Long story short, we need to strive to keep our horses’ ears level when we are bending them.
Just kidding. Y’all know I’m going to write a novel.
I’m going to spam a bunch of past posts on the ‘crest flip,’ give a rider’s-eye view, and attempt to demystify and simplify this thing that I talk about and obsess over all the time: rotation.
It took me several years to wrap my head around this, and dozens of different types of horses to get an eye and feel for it. The change and advancement in every part of my horsemanship was immense.
Looking back, I can see that several trainers I was learning from were trying to get this across to others, but they didn’t really have the terminology for what they were observing and experiencing.
A reining trainer, in particular, was trying to explain how he used a combination rein effect to get the horse positioned into the spin, and I know now this is what he was going for.
A dressage trainer was trying to explain how to capture it with half-halts on the outside rein.
But they never described it as rotation.
Thankfully, like many things, we can’t unsee or unfeel this once we ‘get’ it.
WHAT’S IS ROTATION?
We know the spine can round with a collected horse, and can hollow with an inverted horse.
We know the spine can bend from side to side, left or right.
BUT, the most overlooked movement in the spine is its ability to rotate.
Every time the horse flexes laterally, bends, they are also rotating. Always. And they are either…
- Rotating into the bend correctly, where we’ll observe a ‘crest flip,’ with the ears level.
- Rotating away from the bend, where we observe a ‘head tilt,’ with the inside ear and eye and nostril higher.
Well, the horse does. Which means we have to start caring about it.
Incorrect rotation is uncomfortable, it’s unbalanced, it blocks the horse’s ability to balance their center of gravity over the inside hind, because it blocks their ability to rotate the barrel out of the way for the inside hind to step under. It also affects their ability to counteract centrifugal force when maneuvering tight turns.
It’s the lack of understanding of this rotation and its effects that cause some of the worst issues in our riding. The more we try to force bend, the more we mess up the rotation, and the more frustrated we get.
If we have a horse who runs the opposite direction to where we are pulling their nose, we are experiencing an extreme effect of incorrect rotation.
Almost every horse and rider I run into who are butting heads with each other about suppling, or turning, or missed leads or crossfiring, or resistance in general, it comes down to incorrect rotation. And the faster we go, the worse it gets.
It’s well worth learning to see and feel this, although there is a bit of a learning curve at first.
Handy horseman develop this feel naturally over many years, and they may not even have a terminology for it, but if you watch top hands, they do not have their horses tilt their heads, they keep them level. Buck Brannaman has a great video about this, as does Jeff Sanders.
Great dressage riders pay attention this. Great reiners pay attention to this.
If we think we don’t have to pay attention to this because we ‘only ride on a loose rein,’ or because we use natural horsemanship or positive reinforcement, beware.
The blinders of ‘I just won’t use the reins that much,’ or ‘I’ll just be more natural,’ or ‘I just won’t use that much pressure’ often result in some of the most unbalanced horses.
Been there, done that.
WHAT IS HEAD TILT?
The angle that we communicate with the rein because we are above naturally predisposes the horse to head tilt, unless we get particular about our angle of execution and the timing of our release.
Even if we are using positive reinforcement and using a target or just using the rein as a tactile cue, we are still not exempt from this mechanical issue.
One thing that exacerbates head tilt is using our hands wide, particularly if we are using headgear with an extended point of contact like a hackamore or curb bit, where the rein connects more under the chin than directly on the sides of the face like a snaffle or sidepull.
This type of gear is not meant to be pulled laterally for the most part, but designed to work on signal and swing; therefore, we should be using it in a lifting motion with our hands close.
With direct-pull devices like a snaffle or sidepull, we still see a benefit from using our hands closer instead of coming out wide with backwards and upwards traction, which blocks the poll and the forward movement, so therefore the hind leg.
It’s worth noting that we can learn to bend and rotate the horse’s neck around the inside rein if we keep it in contact with the neck with close hands. This is an advanced concept, but even a colt will respond to it once the rider has a feel for it.
Many trainers also use the outside rein as a combination effect to counter the tilting effect of the inside rein. This is why there is so much emphasis put on riding ‘inside leg to outside rein,’ instead of relying solely on the inside rein.
