider is uneven in their contact, the horse will become crooked in its poll. As poll muscles develop asymmetrically, vertebrae can become crowded, and DJD (degenerative joint disease) sets in, in the form of fusion and early arthritic changes. Horses can also develop calcification where the nuchal ligament attaches to the back of the skull.

    Manolo demonstrating a horse crooked to the right and travelling straight. Where are the nose, ears, poll and rib cage of the horse? Look at the chest bone, is it exactly centred or more to the right or left? Continued

    The horse may evade touch and become aggressive when attempts are made to touch the muscles on both sides of the neck, behind the ears, or on the cheeks, ears or side of the neck.

    HeAD TILT A common indication of a possible problem with the poll is a horse that tilts its head slightly to one side or the other and cannot place its nose under its ears. Unaddressed, this misalignment will begin by affecting the horse’s muscles, then tendons and ligaments and eventually its bones. The tilt may become ‘cemented’,

    Featured in this article is the Andalusian stallion Dinamico XII, owned by Alex and Sandra Wolfe.

  • resulting in a horse that physically cannot straighten and which may bear the brunt of much frustration and escalating aids from a rider who is unaware of the problem.

    Horsemen and women who observe such horses moving may notice that in some movements, the head tilt is reflected in the placement of the horse’s fore feet.

    how it uses its back and is able to use its pelvis. This has a direct bearing on movement quality since leg movement is linked directly to the health and mobility of the horse’s spine. Finally, just like us, horses can develop tension headaches, TMJ and dental issues from poll pain. Postures that create poll problems also lead to a deficit in blood flow and oxygen to the brain and face. As a result, horses do not see as well and their mouth and tongue can lose some feeling, which affects their confidence and their response to the rider’s aids. Besides learning to identify through feel, observation and touch whether a horse has an uncomfortable poll, what a rider can do - to better understand how to avoid poll problems - is to watch horses walk, trot and canter at liberty and under the saddle of a good rider. What they will notice is how the horse uses its neck and head, and therefore its poll, differently in each gait. In walk, a supple, loose and flexible (what we want) horse will move its neck slightly side to side with each stride, its head oscillating slightly. In trot, the horse moves in a serpentine motion and the head and neck do not move very much whereas in canter the horse uses its head and neck in a forward, forward, forward motion requiring a supple poll.

    The Horse’s Poll continued...

    Another way in which the poll can become damaged is if a rider keeps a horse collected for long periods of time without offering breaks.

    As the horse becomes fatigued, it will tense its entire topline and its poll muscles will become sore. It does not matter if the rider is riding in front of the vertical and the poll is at the highest point - according to the stage of training. If a posture is kept too long, that good posture will become a bad posture and introduce tension. When muscles become tense, they shorten and pull on the bones and vertebrae they are anchored to. Damaged vertebrae and inflammation can impact the spinal chord and the horse’s central nervous system, slowing down or disrupting commands sent to the body and the information the body sends to the brain in return.

    A contracted sore poll, a blocked poll means that cervical joints are blocked. Just like in humans, if one set of joint is blocked, it will affect the function of every other joint in the horse’s body.

    Horses start to stumble, are slow to pick a lead, and move disconnected. Reflexes are dulled, which can create a danger to horse and rider. This means that a sore, crooked, blocked, stiff, painful poll will have a reverberating effect on the horse’s spine and throughout its entire body, directly impacting on

    Watching a horse doing lateral work and showing bend through its entire body from ear to tail and comparing one direction to another is another way to better understand the healthy vs. unhealthy range of motion and positioning of the poll - and the connection of the poll to the horse’s pelvis via good alignment and the entire spinal chain.

    Checking the masseter area or cheek (where Manolo’s right hand is). This muscle should feel soft and full, not hard, hollow or rigid. Your horse should enjoy the feeling of your hand on its face.

    Manolo shows that the horse is able to flex through the poll and jaw with a loose and relaxed lower jaw, and it holds no tension in itsTMJ.

    Manolo continues the flexion. Note that the horse is able to flex without shifting its body weight to counter balance. All the while, Manolo is assessing the horse’s flexibility and balance. The flexion should be soft and fluid without tension or resistance.

  • June/July 2017 - Page 53

    The first Head Rider of the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art. Based in Jerez, Spain, the school includes the Cadre Noir in Saumur, the Spanish Riding School in Vienna and the Portuguese School of Equestrian Art in Lisbon. A master horseman with over forty years of experience spanning classical dressage, doma vaquera and jumping, Manolo is dedicated to a soft, sympathetic and thorough training method which prepares horses physically and psychologically for each stage of training from training to Grand Prix and Haute Ecole. To learn more about Manolo’s training for wellness approach and purchase his in-hand dvd at

    MANOLO MENDEZ About the Author

    What happens when the horse’s poll is held in a fixed position by an unrelenting hand, or when the horse braces, trying to push its nose out against a backward hand action? Does the horse fill with tension? Does the quality of its movement change? Does the fluidity of its lateral movement suffer? Does its movement change from a back or a leg moving action? Does the

    horse move in canter with an up and down ‘hammer head’ action? Are the horse’s joints absorbing motion elastically or is the horse hitting the ground heavily? Is the horse carrying itself in independent balance and eventually self-carriage or is the rider finding the horse heavy and hard-mouthed? Has the rider simply become accustomed to carrying the horse in one set posture, regardless of the horse’s responses? Beyond reading articles and books it is in the act of observing, touching, and experimenting gently that the role and importance of the poll can be learned, the relationship between poll health, movement, posture and training can be understood, and a horse’s overall wellness can be restored or enhanced.

    Horses can really benefit from this gentle check of the poll and atlas. How th