As any serious dressage rider who’s taken a lesson or two knows, the horse should be ridden ‘back to front.’ In other words, creating energy in the hindquarters to encourage the horse to carry himself over the back, lightening the forehand and suppling into the contact of the rider’s hands. So why start with focus on the neck when the start of movement is really the hindquarters? Because the neck seems to be that which gets the most attention, since that is what we, as riders, have the view of from the saddle. I feel that a better understanding of how the horse’s neck actually affects the movement of the horse will create better, more aware riders and happier horses that can perform to their best.

The ultimate goal is to have the horse engaged in the hind end, which encourages flexion of the abdominal muscles and thus enables him to lift his back. When the horse carries himself in this manner, he is able to ‘free his shoulder,’ using the topline over his shoulder and neck, thus elevating the forehand. But how does all this work? Really?

Muscles in Motion

The neck is comprised of several large and important muscles that are required not only for lifting and turning the head, but mobilizing the shoulder and actually lifting the forehand. We will look at some of the key muscles that we want to develop, and a couple muscles that over-develop when the horse moves poorly.

The trapezius is a fundamental muscle that has two parts. In this article, we will focus on the front part which extends from the withers to the second cervical vertebrae (bones of the neck) and connects to the entire scapular spine (a ridge down the centre of the shoulder blade). During proper training, the trapezius can be identified on a fit horse as the slight bulge of muscle seen in front of the wither. This muscle is responsible for lifting the shoulder blade up and forward, and will work naturally when the horse is moving forward from the haunches with abdominal muscles flexed (seen as a lifted, supple back).

The scalene, consisting of a small upper part and a larger lower part, is situated in the bottom half of the neck. When the scalene work together, they are responsible for raising the base of the neck (which is required for true collection). Independently, they incline the neck to the same side. The scalene attach at the first rib and insert onto the last four cervical vertebrae.

The serratus ventralis is a deeper muscle that supports the front end of the horse, much like a stabilizer. Attaching from the last four cervical vertebrae, it spreads over the withers, neck and shoulder area attaching to the inside of the shoulder blade. This muscle tends to develop with consistent training, which in turn contributes to overall improved coordination.

We often hear talk of raising or arching the topline of the neck as we achieve suppling and on our way to collection on the training scale. The muscle of the topline is the rhomboideus. This muscle connects at the back of the skull, follows the topline and attaches to the inside surface of the shoulder blade. It is similar to the trapezius in that it is responsible for lifting the shoulder blade up and forward. The rhomboideus develops when the horse begins to carry himself with a freely moving shoulder and a lifted back.

Incorrect Carriage (and How to Fix it)

The muscles that we often see bulging on the underside of the necks of hollowed-out, disengaged horses-in-training aid in pulling the forearm forward, and some for raising the head, but they do not contribute to ‘the lift’ that we strive for. These are the muscles that kick-in and over-develop when the horse is not moving correctly forward. (When the back drops and the hind-end disengages, the shoulders do not swing. Instead, the horse is pulled along by the muscles that control the forearm that originate on the underside of the neck.) Although these muscles will always contribute to the movement, we want them to be secondary to the muscles that create the lift as well as the forward. These muscles are not ‘bad’ muscles, as some contribute to turning of the head, pulling forward of the forearm and raising of the neck as well, but they will develop naturally regardless, allowing focus for the ideal developments with correct training.

A dropped back not only increases concussion on the forelegs of the horse, but exacerbates tension in the back which in turn leads to back pain. Ill-fitting tack, back pain, nervousness/fear/anxiety, and poor riding can cause the initial tendency for a horse to travel disengaged, so it is imperative that these things be investigated if a horse is unwilling to stretch his neck down and forward.

Giving at the poll is often requested before trainers begin to ask for too much forward. This is beneficial with suppling exercises, however, over-doing it is detrimental. The horse’s nose should always be in front of the vertical, but many riders, accidentally or not, tend to ask for too much and create over-bending in the neck. While some accept this and “rollkur” as steps in traning, it contributes to too many bad habits and incorrect movement to be encouraged. This ‘breaks the arch’ around the third cervical vertebrae, dropping the poll and tucking the chin towards the chest. When this is caused by too much hand and not enough forward energy, these horses are often seen with dips or lack of muscling in front of the wither, disengaged quarters, and hollowed backs. If the horse becomes tense when consistently ridden in this manner, by tightening his muscles, he will create an over-development in his neck behind his ears from holding himself.

Sometimes an anxious horse holds himself behind the bit to escape contact and will also over-develop those ‘bottom’ neck muscles in the process. If you find yourself in this tricky predicament, encourage lowering of the head and neck while asking for forward energy in a steady rhythm. Soon he will begin to lift his back, swing his shoulders, and you will be where you want to be. Patience truly is a virtue.

In the process of developing the topline and attaining engagement, a horse may over-bend himself, going behind the bit. As long as his back is lifted, it is part of the learning curve for better things. It is challenging for a horse-in-training to engage his quarters, lift his back AND raise his neck without losing the collection. Think of an archer’s bow drawn taught just before the arrow is released. Imagine bracing the bottom (like the haunches on the ground) and, while keeping the string taught (to keep the lift in the horse’s back), push the top of the bow (the poll) up. Not so easy. When your horse drops his head but still maintains the lift and engagement but can’t seem to do it all with his neck up, give through your elbows without losing the contact. Dropping your hands will facilitate his dropped head, but moving your hands forward will give him a few extra inches to reach into so that he has more room to carry himself proudly, and allows shoulders to move freely. The rhythm can thus be controlled by the rider setting the tempo with her/his own seat.


(c) Sheri Spencer.

Please contact the author to obtain written consent for use or duplication of any kind.

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