A horse’s environment helps ensure a beautiful neck.
Horse’s necks are made long and supple to reach the ground to graze, tilt under their mothers’ bellies to nurse, stretch back to scratch an itch on their stifle, and lift their heads high to see afar or to scent a predator. Even at a canter, a horse’s body can travel straight ahead while her head, floating on a supporting column of neck, turns to check out her surroundings or prepare for the next change in direction.
But how often do you see a horse with a neck that’s “too short” for her body? A neck that’s jammed downward into a “U” shape? Triangular and stiff? Lumpy and “low set”? Some horses can’t reach the ground without spreading their front legs; some turn stiffly with head tilted, instead of curving around to follow their nose; and many move or stand heavily on the forehand. These horses struggle when asked to turn, resist ‘going on the bit’, and are more likely to stumble.
Beautiful necks go hand-in-hand with relaxed, healthy backs. In fact, back muscles reach two-thirds of the way up into the horse’s neck. The graceful nod that comes with each forward step of a healthy horse is a sign that the horse is using her hindquarters to push forward through the back and neck, creating lightness in front. If instead the horse is pulling herself forward with the front legs, the head bobs upward with each step.
Horses are born with functional, comfortable necks. Over time a combination of accidents and training glitches often creates problems in the form of chronically contracted muscles and scar tissue. For example, virtually all domestic horses at some time have pulled back strongly while tied, and caused damage that mimics the disabling effects of whiplash in humans.
This neck can be seen on ropers, jumpers and other horses whose necks are pulled upward during training or work. Note the narrow space between jaw and atlas (first vertebra), artificially straightened and stiffened spine, parallel profile of top line and under line, distant and pained expression. The throat is stretched tight and sagging.
Imagine for a moment that you’re a horse trapped by a stiff neck. To reach the ground, you have to spread your front legs. To look behind you, you must twist your head sideways, and may have to turn your whole body as a unit. When you feel pressure from the bit, you may feel your head flip uncontrollably from locked-in reflexes. You may feel anxious because your head is jammed into your spine; or rebellious at being asked to do things you can’t do; or afraid that if you move too fast you’ll feel a stab of pain. Once you begin moving, it’s hard to stop; you feel as if you’re falling forward and can’t catch up. Confused and clumsy, somehow you know that it wasn’t always this way - and you’re right.
No Such Thing as “Bad” Posture
The horse’s neck is designed to assume many shapes and
lengths, regardless of conformation. Thus an “upside-down” neck
isn’t a problem in itself - “upside down” is part
of a survival reflex that helps the horse escape from danger, whether
it’s a mountain lion or a painful saddle. Like other possible
neck postures, it only becomes a problem when the horse isn’t
able to leave that pose, but is stuck there. The ‘let me out
of here’ neck doesn’t work so well for breathing, grazing,
traveling, or responding to a rider.
However, neck problems don’t have to be a lifetime sentence: we can relieve pain, release stiffness, and restore full movement and beauty to a damaged neck.
Observe From the Side
€ The top line flows smoothly out of the back, sweeping over the withers and up to the poll; no sudden peaks or valleys.
€ The mane is a curtain that stays to one side or the other (or both sides at once); no uneven sections flopping on one side or the other.
€ Sleek muscles spring from a clear shoulder bed and flow harmoniously; no lumps, ropes, strain lines.
€ There’s a ‘shelf’ between withers and the top of the shoulder blade; not an unbroken slab.
€ The spine of the neck curves slightly in a gentle, open ‘S’; not jammed together, or stretched into a straight line.
€ On the under line, an open throat forms a graceful arch; not a stiff downward curve.
€ The poll (area between head and neck) is open and softly rounded; not stiff, hard and straight.
Feel the Neck
€ Running your hand down the top line, you feel supple strength; not a thick ridge or bar.
€ Stroking the under line from throat to chest feels soft and fleshy; not hard as a strung bow.
