Healthy Movement of the Centaur Body | At the Vertical

Why is the Head on the Vertical?


Ask Yourself why is the Head on the Vertical?


Have you recently watched someone ride.  Perhaps in your local arena, or maybe even more likely online.  The next time you do, take a look at the horse.  Especially if someone claims to be a dressage rider or instructor.  See the pretty arch in the horse’s neck.  See the forehead on the vertical. 


Take a moment and reflects

So, what does that really mean? 


Does this mean that this person is riding well?  Does it mean that the horse is well-trained?


In nature we see the horse put his head in many different positions.  Ahead of the vertical, nose lifted as high as it will go and behind the vertical as well, so why is it that we give so much attention to where the head is when we ride?  Why do we care if someone is riding behind the vertical?  If the horse does it naturally when we are not on their back should we really care?  Is this something we really need to worry about?


From a different perspective ask yourself why is it that we consider someone riding on the vertical as someone who is riding well, especially if the rider is someone is a dressage rider.


Well to answer the second questions first, why is it that we consider someone riding on the vertical as someone who is riding well?  Throughout history horsemanship has changed, what is considered correct in one generation is not necessarily considered correct in the next generation.  So that often the very first question we have to ask, is how do we tell when it is correct?  When is it right?  And how do we know and what do we use as our guideline?


The horse becomes our guideline.  How healthy is the way that we ride?  Does the horse, become more and more athletic?  Can you see his conformation changing, getting better?  And it will, you can change a lot on a horse by the way you train and ride, perhaps more than you realize. 


Or is the opposite true?  Is the horse showing signs of bridle lameness, early onset of navicular, or consider the average age for horses in your sport?  And of course, check out what is happening with his muscular development? 


The problem of course is that while an experienced and trained instructor can often tell at a glance at what is going on with a horse just by examining his muscular development.  Not everyone can.  Even better than looking at the horse’s muscle development is to analyse the movement of the horse in all gaits.  But while there are very few people that can tell how a horse is doing by muscular development alone there may be even fewer that have learned all the intricacies of analyzing the movements of the horse, although there are many that know some of what to look for.


Part of the problem of course is the speed of the movement of the horse.  Difficult to catch exactly what the horse is doing without the use of a slow-motion video camera which can be truly illuminating when you do a frame by frame screen capture.


The other part of the problem is the years of training and education required on the part of the person doing the analysis compounded by the problem is there is often no way to determine if the knowledge that they have acquired is correct.  Unfortunately, it is just as easy to learn the wrong information as it is to learn the right information.


Through the centuries there is the picture of the horse that is correctly trained, a standard that has become established through the years.  While it can be tricky to evaluate the way of going as discussed if for no other reason than the speed of the horse’s limbs, it is far easier to pick out certain key elements that are easy for everyone to see, no matter what their level of expertise is.  And thus, collection in so many ways has come to be defined by where the head on the horse is positioned.


This came about as most horses, please note not all, will come closer to approaching the vertical the more they are collected.  Please note the words “will come closer.”  Looking through historical documents, pictures and even video from 60 years ago, we will see horses that are clearly collected that are not “ON” the vertical.  Some horses often are showing brilliant work while they are well ahead of the vertical whether that is due to conformation or way of going.


So, something that we’ve seen as a standard on horses after years of training and developing under experienced horsemen became one of the standards or at least an easy way to tell if the horse was working in an advanced frame.  Again, please note the word “advanced”.  A horse in an ADVANCED frame.


But does that mean every horse that has his head on the vertical is collected or working at an advanced frame?


No of course not.  If you tie a horse’s head and bring his head back to the vertical, he is just a horse with his head tied so short that his head is on the vertical.  As a matter of fact, this is the opposite of what we actually want when we are trying to develop our horse to moving and carrying himself better than ever before.  The last thing we want is for the horse to “shorten” his frame or “shorten his neck”.


When we shorten the neck we “compress” the neck and the accompanying structures, creating limitations by false angles and limited access to the incredible muscle structure in the neck.


Well then how or why does the head come back when the horse is correctly collected?


The mechanics of the head approaching the vertical should be the same whether the horse is being ridden or moving about by himself freely if he has the correct strength and musculature to do the movement correctly.  But note it is also true that we often see the horse doing this movement incorrectly, when he doesn’t have the muscle development necessary to carry himself with strength and agility.


