Equine Cranial Structure

Having a basic appreciation for the structures in your horses head and neck is vastly beneficial from both a training and welfare perspectives. 

Though obvious, it is worthy of mention that the equine head and neck houses vital structures that horses depend upon for survival. 

Eyes are very well adapted to seeing behind the horse to the sides and to the horizon. Ears are acute to detecting a mouse rustling in the leaves. 

The sensitive mouth and tongue can separate the smallest feed stuffs.
The nose can detect the faintest of scents far better that we can perceive. Specialized nerves in the hairs of the muzzle allow horses to feel their environments. 

Facial muscles allow horses to make the expressions that are so important in herd communication, via both facial expressions and position of the neck. 

Their brains are housed in the skull, and though we might hear a joke about the size of their brains, horses have formidable memories, and show a tremendous ability to suppress their instincts through habituation. This is what enables us to climb on their backs and have them perform incredible movements for us. 

Healthy teeth and jaws are important in digestion, balance, and play a significant part in the horse’s acceptance of the bit. 

The parotid gland located behind the cheek (below the ear) produces saliva for buffering of the digestive tract. 

Cranial nerves run throughout the face, throat latch area, and the neck.
The esophagus, trachea, jugular and carotid artery run along the lower part of the neck, beneath the cervical spine. They are responsible for transporting food to the stomach, bringing air to the lungs, and blood supply to and from the brain. The nuchal ligament attaches from the back of the skull to the process of the withers, and is responsible for allowing the horse to have the head down to graze for long periods of time. 

From a training perspective, using the head and neck as a giant balance lever is tremendously beneficial for manipulating the fore/aft balance of the horse. One of the goals in training is to teach the horse to carry more weight on the hind end, and understanding how to appropriately use the neck to achieve this will set you up for success. From a previous article we understand that a careful education of the bit to the horses mouth by the riders hand will promote relaxation, and will allow us as riders to be able to use the neck to positively change the balance of the horse. 

Recently, there have been numerous studies in regards to the position of the head and neck in training. Below are some links to these articles. Hyper-flexion/over-flexion/behind the vertical/rollkur, all describe the same thing. Included in the links are articles that talk about this controversy. 

You are all encouraged to make up your own mind as to which frame you would like to work your horse in. Knowing what the structures are within the head and neck, and taking the time to read some of the information out there on the subject of over-flexion, it is ultimately up to you as to how you should school your horse. We get bogged down with trying to label training styles as ‘classical’ or ‘modern’. If we take the time to study the horse, and seek out information that has been obtained in an academic setting, we, as trainers of our horses, can make decisions on our own, without simply listening to one source. We can begin to question methodologies as we become equipped with the necessary information to make our choices about how we train our horses. We should each be able to recognize and explain what frame our horses are in while we ride, as well as understand what the benefits, or risks, are of any given frame. 

The best any of us can do is know as much as we can about our horses, so that we can make decisions for them with their best interests at heart. 

Here are some links to great resources about the head and neck of the horse, both anatomically and in regards to training – Enjoy! 

https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/veterinary-science-and-veterinary-medicine/nuchal- ligament 

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0168159108002876 https://thehorse.com/120993/rollkur-facts-fiction-and-horse-health-implications/ https://www.horsetalk.co.nz/2013/01/16/bent-out-of-shape-reflections-on-rollkur/ 

The Sensitive Equine Mouth

The other day I took a sip of coffee and with it I experienced a foreign sensation. I was expecting smooth delicious coffee and there was a lump in it.  Within a fraction of a second, I knew it was a fly.  I could feel it distinctly, in the middle of my tongue.  Yuck.  The feeling of its presence in my mouth haunted me for hours afterwards, even though it was only there for an extremely brief moment in time.  In a way, I was grateful for the experience because it got me thinking of how a horse feels with the presence of a bit in their mouths.  How foreign a lumpy metal object must feel to them. 

The most important line of communication we have with our horses is through their extremely sensitive mouths.  One of the first places where training most often falls apart is in the contact, or a lack of education about what the bit is supposed to do.  This lack of understanding causes a chain reaction that spreads throughout the horses entire body in the form of tension.  So much so that when the horse is defensive in the mouth, the jaw and the poll become tight, gaits can become irregular, and relaxation is unattainable.   If this cycle continues, we can create chronic discomfort and even pain in our horses.  At this point correctly building the necessary muscles for the upper level movements escapes our grasp.  

