The Head Shy Horse

June 23, 2015

The Head Shy Horse, a theme many of us know all too well! Sore Head

What if I told you that maybe your horse wasn’t head shy but that they just had a very sore head!

A cold Thursday morning in Kildare as I travelled to see and treat Lola…Lola is a 7 y/o NH racehorse whom I first met in early 2013. What jumped out and stuck with me when I first met Lola was how head shy she was! She couldn’t tolerate me being near her ears, poll, or even from mid-way up her neck. She was guarded, suspicious and apprehensive. I asked her owner about it and he said, “she’s always been like that”; she’s home bred so he would know. Charlie’s a great guy so was open to my opinion that most head shy horses are like that because of pain and tension in their poll. It’s my belief, from my training and experience, that all pain, via compensation, at some degree ends up at the poll.

Let’s look at some of the mechanics in the horse’s body to get an understanding of how the poll can come under pressure and develop this pain. We know the poll as the area behind the horse’s ears, more specifically the atlanto-occipital joint or junction. This is the point of attachment of the horse’s head to their spine and subsequently the rest of their body.

The horse’s head accounts for approximately 10% of the horse’s body weight, so if we think Poll Atlas Junction about it, before any human intervention the poll is already managing quite a bit of downward pressure.

The funicular, (Latin for rope, meaning chord like in this context), section of the nuchal ligament attaches to the poll at the occipital bone; from here it travels under the horse’s mane, along the top of the neck, and continues along the back as the supraspinous ligament, linking bone to bone as far back as the lumbar spine. The lamellar nuchal ligament links the funicular nuchal ligament to the middle cervical vertebrae.

Nuchal - Blank & Whitesupraspinous ligament

So we’re already starting to see how the poll is connected to the horses back and to their neck. If brachiocephalicus musclewe now think about the brachiocephalicus muscle, which is charged with extending the shoulder, advancing the limb and drawing the head and neck to the side when the limb is planted, this attaches to the poll at the nuchal crest and the wing of the atlas (atlas = cervical vertebrae 1 (C1) & is one half of the atlanto-occipital joint).

So now we see that the poll is coming under pressure not only from the downward force of the weight of the head but also through attachment to the muscles that move the legs and the connectivity through the spine. If we take a look at the longissimus (Latin for longest) muscle of the horse’s back, we note that there are in fact five parts to this muscle. The atlantis, capitis, cervicis, thoracic, and lumborum parts. So not only does the poll connect to the back through the ligaments but also through the muscles. I guess the picture I’m trying to draw here is one where we can see that the whole horse is connected, be it through muscle, fascia (connective tissues), ligaments or tendons.

Whole Horse

The above is a depiction from a Masterson Method (MM) colleague based in Wisconson, USA. I was fortunate enough to spend some months with Becky Tenges in early 2014. She wrote an article for the MM newsletter on her experience of the whole horse concept following a training course with Dr. Kerry Ridgeway DVM. You can find this link at the bottom of this blog.

So by understanding how the horse is designed it makes sense that if there is primary pain or trauma eventually there will be secondary tension and fatigue. I believe that in order to give our horses the best opportunity to perform at optimum ability we need to see and treat them in their entirety.

As a Masterson Method practitioner myself, I work with the horse by following their neurological responses. This provides instant feedback to what’s going on in their body and helps me to help them release tension in their whole body. Helping our horses to release this build up of tension results in a happier, more relaxed and willing horse.

In my experience pain and discomfort at the poll can and does develop secondary to a lot of primary equine afflictions. A common one I see is the horse suffering with chronic low grade caudal heel pain. These horses, to alleviate pain at the back of the hoof, brace up into the structures in the upper limbs and the muscles at their chest. This response is essential as they adjust their posture to ease the ache in their heels. This adjustment may provide short term relief but eventually the tension in the limbs and pectorals will travel up in the neck and then into the poll. It’s at this point that we can end up with a troublesome head shy horse, among other things.

“Fast forward to today, months since I first met Lola; when I last spoke to her owner he mentioned that her handler had asked what had been done with her since she had last been in race training. Why? because apparently she was a different horse to handle. Charlie explained about me; apparently he said he wasn’t sure exactly what I did but that his mare sure seemed more relaxed afterwards.”

If you are the owner of a head shy horse why not connect with me through FB, Twitter or on my upcoming website, We can have a chat and maybe help your horse feel better.

See also below articles from Jim Masterson and Becky Tenges on the “head shy horse”.

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