It is easy to imagine the muzzle of the horse coming closer and closer to the vertical is coming about because the nose is coming close and close to the neck and the gap between the head and the neck closes.  And this exactly what the horse does when he is either not strong enough or he has not been trained correctly and/or he is still carrying himself in the first or second level of balance and still is not carrying more of his weight on his hind end.  The only way for him to come onto the vertical is push through the base of his neck and along the top of his neck muscles from the base and then his muzzle comes closer and closer to his neck and chest.  You can try it for yourself.  Sit with your head in a natural position then lengthen the back of your neck from your base upwards.  Your head drops and your chin comes into your chest and your ears and their position to the vertical rotate downwards.   This is what happens to the horse, which is why these horses are never poll high and the bend is always happening in the neck rather than at the poll.  Which by the way is one of the best ways to ascertain if the work of the horse is correct.  Look to see if the horse is poll high.  Not a pretend poll high but a real poll high and that he is not bent in the third or fourth vertebrae of the neck instead.  Look at the ears are they pointed down towards the ground or facing forwards into the movement and direction that the horse is moving in.


Instead in a horse that is beginning to carry more weight on his hind end, he stretches through his back, through his lumbar area, and through the base of his neck as well, but because of the stretch in the lumbar area he brings his hind legs more under himself, changing the angle of the front end, changing the angle of the base of the neck, so that the neck come to reside more above the shoulders or closer to doing so then residing in front of the shoulders..  It is this change in the angle of the base of his neck to the torso as he lifts and lengthens creates, that allows his nose drops because his under-neck muscles release, his top line properly engaged and with the stretched out topline his nose relaxes and comes closer to the vertical.  But only because of the changes in his body.  Not because of anything that you are doing to ensure that his head falsely takes a position that you perceive as desirable.


The nose approaching the vertical is only correct if the BODY has changed, otherwise it is all fake and actually becomes deleterious to the horse.  This creates the completely wrong muscle patterning.  Begin your horse in this pattern, with his nose on or approaching the vertical while his is in the first or second level of balance and chances are your horse will never be able to develop further or develop the muscle patterns that he needs to achieve the third level of balance.


And this is the crazy thing about all these dressage and western riders riding around with their horses heads on the vertical.  They have just set themselves and their horses for FAILURE!  It is so incredibly frustrating to see again and again and once trained in this manner there is no guarantee that the way of going and the damage can be completely undone.  Ever.  That may sound harsh, but it is true.  The repatterning required with horse that has learned to move incorrectly is a bear.  It is difficult, tough and sometimes near impossible even with excellent instruction and retraining.  Something of course can always be done to make it better, but there is a good possibility that it will never be what it could have been.   Few trainers want to tell you this truth, often because the riders just don’t want to hear it.


As we mentioned previously but does that mean every horse that has his head on the vertical is collected or working at an advanced frame? No but today that is what we see in arenas around the world.  We see horses in any frame, any way of going, of every level working their heads on the vertical, because that has become the standard that everyone is striving for.  That is something everyone can see.   See I am a dressage rider, my horse’s head is on the vertical.  It does not matter that I got it there by lunging him for endless hours with his head tied down with side reins.  See I am a wonderful dressage trainer, see how the horse’s I ride all have that pretty arch in their neck and their heads are on the vertical or more likely slightly behind the vertical, while at the same time their hind legs go stretching out behind them, a clear indication of a horse whose energy is all working out behind.  This is not a definition of collection or forward.


See the pretty arch in the horse’s neck.  See the forehead on the vertical.  Well at that moment unless you see the hips are well lowered and basculed, the horse coming under himself, and not pushing out behind chances are that you are seeing someone that is not riding correctly.  Someone who is either holding their horse’s head into a position, literally pulling it back from where it should be, or someone who has been taught to hold their hands in one position so that the horse stays behind or a horse that has been taught that this is what these silly humans seem to want through years of training and/or equipment all designed to keep the horse’s head in a certain position. 


Allow the horse his head and then use it as a gauge as to the progress of your training.  If you do this, while you might not be able to do Grand Prix today, but you are ensuring that one day, it just might be a possibility.  You are also ensuring that today, he can breathe optimally, he can see where he is going, that you are not compromising his muscular development, that you are not forcing your horse to carry yet even more weight on his front end which will create physical problems in the future.


There are three levels of balance.  On the forehand, balanced and collection.  In collection the horse creates more freedom in his movement on his front end by carrying more weight on his hind end.  It is or should be the horse’s decision where to carry his head and how.  Creating a false head carriage does not mean that you are a dressage rider or a fabulous trainer.


This was never about where his head is, it has always been about what his body can do and do well.