The bit is a vitally important tool to communicate with the horse, and yet we spend so little time educating them to accept its presence in self carriage.  In the Philippe Karl school of lightness, training begins with the mouth.  We are taught to introduce the bit and educate the horse about it first with ground work.   On the ground we can be quicker with the release, and the horse can focus on just the bit, not carrying us at the same time.  In this way we can effectively teach them to relax with the bit in his mouth and accept contact.  We teach the horse that they can mobilize their jaws to stay relaxed, and with using the bit to achieve jaw mobility we gain access to the rest of the horses body.  

There are specific cues that we teach the horse on the ground, to accept pressure on the corners of the lips.  The cues that we teach from the ground mobilize the horses jaw, ask for neck position, and flex the poll.  This works as a continuous cycle – jaw mobility – neck position – and poll flexion.  We teach the horse to self carry in different positions of the head and neck, offering jaw mobility throughout.  This education of the bit, first from the ground, between trainer and horse translates to the training of the same under saddle.  We maintain consistent cues that the horse understands without pain or discomfort in the mouth.  This results in a horse that can maintain relaxation throughout a training session and that can have adjustability of the head and neck within different exercises.  These series of ground exercises are performed before each ride and create a strong foundation of basic communication from the rider to the horse through the bit.  This is where it begins, in the most logical and progressive of ways, to train a horse to accept contact. 

So the next time a foreign object finds its way into your mouth via what was intended to be a soothing beverage, consider the education that you have given to your horse about the foreign object in theirs.

Bridle Fit

Poor bridle fit can adversely affect the cranial nerves which influence Balance, Hearing, Smell, Vision, Tongue and Mouth function, and more

Much like us, the Cranial Nerves of the horse make up an intricate network of nerves that stem from the brain.   Information sent to the brain includes temperature, pain, proprioception and pressure.  There are 13 nerves in the Cranial Nervous System which are found in pairs branching to each side of the body.   Each set of nerves is unique in its purpose; some are for relaying messages to and from the brain while others are used for controlling muscle movement, or motor function.   Some Cranial Nerves serve both motor and sensory purposes.

Each and every one of the Cranial Nerves are vital to a horse’s daily actions and behaviours, so it goes without saying that the whole horse can be affected by impingement on any of these delicate structures. 

As one important example, issues stemming from dysfunction or damage in the Trigeminal nerve in particular can cause problems such as tensed muscles to the jaw, sensitivity or discomfort to the head, ears and poll, head shaking, and grinding the bit, to name just a few.   Note that the Trigeminal nerve is encased by the temporal bone, which can be directly affected by tightened muscles  of the temporomandibular joint (TMJ).  In short, freedom of jaw mobility is hugely important to the horse and undue pressure from nosebands and headstalls should be avoided. 

Circulation and facial nerve damage can be done with ill fitting halters, bridles and bits.  Be especially cautious of tack that is too tight or causes any rubbing or pinching.

Select equipment for your horse that is appropriate for his unique conformation.  Ensure properly sized and fitted halters, bridles, and bits in order to minimize pressure with highly sensitive points while  maximizing comfort and supporting harmonious performance.  

Check out the links below for fantastic online resources on bit and bridle function, fit and use:  



The Importance of “Feel”

When it comes to getting results in horse training it’s not just about a rider’s commitment to practice, repeated delivery of aids, or the consistency of schooling exercises.   While these details have their place in the education of horse and rider, both feel and timing are crucial to achieving the greatest achievement in equestrian sport – harmony.

The most beautiful picture of a horse and rider is when they appear to be moving together effortlessly, as one entity with expression yet no tension apparent.  The rider who can display this harmonious relationship with their mount most certainly has great feel and timing.

Feel encompasses not only the riders sense and coordination of their own body, but awareness and consideration of how the horse underneath them is feeling.  Perfect timing is not possible without this consciousness.      