WHAT IS THE CREST FLIP?
If we don’t want to see head tilting, what are we looking for?
The ’crest flip.’
Dr. Deb Bennett calls this a head twirl.
Jane Savioe calls it +1 poll position.
Many call it simply ‘positioning the poll.’
It’s just seeing the eye. We don’t want the horse to overbend and collapse laterally at the base of the neck, or we block collection and lift and elevation.
When we ask for a bend and we get correct rotation, we’ll observe a crest flip, where the soft tissue over the top of the horse’s neck slides over into the direction of the bend.
On some horses, this is very subtle, while others may have a big ‘flop.’
As well, a horse who is behind the vertical with his nose tucked or over-bent in the neck behind the poll it is very obvious, while a horse who is open in the throatlatch with the poll the highest point it will be more subtle.
The ears should be level, or even inside-low if we are going particularly fast and the horse needs to counteract centrifugal force.
Some riders have never noticed this, or some riders have never experienced it because every horse they’ve ever ridden rotates incorrectly habitually.
SO WHAT DO WE DO?
We don’t have to get ourselves too stressed about this. When we first mount up, we can simply check how well we can communicate focus with a bend to each side, while keeping the ears level, and over time it will naturally get better and better.
Once we develop an eye for it and a feel for it, it will start to happen naturally in our riding as we become more aware.
It doesn’t need to be perfect the first day, and more than likely, it won’t be, because our horse may have some asymmetry or general muscular tension.
Think about it like how we might gently increase our own range of motion doing stretching or yoga.
If a horse has been head tilting habitually, they may have some pain in the poll and need some massage or bodywork.
Chiropractic work has a place, but often, this is more of a postural pattern that needs to be addressed in the soft tissue.
If we notice that things aren’t getting any better over time, we may want to visit with a professional.
WHAT ABOUT ASYMMETRY?
Many horses are rotated along the spine or in thoracic sling to one side more than the other, which can be very difficult for even a bodyworker to observe.
It’s most obvious under saddle to the rider when asking for an inside flexion.
To the correctly rotating side, the horse will stay level, but to the other side, the horse’s head will tilt and they may fight flexion and the rein. The rider will often feel themselves tilting to the outside.
Carrying on the inside hind to the afflicted side seems to be a big issue. And of course the lead to that side can be tricky.
It’s often a chicken and egg scenario…
Again, if we noticed that things aren’t getting any better over time, we may want to visit with a professional.
THIS SEEMS PRETTY ADVANCED?
This is NOT an advanced thing that we should be waiting to work on; it is the most basic thing of all, albeit technical.
This is something that I do with colts within the first few rides, because it prevents all the ‘normal’ colt resistance when we start picking up their faces and steering and they get defensive. They are getting defensive because we’re cranking their spine the wrong way and tilting their heads.
If we don’t prioritize this in our riding, it will come back to haunt us in every advanced maneuver we try to do.
It’s a prerequisite for circles and turns and especially any suppling or lateral work.
If we aren’t much for advanced maneuvers, and we are just pleasure or trail riders, it will still plague us every time we pick up a rein to communicate direction.
A SPECIAL NOTE ON LATERAL WORK
Before ‘First Position’ (a baby shoulder fore), before shoulder-fore/‘plié,’ before shoulder-in on three or four tracks, before haunches-in or halfpass…
If we are teaching any of these lateral maneuvers, whether on the ground or under saddle, and we do not have the correct rotation, it’s a circus trick done for our own ego, not a gymnasticizing, biomechanically healthy exercise done for the horse.
I would rather see someone do a really good lower level longitudinal stretch on a big 20 meter circle with correct rotation, then try to do pretzeling lateral maneuvers where the horse is tight and unbalanced and incorrectly rotated and tilting the head.
If we are practicing gymnasticizing lateral maneuvers with incorrect rotation, we’re doing more harm than good
The entire point of lateral maneuvers is to engage the hind quarters build collection unilaterally, and if we are blocking that with incorrect rotation, the exercise is one in futility.
