As with every part of the body when we’re riding, our aim is to have our head and neck in a balanced position. The main problem I see is the head being held in a forward and down position. The average human head weighs around 5kg which is approximately 8% of the total human body weight. This is a lot of weight to have hanging forward off the spine, which is not good for the health of the riders spine or neck and is a lot of weight throwing the riders balance off. This head position is often accompanied by a collapsed or concave chest and a rounding of the upper back, an undesirable posture both for riding and life in general.
Sometimes people carry their necks in what is called a ‘goose position’. As the name suggests, the head is stuck forward in front of the body with an elongated neck. These people often carry the head in this position also when unmounted and it places a lot of strain on the vertebrae and muscles of the neck.
But by far the most common cause is the rider looking at the horse as they’re riding. While we may need to glance at our horse occasionally, most of the time when we’re riding it’s best to glance gently upwards and between the horses ears. If the rider has soft eyes, instead of focused, then the peripheral vision comes into play. When riding if you look ahead with soft eyes you will still be able to see your horse, plus the way ahead, plus what’s at either side. This gives you a much greater awareness of your entire environment which is helpful as it puts you more in sync with the horse, who is doing this all the time.
Carrying the head lightly and directly on top of the spine while looking up and ahead will also help direct your horse. A horse will follow the direction the rider is looking. If you are looking downwards it is not as easy for your horse to step out strongly. An old trick to achieve this is to imagine a small cloud attached to a string which is coming from the middle of the top of your helmet. Then imagine this string gently puffing upwards to softly lift your spine and head upwards.
Also, by boring your eyes into the back of the horses head you are applying a pressure. I’ve always asked students to lift their eyes to improve their posture and give direction to the horse, but recently I discovered another reason. I was riding my brumby in the bush when I glanced down, and immediately he hesitated in his gait. It was a small but noticeable hesitation so I repeated it, making sure I didn’t shift the position of my head or my balance. Every time I glanced down he hesitated. I remembered how I can look out the window at a horse in the paddock a long way away and they will twitch an ear or look towards me, somehow they know I’m looking. Prey animals have a sixth sense for when a pair of eyes fixes on them. By looking down at the back of the horses head while riding we are applying a pressure. While it’s not as easy to see this with a domestic horse it is still affecting them, and making it harder for them to move forward freely and in a relaxed manner.
And then there is softness in the rest of the head and neck. Once the head is in a balanced position the neck can be softened to allow the shoulders to sink downwards and backward. It can be helpful to gently lay the head towards one shoulder and then the other. Then rotating up, back and down of the shoulders will help with relaxation and position as well and relax the lower neck muscles. Small rotations of the head in either direction will also help relax the neck and release tension (a good massage will help too!). Another place where tension is held is in the jaw. It can help to open and close the jaw a few times, even rotating the lower jaw or yawning to release tension.
Now that you have the head balanced on the neck and relaxed it’s time to look at how it can be used in riding. If you turn the head to look where you’re going you can allow your shoulders to gently follow the movement of the head, rotating the entire upper body, thereby giving a number of turning aids in the process all the way through the body including the seat and legs. It’s important when you do this to ensure you don’t lean your head to the side or look down at the ground. This movement is a pure rotation with the head remaining in its original position upright on the neck and rotating in a relaxed manner to one side or the other much like an old fashioned barbers pole. This rotation will eventually be the turning cue for your horse but when you first start teaching it you will have to follow it up with the reins.
When teaching a new cue couple it up to an old one, with the old cue being phased out naturally once the horse learns the new one. In this case you would apply the body rotation first (new cue) and if the horse doesn’t respond immediately follow with the normal rein pressure (old cue). In the transition zone the rotation cue also lets your horse know the turning rein cue is coming, resulting in a smaller rein aid being necessary (this alone makes it worth doing). If you do this every time, after a while the horse will start turning from the rotation and you won’t need to apply the rein aid at all.
Finally while discussing this part of the body the use of voice commands is another area to look at. I like to use voice commands when lunging and to train the horse to respond to them on the lunge. It gives me another avenue of communication that I can then use when it suits, on or off the horse. While riding my personal preference is to not use voice commands but if my other aids are ineffective I will pull them out of my pocket and use them to ensure a response.
As with everything when working with horses it’s all about being present and relaxing through your whole body, which includes the head and neck, so that you can feel the messages from your horse. And being in a balanced position throughout the entire body makes it easier for your horse to carry you, easier for you to communicate with your horse, easier on your body and safer to ride.