If you have ever found yourself working repeatedly through an exercise wondering why you’re not quite accomplishing what you had hoped, it’s very possible you’re focusing on the wrong thing.  We have all done it, we’ve all forgotten to give ourselves permission to take a few moments to reassess the situation before increasing volume or intensity with our aids.  Consider what you want your horse to do, then consider what skills you have that you can use to encourage the desired response from the horse.  Often it is the timing with which the aid is applied that can make the most significant difference.  Asking a moment too early or too late and the horse will be unable to perform to your utmost expectation, though they will offer you something.  Consider this something as a positive try, since the horse can only do as well as the rider has asked.   This is where feel comes into play.  Correct timing requires sensitivity from the rider to recognize (feel) the precise moment when the horse is in the ideal phase of movement to understand and respond to a cue.  Is the horse feeling resistant or nervous?  Likely not the right time to ask and expect a relaxed balanced result from your horse.  Have you, the rider, lost your centre of balance, or maybe held your breath?  Not the right time to ask and expect a clear and expressive response.

Horses by nature are highly sensitive beings, and require only consistency and fairness to learn effectively.  So before increasing pressure with an aid, or adding additional aids, try to focus more intently on the timing with which the aid can be applied.  For example, ensure that before you cue your horse you are in a state of relaxed balance, and have done your best to allow the horse to find this same state.  This will promote the utmost response in the horse while using the least amount of force.  

It can be as positive or negative a cycle as the rider most consistently performs.  Improved sensitivity for the horses state of being and timing of the aids will encourage willing responsiveness in the horse, and will in turn further heighten the riders ability feel.  Repeated or increasing pressure of aids and lack of thought as to when an aid is best given will cause a marked decrease in suppleness, ease of motion and overall harmony.

Not sure if your getting it just right?  Remember the horse is our most honest critic and best teacher; trust your feel, even when you’re not positive you have “it”.  Take the time for your senses and intuition to really listen to and feel your horse.  How his body feels in balance left and right, how his back feels, how rigid or supple the muscles feel in motion underneath you, how his breathing is rhythmical and relaxed or inconsistent and strained.    

“A good rider can hear his horse speak to him.  

A great rider can hear his horse whisper”

Author Unknown

On Horsemanship

When you hear the word horsemanship, what does it mean to you?  It is defined as ‘the art, ability, skill, or manner of a horseman.’  

Why is it that there often seem to be weak links in the training chain where fundamental understanding of equine ethology should have been deeply rooted?  Lending to this impression, for example, is how often horses get sent outside of their usual program for mannering, or retraining of any undesirable habits under saddle.  My first thought is not ‘what’s wrong with the horse and/or rider’, but ‘what was missed in the critical early stages of learning?’  The horse is capable of understanding how to wait quietly at the mounting block, or stand obediently for the farrier.   The horse is capable of confidently performing his day to day exercise routine without panic or tantrum.  Just as horses are apt to learning, as long as they trust and respect their teacher, so do we have the ability to adapt and become more educated to successfully work with our mount through each difficulty presented.  We just have to be willing to make a change within ourselves.

This is not to say that inquiring or reaching outside of our habitual training program for help when problems arise is a poor choice.  I myself have found great benefit to a more open-minded approach when it comes to developing my horses.  I have often questioned and experimented with my own go-to techniques, as well as those of other equestrian professionals.  I don’t believe there is any one perfect method or formula that guarantees a trusting and ideal relationship between equine and equestrian.  I do believe that what contributes most to a rewarding partnership is the ability to check our ego at the barn door and consider the horses perspective.

I regard horsemanship not as a quality exclusive to any one equestrian discipline, but as a discipline itself, and at its best a lifestyle that transcends all equine recreation or sport specificity.

Horsemanship is not best measured by a handlers’ use of auxiliary equipment to control their horses bodies to make them jump higher, extend the stride bigger, or spin on the spot tighter.  Rather, it should be gauged by their fair, educated approach and consideration to understand what the horse needs in order to perform their best comfortably and confidently.  It is not the horses job to make the rider look good, it is the riders job not to interfere with what the horse can naturally accomplish without hindrance.  

After more than thirty years being part of the equestrian industry as a student, competitor, trainer and coach, my greatest personal achievements have come out of making the best choices I was capable of in each circumstance.  These have certainly not always been the most comfortable choices for me, but ultimately the best I could do for my horse and I collectively at that time.  The willingness to self-improve and a commitment the study and practice of equine science contribute significantly to the equally invaluable hours of experience in the saddle.

