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/ 

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