€ Stroking the side you feel smooth, springy muscle that responds to your touch; not lumps, knots, or slabs; the horse doesn’t flinch or brace.
CAUTION: If your horse becomes defensive or threatening when you touch the neck, or seems to lose consciousness, she may be suffering from severe pain or the side effects of a head injury Consider seeking help from a holistic equine health care practitioner.
€ The horse has balanced gaits with smooth, free strides; not heavy, stiff, short strides.
€ The head is supported and free moving; not held stiffly. It can swivel easily to either side.
€ With each step of the hindquarters the neck arches slightly upward while the head automatically nods down toward vertical; head is not pulled upward with each step.
€ The horse has open, bright eyes and is able to calmly pay attention and follow directions.
€ The horse can accept the touch of a hand, or a signal from the reins, without flipping or tossing his head.
This neck has been shortened and thickened by years of pulling and bracing. Note the painfully contracted muscles in the poll area, midneck and in front of the upper shoulder. There is little shoulder definition, and a dip in front of the withers due to a lowered neck base.
How’s Your Neck?
We humans often carry tension and worry in our necks; falls or sudden stops may have created a reduced range of motion. This tension and stiffness will be felt by your horse when you are riding. Whatever you do to repair soft tissue damage, releasing your neck tension and restoring free movement will benefit your horse!
HOW TO RESTORE YOUR HORSE’S NECK
Work with the horse in a quiet area where he feels calm and relaxed. It’s best not to tie the horse when you are working with the head and neck; If he were startled by a sudden noise or feeling, he could pull back. Let the lead rope rest over his back or over your arm.
Always be aware that the horse’s head can inadvertently become a lethal weapon, and keep your head out of range of a sudden movement. Stand beside shoulder or neck with your head upright. When you must stand near the horse’s head, keep one relaxed hand on the halter at all times.
For safest and best results, work at the horse’s level of acceptance at a given moment.
How to Prevent Damage and Maintain a Beautiful Neck
As your horse regains the beautiful neck he was born with, you’ll want to make sure that any conditions that cause injuries and poor performance don’t continue. Avoid neck problems by always working with, not against, your horse. Here are some factors to consider:
€ Fear: creates tension and leads to accidents
€ Pain: for example, from dental problems
€ Trauma: pulling back incidents, falls, flipping over, ‘slow whiplash’ from heavy-handed handling or riding
€ Crooked movement: not coming through from hindquarters through back, neck, and poll
€ Uncomfortable tack: harsh bit, tight fit around muzzle or ears, painful saddle, restrictive girths, blankets and breast collars
€ Mechanical hackamores or stiff bosals that force the horse
to suddenly raise his neck and head
€ Restrictive devices like cribbing collars; tying head to wall, stirrup, tail; overuse of tie downs or draw reins
€ Training that results in stiffness or lack of forward movement such as excessive ‘yielding of the hindquarters,’ or forcing into a frame
€ Riding techniques that create confusion or pain such as sudden
or off balance demands, pulling back with both reins, pulling up to “rock” or “set” back
(gaited, jumping, roping horses), “supporting” neck with
reins and bit
€ Environments that encourage upside down or crooked reaching with the neck: wall-hung feeders, peering over or straining under fences
€ Barn atmosphere and lifestyle: frequent exposure to impatient, erratic or aggressive people, standing for long periods in a stall or pen, solitary confinement
Doing the Right Thing
Your horse will appreciate your kindness and intention to help - whether you are feeling your way as you go or have a clear idea of what to do. When you are doing the right thing, she will show it. She may instantly let her head down and take a deep breath. Other responses might be leaning into the massage, yawning, or stretching. If she raises her head, moves away, stamps her feet or otherwise objects, lighten your touch (even to the point of simply resting your hand), or move to another area. If necessary, you can directly benefit the neck by starting work along the back.
For long lasting results, keep massage gentle and slow. Subtle changes in the neck make big changes in the brain when there is no resistance present.
