Tag Archives: spine

Rollkur and Its Effects on the Neck of the Horse

From Sustainable Dressage:

The shape of the neck is what is most visibly affected by riding the horse deep and rolled in since it is used as a tool for bending up the heavy back and/or off-setting the horse’s balance. The neck is very agile and most horses can bite their own chest, flank or rump if they make an effort. The vertebrae in the neck do not have the spinous processes that do those of the chest and back. and they work a bit like a chain, being very mobile in most directions. The muscles attach directly onto the vertebral bodies.

The spinal column of the neck does not follow the contour of the neck as seen from the outside. Rather, it is S-shaped inside the flesh of the neck. At the base of the neck the column comes out quite low. Then the spine bends upwards to be located near the top of the neck at the poll. It is natural for the horse to have this curvature of the spine of the neck, and though the curvature varies slightly from horse to horse it is basically the same. It can, however be changed through training or lack thereof.

Generally you can say that a horse showing a lot of underneck has a lower set base of the neck, spine-wise. It usually also has generous muscle bulk on the underside, but the two go hand in hand. If the horse has weak muscles supporting the base of the neck from above, it sags. The muscles from withers to poll take over, and the under neck stabilizes and stops the bulging bottom from protruding too much.

The greater bow of the S-curve at the bottom makes the neck shorten. In dressage there is much attention paid to the “arching” of the neck. But this is not an arch that one would want to increase, rather the opposite. The vertebral column of the neck should rather straighten than curve – the telescoping neck. It is the outside of the neck that arches in appearance. The bottom curve of the vertebral column lifts and straightens, the top part stays about the same, and between the very top vertebra and the skull, full relaxation of the muscles lets the head fall into place. The muscles around and in front of the withers help lifting the base of the neck, while they in their turn are aided by an active back.

In this way the shape of the neck is a good indication of how well the horse uses his back. The aim is to have the horse do this “topline stretch” both over the back and over the neck.

If you want to teach a horse to lift the base of the neck, straighten the vertebral column, lift the back and so on, the easiest and most productive way to do this is to ride the horse with a tendency for forward-down-out movement of the head and neck originating in stepping actively under with the hindlegs.

Now, I wrote tendency. It does not mean that the young horse should be ridden with his nose at the ground grubbing like a hog. No, a tendency for forward-down-out. The horse shall seek to stretch out but not actually do so. Rather contact the bit and stay there. The mere tendency makes this mechanism of lifting the base of the neck work. To begin with, there’s little, but the stronger and more well trained the horse gets, the better the effect. The topline muscles of the neck work at their medium length, and the muscles at the underside are disengaged. The head falls relaxed from the 1st vertebra and needs no fixing by muscles, but simply hangs by it’s own weight.

In 2000, Dr Vet Horst Weiler concluded his studies on illnesses in and around the attachments of tendons and ligaments in horses. In his studies, he found that 80% of horses used for dressage and jumping had injuries around the attachment of the nuchal cord on the head. Horses used for hacking, trotters, ponies, coldbloods, had these injuries much less or not at all. The injuries consisted of bony build-up on the site of the insertion at the back of the skull, bony nodules inside the ligament, mineralization of the ligament, etc. These are all the result of excessive stress and inflammation, because the body tries to reinforce an area threatened by rupture.

In an article in Dutch magazine Bit in 2003 Het Knikje – Overbelasting van de nekpees, Weiler’s answer to the question of what causes the overloading comes as rather a shock for dressage riders – It occurs when the horse makes the highly sought flexion in the poll in dressage training. Overbending, riding deep and round, or with the chin almost on the chest or behind the perpendicular is the cause of the problems, according to him.

These particular types of injuries are caused by a pulling,  torquing, or twisting stress on the ligament insertions. Now, remember that all horses graze, and they do it with their noses “on the ground”. But non-dressage/jumper horses had normal x-rays and skulls. Those horses graze too, so just stretching the head down is apparently not harmful. The sheering action on the ligament probably happens as the riders impose extreme poll flexion, curl their horses noses into the chest, and work them there repeatedly, for lengthy periods of time, or pull hard while doing so.