A SPECIAL NOTE ON VERTICAL FLEXION
Lateral flexion occurs at the first joint, the atlantooccipital joint between the first cervical vertebra and skull, and axial rotation at the second, the atlantoaxial joint between the first two vertebrae, where we see that crest flip if the rotation is correct.
The trick is that we don’t close the angle between the jaw and the neck with vertical flexion so much that the condyles on the skull block lateral flexion. Heuschmann has an awesome graphic on this, and Savoie cautions that we might ask for lateral first, before we ask for vertical/longitudinal.
You know you’ve got it if you can switch between +1 and -1 and switch flexions and get a crest flip without disruption, and this also tells you if the horse is actually balanced, or simply displacing wait to the opposite shoulder.
Another reason to avoid riding the horse with their nose tucked behind the vertical or curled up and overbent in the neck behind the poll.
Another reason to keep them open in the throatlatch, with the poll the highest point.
A SPECIAL NOTE ON LONGITUDINAL FLEXION
I find many horses have to go quite low to be able to rotate correctly initially.
Studying biomechanics, I learned that correct rotation and lateral flexion goes along with longitudinal flexion of the spine, while reverse rotation goes along with an inverted topline.
SHOULDN’T WE STOP FOCUSING ON THE HEAD?
We hear this a lot. And while it’s very true, that we should be riding back to front instead of ‘hand riding’ front to back, in the beginning stages, and at different times￼, we do need to affect the head and neck, and we need to be able to do so in a way that hopefully is helpful, or at least not harmful.
This isn’t about fixating on the head and neck so much, is it is about realizing how much disruption and dysfunction we can create there if we aren’t particular. This is about recognizing that so we can move past it and start working our way back, steering the shoulders instead of the head, observing and influencing barrel rotation and unilateral engagement￼ and unilateral collection on the way to bilateral collection.
FINAL WORDS OF CAUTION
One of the worst trends I’ve seen and participated in is the attempt to steer bridleless with exaggerated weight shifts.
Many of us were taught to ‘open the door’ with our inside leg and push our turns by sitting to the outside, effectively blocking healthy rotation and inside hind engagement, which would explain why we struggled with leads, and spins, and collection, and why our horses looked flat and frustrated.
I’m not picking on bridleless, I’m not saying we shouldn’t open the door, but we should be very careful about exaggerated body postures that can actually block the horse and contribute to dysfunction.
We learn that master horsemen are actually very quiet, and allow.
Finally, let’s address the common complaint…
GEEZ, WHEN DID RIDING BECOME SO COMPLICATED?
”We never used to worry about this stuff!
Surely cowboys didn’t worry about this stuff!?”
The problem we have as modern riders, is that we are often weekend warriors. Some of us have never ridden a truly balanced horse, and very few of us are going to get in the 10,000 hours required for mastery that people put in when they used horses on the ranch, or in the military, or in the formal riding schools. They were riding school masters or knew what a balanced bridle horse or ranch horse was supposed to feel like, or they were learning through trial and error.
Those people were putting in the hours to build ‘feel,’ muscle memory, naturally, without necessarily having a technical understanding of what they were feeling. (This becomes particularly problematic when those with naturally developed feel and expertise try to teach.)
The great thing about modern horsemanship, is that secondhand gold is as good as new.
We don’t have to put in the 10,000 hours to develop this naturally through muscle memory, we don’t have to go through the trial and error.
We can learn from others’ mistakes, and we can learn through the knowledge that we have gathered collectively in our horsemanship.
So instead of bemoaning how technical good riding is, we can be thankful we don’t have to careen around unbalanced for thousands of hours, breaking down bodies and relationships before we develop our ‘feel.’
How does one achieve and recognize correct flexion? At the halt, the horse allows his jowl to be lightly positioned to the left or the right, and thereby the crest flips toward the side to which the horse is flexed. The horse’s neck maintains its proud posture, and remains straight at the withers. All these are hallmarks of correct flexion.Walter Zettl
To pull the whole neck all the way sideways is fully counterproductive in many ways. The poll becomes stiff and the neck is ‘torn loose’ from the withers. The poll should be supple and the next stabilized by muscle at the withers. A good sign of correct positioning is when the crest of the neck flips to the side to which the horse is positioned.Dr. Gerd Heuschmann