Unhinge at the Poll/Throatlatch
by Charlotte Cannon
We have been going through a massive growth spurt in knowledge the past few months. More answers and realities have been appearing right before our eyes in rapid succession than ever before. I have been doing my best to write them all down so that we can have a point from which to start discussions, not to demonstrate we know any more than anyone else. I do believe we must jot things down, even if our ideas don't make perfect sense once on the paper. Those who understand, will still understand. Those who are searching for these keys, can grab them and run with them. If Socrates and Xenophon were the first to document the classical method of dressage, and it has been discussed and challenged for thousands of year since, only to remain pretty unchanged; we must start a discussion on a practical method to develop the modern horse, who is vastly different than the horses that the classical method of dressage was designed to develop. I know I am no Socrates, but there must have been horsemen before him who were quite talented who just never wrote anything down. Perhaps there was one amongst them who was compelled to start a discussion. Perhaps many of his ideas didn't pan out, but they did inspire Socrates to begin to write down his ideas. If that is who I am, then I have done my job in writing these ideas down.
As I observe Tommy and our students working with horses in the later stages of training, I have noticed a common denominator in horses who slow down or fail to progress, they hold tension in and block riders out in their poll/throatlatch. It sounds so simple. Everyone has seen it. Many have even come up with neat gadgets to stop their horses from tightening up. We have seen Miracle Collars and cribbing straps with horseshoes attached to poke them in the jaw when they overflex. We have seen all sorts of strings and leather straps tied into overchecks to keep heads from dropping and escaping. As effective as these devices were (or were not), they never truly identified or addressed the issue or root of the issue. We must start there to solve, treating a symptom will most likely only cause the horse to develop another 'symptom', it will not fix anything.
How interesting classical dressage demands that the horse keep his nose (or bone down the front of his face) slightly in front of the vertical. In most disciplines this is the case. Most people say 'at or slightly ahead of the vertical', but why? Many say a horse cannot reach his front foot past the end of his nose, so his nose must be out to get any reach out of the front feet. But if you have ever seen a photograph of a high level dressage horse extending is trot, you will see that is incorrect. Most people recognize true relaxation cannot happen if there is tension in the poll or throatlatch, but that's not rocket science, relaxation and tension are opposites. We also hear a horse 'behind the bridle' is 'escaping or hiding from the bit'. Indeed that is true, but why? And how do we stop it from starting or happening once it has started?
I see it as one of two simple things. The horse uses its poll and throatlatch to block us from seeing and addressing crooked or blocked spots within his body. Or we use it to lock the front of the horse in position, while we 'catch' everything else and line it up.
Ideally from the start, our horse would be perfectly aligned and balanced. Ideally all his energy would flow cleanly from the back of his body over his back, peaking at the wither, flow over his neck, poll, through his nose and back around. He would ideally be perfectly straight, not bulging, drifting or falling out anywhere, and the majority of his weight would be in his hindquarters with his wither and shoulders up, pelvis tipped down and hindlegs tracking deeply beneath him. If you horse has maintained this perfect posture from the start until today, my guess is either you are unaware of his body or you haven't asked him to do much.
Even best developed horses hit challenging spots every now and then. Our job is to recognize what is happening and know how to improve it. Hopefully this article will give you another tool to better understand, address and maximize your horse.
We shall start with the most common issue, the horse uses a locked or tense poll or throatlatch against you. Some horses use this tightness to 'hold' themselves together or to hold themselves slow. Some horses use this tightness to mask crookedness within their bodies. Some horses use cocking their head in their throatlatch to block their riders from establishing straightness or from shifting their weight off the forehand onto the hindquarters. Some horses are so behind the bridle/vertical that their hind legs won't step up under them enough to even do proper gaits. Many times this happens because we miss-use our hands, draw reins, big bits or spurs and lock our horses down into their front feet in an effort to get them slow with their head down to show. Other times the horse discovers the habit as a result of poor posture, unconfidence in the rider or the work or weakness/pain. Whatever the reason, your horse cannot perform to his potential with this block.
