Flexion at the poll
Posted by Irina Yastrebova on Thursday, December 4, 2008 02:12 PM
OK, we do not have big necks and long heads with ears on top. So where exactly is the same area in our body that we call a poll in horses. It is a joint between your head and the first neck vertebra - atlas. You can find atlas if you put your fingers right under your ears and feel round bone protrusions. This is your first neck vertebra's lateral processes. When I found it in my body for the first time it's size and location shocked me.
To flex the joint between our head and the atlas we need to move our head up and down. Keep your fingers under your ears on lateral processes of the atlas and slowly move your head up and down. Your fingers and atlas should not move, only your head. If they did you are flexing more than just the joint in question, you are flexing the whole neck. Probably at the third or fourth vertebra. You can move your head up and down quite substantially unless you have stiffness or neck problems. Be careful if you do. Move your head very slowly and stop at signs of discomfort.
When you are able to separate the "poll" from the neck and flex your head up and down without involving your neck you will be able to notice:
  • When the head moves up it moves slightly forward when the head moves down it moves slightly backwards. That happens because the joint between our head and the first vertebra is not round. It is oval and somewhat flat. Our head slides on it not just up and down but forward and backwards too.
  • If you move your head down enough your lower jaw starts pressing into your neck. Is it possible to keep your jaw soft in this position? Does that constricts your breathing? Is it comfortable?
  • If you are able to flex your "poll" down all the way try to bend your neck to the point that your chin is pressed into your chest. You have created a rollkur. Feel how the back of your neck is stretched to the maximum. Can you see well? Can you be soft in your jaw? Remember if you are a horse your jaw is probably shut tight with flash noseband, ouch!
  • Get down on your hands and knees and notice how your head wants to come down under it's own weight. The more you lift your head up the more your neck becomes ewe shaped. If you try to flex at the poll now your whole neck feels contracted.
Now think about horses, especially those in dressage training. Some of them have their heads physically pressed into their necks with salivation glands bulging because there is no room when the poll is flexed to the maximum. You just felt that yourself. If a horse ridden in rollkur the nuchal ligament tugs at it's attachment to the head because of maximum stretch imposed on it. Constant small tears and inflammation create calcification and bone growth.
If a horse keeps his neck high and tense and is asked to flex at the poll he will inevitably use force and jam his lower jaw into his neck not much different from what we feel when we do it standing up. This tension will spread backwards because the horse will try to detract his neck from uncomfortable pressure. All the neck vertebra will jam into each other from front to back like a domino effect. The back will drop, hind legs will stiffen and make short steps. And the only way to keep your horse's poll flexed in this scenario is to hold it with your hands. How many times have you seen that image in dressage competition especially at higher levels?
If we want a horse to flex at the poll comfortably his neck (at least the part closest to the head ) must be more or less straight and horizontal. If the neck is close to the horizontal line the flex at the poll is very natural move more of a relaxation of the poll area and letting a head to hang down. This is very easy for even green horses. This is were you start training - long and low. Later through progressive training the neck will lift through arching that starts from the base but the last portion of it will stay horizontal through the highest levels of training.
Happy riding...
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My blog is about teaching, riding and training. I share what is important to me in my work with horses and riders. The writing helps me to think things over and have a better understanding of training ideas and priciples.
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