One of the very first things I asked my mare to learn to do was lower her head. While lowering the head is always very useful for haltering and bridling, and for decreasing adrenaline levels in the body, the main reason I ask her for this is that it is the first step in the development of good posture.
But lowering the head is not done in a straight down motion. Rather it is forward and downward; we ask for the nose to come forward and the head and neck to lower. We want the neck to telescope, to lengthen. We want the nose to be out, not tucked in behind the vertical and not even vertical. We want the throat latch open so that the horse can breathe well, the vertebrae will sit easily in a gentle curve without being ‘squashed’ and damaged and the muscles can function well. This position of the head and neck is called Forward Down and Out, or FDO. It is well known that Manolo Mendez uses this term, and Manolo likes the eye of the horse to be between the line of the point of hip and the line of the stifle. A very useful point.
But why is this important? In order to be able to carry a rider healthily and with longevity, the horse needs to learn to lift through the wither (or at the base of the neck), and to lift the back. (The wither is not lifted by lifting the hands! Doing this will have the horse use its body in a very unhealthy way, and undo any previous good work.) One of the most common problems I see in horses is a hollowing of the back along with a forward tilting of the pelvis which has become permanently held in place by tight muscles, especially the psoas. This hollow back, tilting of the pelvis and tight psoas adversely affects the entire horse; causing pain, poor movement, damage to joints in the long term, lack of engagement of the hindquarter, being on the forehand, loss of correct spinal movement and much more, including unhappy horses.
So again, why FDO? Our horse needs to develop strength in order to lift through the back and withers and to hold that lift for any length of time in the different gaits and throughout various movements (and I am talking simple movements that we all do). The first and simplest way to develop this strength is by having the horse in an FDO position for gradually longer and longer periods of time, and throughout different gaits and movements. The fact that the head and neck of the horse are very heavy means that just through having to support the head and neck in that position, the horse’s muscles which are best used for lifting the back and wither are developing and strengthening.
Other major benefits of this position are that the horse likes it. I often see horses asking to lower their head and neck into this position. Also, it stretches the spine, creating good space between the spinous processes, which is definitely important (think of the terrible effects of kissing spine). It encourages the horse to use its core muscles and hindquarters. The muscles along the upper neck become more developed while the lower neck muscles become smaller – and if you have ridden a horse that carries its head high, even dangerously so, you will appreciate this. Oh, and your horse will become more and more beautiful. Just as an added bonus!
So the very simple act of asking your horse to stretch its neck in a forward, down and out position for longer and longer periods during movement, whether in hand and/or under saddle, will begin to build a strong foundation for a healthy and beautiful posture. Just a gentle reminder: this will be difficult for the horse to begin with as building stronger muscles is tiring, especially if those muscles haven’t previously been used much at all (much like me doing my core strengthening exercises…..very painful and exhausting to begin with!). You might be thinking ‘my horse lowers his head anyway, that should be enough’. I suggest you check just where your horse’s eye is when it does, is it between point of hip and stifle? Because that is very important. Higher or lower will use different muscles, ones we don’t want the horse to develop. And remember, our goal is to have healthy horses that have minimal pain levels, not who suffer from pain just because we enjoy riding them. All the best! If you have any questions please feel free to contact me. Happy riding for you and your horses.