Young Riders

At birth, the human has 33 vertebrae. At around age 20, 5 of those vertebrae become fused to form the sacrum. Later, the coccyx, or tailbone forms and the final result is 24 vertebrae.

I remember how many times I fell off ponies before the age of 20! Learning emergency dismounts is a must, but regular chiropractic treatments and massage are as important for riders as horses to prevent long term pain and postural problems.

How Flexible is Your Horse?

A surprising thing about a horse is that its spine is almost completely rigid. The backbone of a horse was originally designed for a very different environment and activity than it needs in modern times. It amazes me that with the limited range of motion of the femur (hind thigh bone), along with the inflexibility of the spine, that our horses are able to lift their heavy bodies over big fences, or perform the lateral movements of a Grand Prix dressage test. When you see how awkward a horse is as it lies down, gets back up, or attempts to roll over, the stiffness of the back is apparent.

When you see an advanced horse that appears uphill, it is because it has lowered the haunches. The bulk of the spine remains fairly rigid. Where the pelvis is attached, the vertebrae are welded into a solid mass: the sacrum.

The tail and neck are the exception to flexibility in the vertebral column. The neck moves up and down freely, but is still limited in sideways movement.

Humans and dogs have spinal disks with a soft center.  The horse has disks that are made of tough fibers.

What the Nerve?

A single nerve being squeezed by tight muscles in the spine can affect the health of a horse (or dog or human). Nerves control the body’s functions,including the vital organs, sensation, and movement. A large portion of the nerves pass through the spine.The spinal cord is packed with neurons arranged in pathways, which connect with peripheral nerves stretching right to the extremities of the body.  When one system is affected negatively, there is a domino effect of strain to the body as other systems try to compensate.

Myofascial release, chiropractic, trigger and stress point therapy, all can prevent body imbalances from reaching a crisis point.


Thoughts on Equine Locomotion

If a horse standing still with both front feet planted on the ground, it is impossible to move until one of the hocks flexes and weight is moved to the hind feet. This the only way the elbow of the front leg can unlock and be free to move. This basic law influences every gait and jump.

Movement in every 4 legged animal is dependent on perfect synchronization of the front and hind legs. The weight has to be transferred at a very quick rate back and forth. Add the difficulty of carrying a rider, and the rigidness of the spine, and it’s amazing that any horse sport exists.

The horse has a heavy body compared to other 4 leggeds like dogs and cats, and is supported by just 1 toe at each corner. Deer, dogs, and cats have flexible spines. But the horse is like a missile with just its 4 legs to steer, brake, and propel it.

You Can Slip a Disc, But Your Horse Can’t!

In humans, spinal discs between vertebrae are fluid filled ligaments. A slipped or ruptured disc is when the fluid, through injury, spills into spinal nerves. This also occurs in dogs and cats.  In horses there is no fluid in the disc. The vertebrae of horses can degenerate with age, but the discs do not herniate. Wherever there is more movement, such as the neck, there is a greater chance  for wear with age.

Human Disc:

Spine of the horse:

The Importance of the Sacrum

The word sacrum is derived from the word “sacred”. There are cultures and religions that still consider the sacrum the seat of the soul. The sacrum is located close to the reproductive organs and the center of gravity. It forms the base of the spine and the “anchor” of the hind end. (I will discuss the atlas, the other anchor, in another post). The sacrum of the horse is formed by five vertebrae. A balanced sacrum will positively affect the hind legs and lumbar area.

If you find your horse sensitive to the touch in his lower back or sacrum, or you feel his stride is shorter than usual, it may be time for bodywork. A refusal to turn quickly or jump will be the next set of signs that your horse is feeling pain in the sacral area.  You may notice an asymmetrical appearance to the hips, with one lower than the other, or a ” hunter’s bump”. Many people consider the bump to be normal for jumping horse, but it actually signifies an injury. Chiropractic treatment combined with sports massage can provide pain relief, restored movement, and prevention of more serious injury.


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