Emotions can become trapped in body tissues, especially in areas which were impacted during accidents, or situations in which the horse had no escape and no control over the outcome. For example, some horses have been roped and pulled forward or thrown; had their heads tied to the saddle, girth or tail; or have been ridden in a rigid “frame”. The neck is one area in which emotions can be waiting to be released along with any soft tissue damage. During bodywork allow the horse to move as he needs to restore full relaxation and comfort.
If a horse has lived with constant stress, or has been overworked or abused, she may need help with emotional healing before she is able to let go of body tension. Acupressure or acupuncture and other types of energy-based (vibrational) therapy such as flower essences and homeopathy can restore the body’s ability to accept healing.
Respect and affection are essential, powerful tools for restoring a healthy neck.
Restoring Comfort and Freedom
The many forms of massage aim to enhance the body’s ability to heal itself by improving circulation, and restoring healthy texture and relationships among the muscles and other soft tissues. Massage helps restore freedom of motion. It also improves the body’s self-awareness and self-control, and thus its balance.
For more detailed information on massage technique, try one of these books, or others that include respect for the horse:
"Release The Potential" by Doris K. Halstead and C. Cameron - Some of the easiest, most effective bodywork techniques available, especially valuable for the neck
"Equine Massage" by Jean-Pierre Hourdebaight - Clear, accurate information for general bodywork, well-illustrated
"Touching Horses: Communication, Health and Healing Through Shiatsu" by Marion Kasselle and Pamela Hannay - Beautifully illustrated book on healing philosophy, acupressure, massage, and stretching; detailed how-to descriptions and photos
Some basic pressure points and deeper muscles of the neck
(1) Surface tension: if the skin doesn’t move freely over the muscles beneath, release skin tension first by gently compressing a tense area with your palm for a few minutes; or by slowly moving the skin in a circular motion with your fingers.
(2) Pressure points: press for 8-12 seconds, then stroke the area. Begin and end pressure gently.
(3) A ‘contract/ relax sequence’ works with the muscles’ neurological programming. When you ask a muscle to contract or shorten, it immediately signals itself to relax and lengthen. Put your hands or fingers at either end of a muscle, and gently press toward the center of the muscle for a few seconds, then allow it to release. Or, ask the horse to perform a movement and then relax. For example, ask him to extend his head (lift nose and tighten top line), then to relax and lengthen the muscles by flexing (arching) the neck and slowly bringing the nose down.
4) To relieve pinching at the base of the neck: observe which side of the neck bulges to that side at its base. Apply gentle pressure with heel of your hand, or lean an elbow, on the bulging side, at the middle of the shoulder bed. Wait for the weight to shift to the opposite foot. Your horse will sigh, relax, and lower her head as the neck straightens. If you’re not sure which side is bulging, try either side. Your horse will thank you!
5) Restore range of motion and remove reflexes (such as head tossing) with "stretching" and balancing movements. You can use treats such as carrot pieces to inspire the horse to bend or reach with his neck, but the presence of treats can distract his attention and cause him to move quickly. If the horse finds value (release, comfort) in what you’re doing, he will cooperate for the sake of the good results.
I’ve found that horses can and will follow simple instructions such as pointing in a certain direction and asking them to look at a person or object, then to follow your hand slowly back to center. Performing a motion for himself restores the horse’s control over his own movements.
Thoughtful riding helps create a beautiful neck, part of a healthy body and mind.
6) Integrate healthy movement and regular massage into everyday handling and riding.
“Building up the top line” is a popular goal especially of dressage riders. But overdeveloped, tense muscles along the top line provide the opposite result from what is wanted - lightness, or “self-carriage”.
To prevent a jammed, stiff or shortened neck, help the horse’s back be relaxed and round, let impulsion come through from the hindquarters, and let her have enough room in front to lift her neck from beneath. Avoid pulling or leaning on the reins, which causes bracing in the poll.
Regular massage and mindful handling and riding will help keep your horse’s neck free of problems, giving you a calmer, more cooperative horse, with smoother gaits and long-term soundness.