I have noticed tightness in the poll/throatlatch for years in many different horses and the techniques I was given were unsuccessful at 'fixing' the problem. One of my greatest challenges came from a big, pretty, paint gelding named Jet. Jet arrived as a started 3 year old. Unfortunately his posture indicated that he had either been dramatically low and heavy in the withers and front feet before he was started or draw reins were used incorrectly to either pull his head down or to slow and shorten his big gaits, or both. He arrived visibly lower in the wither than the hip, nose way behind the vertical and cocked to the side, highest point of the neck about C3, dip in front of the wither, undeveloped back muscles, highest point in his hip and angry tail, hocks and hind legs loose/light/way out behind him. He grouched about going forward, kicking at my leg and popping up behind if I pressed him harder than he desired. He loved to slam on the brakes and fly backwards. He not only held his poll/throatlatch tight and slightly sideways, he also opened his mouth cocked his jaw and under great pressure displaced his tongue.
I worked diligently on him and found I could make improvements to a point, but when asked to really perform he would either roll his neck over, 'hide' from my hand and not step through behind; or he would become explosive (especially with his owner when asked to do patterns). I was feeling like something was wrong with him and asked Tommy for help. He hopped on and Jet went 'wild'! He would flip his head upside down, jump all around and start racking! It was a terrible looking mess that I failed to understand! Just as I was thinking all my kind slow work was destroyed, Jet would do something that Tommy liked, Tommy would release him, and Jet would start moving better and more solidly than he had ever moved before! I was completely puzzled.
After Jet I noticed Tommy would 'push' horses to unhinge their jaw (flip their head upside down) and start racking occasionally, it would look horrible, but when he let their heads come back down into position, it was like the horse had been reborn and a new and improved horse was now here instead of the old obstinant one. I joked about it but knew there was something in the technique that was changing the horses for the better, but what?
I had taken a challenging (explosive bucking) filly to my friend Dave Seay for help one rainy afternoon. Dave does fabulous foundation work and I thought he might see something I was missing in her. Of course he did, and although Dave isn't the best 'why' man, he showed me the move in her front legs that was most important to getting her 'broke loose' and relaxed. He said broncy horses hold their front legs tightly together and collasped down. I needed to get her to split her front legs apart to get her chest to open up and to allow her body to soften and relax. It was the stretching reach that happens in between crossing the front legs in a turn on the haunches turn. I could see that movement broke the chest open and I could see Tommy's flipping up and racking move seemed to break the chest apart too. I was onto something.
The next clue came in Camden at a paint show. Our good friend Jennifer had her horse at the show to practice. He had gone through a weird 'poisoning' (I'm not sure what to call it, but the farm where she was boarding him cut back on expenses and fed him an 'All-Stock' feed instead of horse feed. It had a weird effect on him and he took quite some time to recover) and was finding his balance and feet again after the ordeal. Tommy was riding him and they started down the path to flipping the head upside down and racking. But instead of just unhinging and flipping his head upside down, he would turn his head to the side and lock his throatlatch and block Tommy from affecting his body balance and alingement at all. The more Tommy pressed him, the more he would turn his head to block Tommy. I saw the horse purposely using his throatlatch/poll as a place to block the rider.
I suggested he use a more solid bit to encourage him to stay straight, and when the first bridle broke, he accepted the suggestion. Once Tommy could stop his head from turning right or left, the horse went straight up to the bridle. Tommy was asking him them to lift up his front end and shift his weight back. He threw a fit, unhinged and flipped his head up, and once he relaxed slightly, Tommy released and the horse looked like a brand new creature! He was going straight, lifted up in the wither with his hind end slipped underneath supporting and carrying himself. His expression was soft and he looked relaxed and content to jog around as he was asked. My lightbulb was starting to glow brighter!
That next week I came home and watched a couple of my best riders doing our new Lift and Shift program. I noticed one horse, Roxy, would be working well, then rear up, turn her head to the side (like Jennifer's horse) and block Bekah from really reaching her. I also noticed how Spanky would overflex in his poll and start climbing in his front legs at the lope despite the big drape Savannah offered him. I had never seen a horse who would basically levade (Roxy) and kink up to escape. Levade is really hard. Perhaps Roxy had more lightness potential than we ever realized? And I had never seen anyone get Spanky so elevated and lifted that his front legs were climbing, and the roundness in them was perfectly mirrored in the roundness and tightness in his poll. Both horses needed to release their throatlatch and poll to achieve relaxation and smooth energy flow through their Circle of Muscles in their body. But how?