For me, horsemanship success is not so much about setting and achieving a fixed goal as adapting to be whatever the horse needs me to be, at any time, in order to achieve harmony and oneness with them.  Only then is it possible to surmount each intermediary step leading to the goal.  We have earned the right to call ourselves horse people not  simply because we promote that we love horses, or because we can handle them safely and competently.  The greatest honour is when our truest critic and best teacher, the horse, has privileged us by following our lead in any situation out of mutual trust, respect and understanding.

Poor Behaviour? or Honest Reaction

Understanding your horses behaviour is not always black and white, but even the most subtle of expressions is extremely meaningful.  We just have to learn the language.

As riders, we feel a compulsion to tell the horse what we want him to do – it could be a turn, stop, or change of pace for example – but we tend to not give enough thought to how we are asking the horse to do the job.  All he needs is a little time, clarity, and direction.  And that he deserves.  Consider your intentions, your body language, before giving an aid to your horse.  If you are carrying a degree of tension in your body, for example, it will be met with tension in the horse.  If you are impatient or hasty in delivering your cue, it will be met with a impatient or hasty response from your mount.

Not getting the result you hoped for?  You asked for a trot and you got a hop to canter, or you maybe asked for a leg yield and you only got an increase in speed.  Before you take action to reprimand or ‘correct’ your horses behaviour, have you considered that it is not in the horses nature to intentionally disobey, or otherwise irritate you?  One of my favourite quotes from a master in horsemanship, Ray Hunt “The horse does one of two things.  He does what he thinks he’s supposed to do, or he does what he thinks he needs to do to survive.”   In other words, horses don’t plan to do wrong things.  They inherently behave and react appropriately to various stimuli in each situation they are faced with.  To truly appreciate this, you need to understand and respect the horses natural instincts.  Think for a moment about how a horse sees his environment – it’s a panoramic view, nearly 350 degrees.  Think about how sensitively he can hear – ears shaped like cups with the ability to move 180 degrees to catch the slightest crunch of a leaf or potential whisper of a threat on the wind.  That is an enormous amount of  information to take in at once, especially when you’re finely tuned to flee at the slightest glimpse of potential danger.  Think about how sensitive he is to touch – his skin can feel and simultaneously twitch off a practically weightless fly.  Now think about all of the sensations he additionally has to process delivered by the rider, intentional or not.  The weight placement and balance of the seat, the pressure of the leg, a squeeze of the rein, the cue of the voice, and more specifically the tone of that voice.  Without question if you are hasty or impatient, perhaps due to nervousness, your body will deliver a less sensitive or poorly timed cue.  And the horse feels it.  Consider that his mistake is more likely yours.

Sensitivity combined with the desire for companionship and willingness to please is what allows humans to make requests of the horse, often with very little repetition required before the horse offers the ‘right’ reaction.  This same sensitivity combined with the instinct of flight when threatened is what causes the horse to sometimes resist or potentially run away from an uncertain or uncomfortable situation.  

If we are fair, consistent in pressure and timing, and immediate with reward (release of the aid once positive effort is made by the horse) then we have the best chance of gaining their trust and unlocking their greatest performance abilities.

Welcome to The Odyssey

At the heart of Accord Equestrian Academy is a unified passion for horses.  Centring our ambition for equestrian excellence is the dedication to maintaining ourselves as well educated, ethical horse people.    

Horses do not choose their lives with us, we choose it for them, and with that comes a great responsibility to be knowledgeable about, and respectful of, their inherent nature.  Our equine partners selflessly contribute to our human wants and desires.  They do not dream of red ribbons, prize money or flattering accolades.  They are honest, without ego, and have the need only to survive, undisturbed, in the world.  In order to be successful in our equestrian endeavours we must first be empowered to take responsibility for our equine education, set our self-importance aside, and attempt to see things from the horses perspective.

Tranquil sentient beings, horses have evolved over millions of years to possess highly sophisticated senses and communicative social proficiency that serve to keep them, as individuals and as a herd, in peaceful coexistence with other species.  It is this delicate balance of sensitivity, intelligence, and the inclination to form bonds with trusted companions that make the relationship between horse and human so special. 

To best care for our horses and honour them as they deserve, it is a lifestyle that need be embraced by each one of as individuals, as well as in collaboration to uphold a high standard of horsemanship as a community.  

At Accord Equestrian we have a mission to encourage all horse people, regardless of recreation or sport, to set out on the quest with us to create a future where the most educated and thoughtful approach to everything equestrian is principle.