Stepping instead of falling… how position of the neck effects spinal alignment and balance.
Balanced movement can make all the difference in how your horse uses his body in a healthy vs a non healthy way.
An exercise I see often is ‘yielding the quarters’ or ‘disengaging the hind end’ where the neck is bent around and the horse steps the hind legs over. But what is really happening here? Why is the horse stepping over and what is the purpose of this exercise? Are you using it as a tool stop your horse? To supple your horse? Or to teach him how move from pressure?
The reason the hind end will step over is because the horse has become unbalanced due to the neck being laterally flexed too far. In order to stay upright the horse HAS to move his legs. So essentially we are asking a horse to move by throwing him off balance…..this is not a healthy way of using his body!
If we are using this exercise to supple the horse, all we are really doing is teaching the horse to brace in order to avoid falling over. But by making a few simple adjustment we can mould this exercise into something that will HELP the horse to strengthen and supple his body so that he can STEP instead of FALL.
It all starts with the position of the neck. The neck and the spine need to be thought as one continuous structure, think of it as a hose that runs from the tail to the ears, we want the water to flow evenly through that hose and avoid any kinks. In the horse those kinks are going to occur in the poll, the base of the neck and the pelvis, think of these as the bendy parts of the hose. In order to keep that water flowing we need all these areas to be aligned. The spine will be the stiffest part and only has a limited range of movement, the neck however is the opposite, therefore keeping these two in alignment can be tricky! But one simple step you can take is to not allow the neck to bend laterally more than the spine (which generally is not past the point of shoulder). This allows the horse to remain in balance and freely step (not fall) in the direction we have asked.
Below are some drawings I have done to better explain this. In the first image we can see the different parts of the spine, the neck (7 vertebrae), the thoracic spine (18 vertebrae) and the sacrum (5 vertebrae fused). As you can see when the neck is bent laterally too far the spine is no longer in alignment and has ‘kinked’ in several places. But by simply keeping the neck in alignment the kinks are eliminated.
The next drawing shows the effects of rotation in the body when the neck is bent too far laterally vs in alignment. In order to stay balanced when the neck is bent to far, the rib cage will counter rotate and the limbs will compress under the body in order to CATCH it. Where as when the neck is in alignment the ribcage is in correct rotation which allows the limbs to come forward under the body and CARRY it.
The last image gives a nice example of what to look for under saddle, viewing the neck between the shoulder allows the spine to stay in alignment, I will go into more detail on this one and ways to achieve it in another post.
Click on the images below to see larger versions