I decided Unhinging at the Poll was the answer. I had Savannah try first. She sat back at the jog, lifted her hands straight up and forward and started rhythmically encouraging Spanky to give her his nose, first out, then upside down. When his head unhinged and flipped up the most unbelievable thing started happening in his body, it started swinging like a hose that is shaken back and forth. Savannah's eyes got as big as saucers and I told her to just stay like that until the swinging stopped. He looked like a giant snake stretched up and out, wiggling as though caught on a fishing pole. It was only a few seconds (not even a half of a lap) and his body became quiet and he relaxed his poll so his nose lengthened forward and his skull and spine came into one straight alinement. When that moment flashed, Savannah released, and Spanky's head came back down into a beautiful soft position. His wither was now committed well up; his chest was up, open and square; his neck strongly scoped forward with his throatlatch open and relaxed; his hind legs were reaching deeply and strongly beneath him; his front legs were reaching effortlessly up and forward, looking like they would not touch the ground in each tremendous stride! Who was this bay horse? I certainly didn't recognize him with the perfect posture and energy flowing cleanly and smoothly, around and around through his Circle of Muscles as it should. The relaxation was obvious, but the power was too! What had we done?
Bekah came out next and I explained, to the best of my ability, what I thought was going on and what we were going to attempt to do. I explained that although Roxy was one of the straightest horses we had ever helped to develop, and although she arguably had the best steering on the farm, I thought she was still not truely straight. He lack of desire to go forward told me she was drifting out somewhere, despite our best efforts to straighten her. I thought she collasped to the side when she would levade (unintentionally) because her body had these crooked spots. And I thought she blocked Bekah from correcting her by tightening in her poll and throatlatch. I thought once Bekah unhinged her, the crooked spots would 'show' since she could not 'hold' them with her head in that position. I thought Bekah could then straighten her (push things back into line), let go and we would have an improved horse. Would I be right?
When Bekah started to offer Roxy this unhinging, the result was much different than with Spanky. Each time her nose got even with or higher than her poll, Roxy would all but fall out and back in her hind end. It was like the tightness in her throatlatch pulled her forward, bc without it she literally feel backwards and sideways. Bekah had to release a few tmes early so Roxy could keep her balance, but once the hindend stopped falling and started pushing, a new horse began to emerge! Bekah kept softly unhinging her and each time the spot that fell to the side was less dramatic that the time before. By the end Bekah could softly lift her up, unhinge her, and the whole horse would be traveling straight and relaxed. Roxy would soften, lengthen and straighten her poll/head, Bekah would release and an entirely new horse emerged! She looked so elevated, light and effortless that it appeared gravity had less effect on her than the rest of us! She was offering passage as all the energy flowed through her completely relaxed yet powerful body!
It was the most amazing thing I have ever coached a student though in my career! I had never seen horses in such perfect relaxed postures that I could easily feel the energy flowing effortlessly through them! I had never seen a rider 'cause' a horse to get taller and less affected by gravity! I grasp for words to describe it!
After experiencing those intense moments I began to ask questions of vets, chiropractors, red light therapists, everyone I came into contact with, if they knew why this worked the way it did. The chiropractor, Kit Heidt of Animal Krackers Body Balancing, said it was a pure and natural way to elongate the spine so the horse could make needed adjustments to himself. I thought that was part of it, but I still think there is something much bigger happening.
I believe by unhinging the poll we are taking away the horse's ability to hide his trouble spots in his body from us. I think horses tighten and brace in many places we are unaware of until we use this technique. Those spots may be caused by pain, ill-fitting tack, poor training, poor shoeing, old or new injuries, or a myriad of other things. Any spot that holds tension or brace does not allow the energy to flow through it smoothly and properly. Like a beaver dam in a creek, the energy or water must get by or the pressure will build up and explode. When the energy hits a block it tries to go out or down, it finds the path of least resistance. Wherever energy gets stuck or blocked, the rider will feel heaviness (like in the front feet). A horse, just like a person, will develop patterns of movement, balance, and energy flow (like the water cutting a new path in the creek) and these patterns become established 'settings' in their propreoceptive system in their brain. Once these settings are established, a horse (or human) must make a deliberate movement or a series of deliberate movements to open nueropathways to the brain to have any home of changing the settings.
I see this unhinging is the deliberate movement necessary to open the nueropathways to your horse's brain so you can work on and 'fix' his settings in his propreoceptive system. With this access to his brain and its settings, we have the ability to take our horses to an even higher level of refinement and performance! This is an incredible discovery! I cannot wait to see where it takes us next!!!