The suppleness of the poll is in direct relation to the suppleness of the back. You cannot have one without the other. Many times the horse has learned to be "obedient" to the bridle but the rider may feel a resistance in the horse's hindquarters or the shoulders, when actually the cause of the problem is in the horse's mouth.
In dressage horses, for instance, if the jaw is locked the horse will be inclined to give at the first/second cervical vertebrae giving a "false bend" to relieve the pressure on his jaw. This restricts his ability to fully engage the rest of his body and limbs.
In speed events such as racing, barrel racing or even cutting, if there is any pain or restriction in the mouth and jaw area, it can cause head tossing, lack of concentration, shortening of stride and weakened hocks. Weakened hocks may cause front leg injuries because the horse is more inclined to pull himself along with the front legs rather than to push himself from the hind legs.
Jumpers and hunters need to have a loose jaw to extend the head and neck for balance over fences. If the jaw is not loose, it can even restrict the horse's ability to round his back over the jump. If he is carrying his head in a tilted position, injuries can occur to the forelegs due to landing with undue pressure to one side.
Even if you are not interested in a competitive sport with your horse and just enjoy riding on the trails, the same is true. Many horses who shy, head toss or dance sideways could just be telling you that their mouth hurts.
As a body worker who works to establish muscle and movement balance in a horse, I have found it is of utmost importance to establish a "team" approach in working with horses' issues. I cannot do my best work if the veterinarian, farrier and equine dentist are not involved in the process.
I start my evaluation by running my hands over the horse to allow him to get used to me and to understand that I am connected to him. This gives me the opportunity to feel muscle imbalances and check for sore or heat producing spots. Next, because of all the problems they are capable of causing, I will check the teeth, mouth and head region. If the incisors are in a bad wear pattern, I immediately know that the molars have to be out of occlusion thus causing the temporomandibular joint (TMJ) to be misaligned, most likely putting adverse pressure on the poll and atlas region which in turn travels throughout the body. (The veterinarian or equine dentist may have already established there is a dental problem.)
The molars, premolars, incisors, TMJ and poll comprise an area that is responsible for approximately one-third or more of the horse's proprioceptors. Think of it as the control panel for the essence of movement. If one switch is burned out or malfunctioning it puts extra stress on the other switches or circuits.
The horse's lower jaw comes forward approximately 3/8 of an inch when his head is in a lowered position. If this cannot occur because of a misalignment or points developed along the molars and premolars, especially in the more refined heads, it stands to reason that the horse will not be able to relax his jaw when you ask him to "give" to the bit pressure. With a locked jaw it is understandable the whole head is involved, thus restricting the neck, torso, front legs and hind legs. Some people might view it as a training issue, where the horse is physically capable of performing but doesn't, when in reality it could be a biomechanical problem in which the horse is physically unable to perform the movement.
My advice to the owner would be to get an equine dentist as soon as possible and my work could proceed after the teeth are tended to. It is a waste of the owner?s money and my time to do anything except some basic work to make the horse more comfortable. I also have to evaluate whether the loosening of the muscles around the head and neck would be of help at this point, since the horse has learned a way of adapting to the misalignments in his mouth and I could cause him more discomfort by changing the muscle tensions before his teeth are corrected.
If the dental issue has been resolved, my job now is to establish balance to the muscles that allow the horse to use his full range of motion. Some muscles need releasing while others need to learn to contract again. If one muscle has been over stretched, the opposing muscle will be in a contracted state. It is not necessarily true that just because you feel tightness on one side it is the cause of the imbalance. Just as not bending to the right might signify the inability to shorten the right side, maybe the horse just isn?t able to fully lengthen the left side.
Using both sides of the head and neck as comparisons, I use various techniques such as craniosacral, myofascial release, stretching and other modalities to release the restrictions to his movements. After softening these areas, I will usually move on to the front legs and shoulders. In some cases, the horse will direct me to another area. By keeping an open mind and allowing the horse to participate in the process, it has been my experience that he will lead me to the most important areas. This is like the process of peeling an onion: layer by layer. Sometimes you will get many layers with one movement, but mostly it is a layer at a time. Since most of these layers/patterns have been established over a long period, it understandable that it will take some time to undo them.
In reestablishing the balance to the horse, it is important to remember that the farrier is also an integral partner. He has to make gradual changes to the hoof structure as the horse becomes realigned. Then all parts become a whole.
Lyn Dodd, AEBW, is a certified Advanced Equine Body Worker, having completed extensive courses offered by Equinology over a period of several years. Lyn has continued to increase her knowledge of horse biomechanics through working with many veterinarians, farriers and other experts in the horse world. She has a complete background in the care, feeding and training of horses, growing up at Antigo Thoroughbred horse farm where she and her parents (Chuck and Mary Dodd) were involved in racing, breeding and training. Contact Lyn at Equine Services & Therapies in Ridgefield, WA, 360-931-7914, firstname.lastname@example.org