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The Neck Is the Gateway to the Horse

Renowned painter and sculptor Michelangelo famously said, “Every block of stone has a statue inside it, and it is the task of the sculptor to release it.” 

Releasing that “angel in the marble” is no easy feat. If struck the wrong way, marble can crumble into a thousand pieces. But imagine if a young Michelangelo stood in front of the slab of marble he was commissioned to carve but was too afraid to make the first cut. We would never have the masterpiece that is David. 

When a new horse stands in your barn you might feel apprehensive. Maybe they’re young, or need retraining. Where do you begin? What comes first? As a trainer, you want to get the very best out of every horse.

The key to a horse is his neck, so it’s where you should start to chisel, so to speak.

The horse uses his neck for balance. The rider uses the neck as a connection with the totality of the horse behind that point. So, proper education beginning at this point will result in a better developed horse in the future.

Shorten the neck and you take away the horse’s ability to balance and are obliged to create the balance artificially. Good balance is easier to find by riding forward with a long neck. Famed U.S. Equestrian Team coach Bert De Nemethy used to say, “Imagine that your reins are sticks, and push the head of your horse forward.”

French Olympic medalist Eric Navet is an excellent example of this concept:

A good rule is to educate the horse to lower the neck on command before you begin to ride on contact. That way, you’ll have a cue to lengthen the neck if it becomes too short.  

We want to ride a horse with the longest neck possible, arranging the neck and shoulder attachment at the height that corresponds with the movement demanded. Easy in theory, sometimes difficult in practice.

My “cowboy” friend, Frank Barnett, explained, “On a young, uneducated horse we should expect them to be on their shoulder and we will use that to our advantage when establishing forward movement. As they progress, we will be more involved with balancing the forehand so that they will weigh the same on both ends.”

French trainer Henri Prudent’s method calls for “forward riding in an uphill balance.” Prudent is primarily interested in high level show jumping, but also has an eventing background. Like many jumping riders, he uses dressage principles to form horses in all disciplines.

Some good rules to follow when developing a horse are:

Of course, the ideal is to buy horses whose necks are attached toward the top of the shoulder, never near the bottom. Unless you wish to win a race. The neck of a racehorse is attached low on the shoulder. Running downhill is faster than running uphill. For jumping or dressage, the neck should be set more toward the top of the shoulder.

McLain Ward and HH Azur illustrate the neck positioned for an upcoming jump. ©Carley Sparks/Horse Network
The neck positioned correctly for flat racing.

Even with less than ideal conformation, however, if the horse follows the rein, then the rider can choose where to best position the neck to liberate the shoulder. The rider must simply take the time to do so before asking for the movement or jump to follow.

A sure method of knowing if the neck is poorly positioned is that the rein aids cause the neck to shorten or invert.

It goes without saying that the horse is best served by being laterally soft in his neck, however, the positioning of his shoulder is more important than immediate suppleness.

The neck is the gateway to the horse. Communication with the hind legs is only possible through a well formed neck and shoulder. It frees the horse to work properly in all their future work. Like carving a piece of marble, you must first create the correct shape before you can sculpt the details.  

Feature image courtesy of Jeff Gogul.

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