Western Dressage Exercise – Poll Stretch

One of the quickest and most critical ways to develop better movement and rideability in your horse is to improve looseness in his poll and neck. Think of his poll as a control center for his body’s mechanics.  A bundle of nerves here controls his proprioception:  the system of signals from his nerves that trigger his muscles and skeleton to move in certain ways.

Many riders do not realize how much this region governs the horse’s way of going. I like to remind them that the attitude of the neck determines the attitude of the body. Therefore, a tight or restricted poll will produce the same kind of body. A nicely supple poll that flexes smoothly from side to side, as well as up and down, will create loose movement throughout the horse’s body.

For most horses I see in clinics, I recommend lateral poll flexions before riding. Especially for horses that tend to be one-sided, these easy-to-do flexions can result in the horse carrying himself with improved balance and symmetry. By encouraging mobility and adequate spacing in the first vertebral joint, these flexions prevent or resolve restrictions in the horse’s neck that occurs from tension build-up, bit pressure on the jaw, and other performance strains.

The primary difference in how I execute poll flexions and how you might see them done elsewhere is that I work with my hands on the horse’s head; I do not use the bit or reins. Let me explain why. I want to best influence the first vertebra joint in addition to lightly stretching the thick bundle of muscles that surrounds the poll and throat latch area. I am not trying to achieve more vertical flexion nor stimulate his tongue or jaw, which would be caused by bit pressure.

Poll Stretch

  1. Stand beside your horse’s left shoulder, facing forward. Place your left hand gently on the bridge of his nose. Your horse can be in either a bridle or halter.
  2. Place your right hands on his jaw, towards the back.
  3. As you apply very gentle pressure with your right hand to push his jaw away from you, use your left hand to pull his head towards you. You want to swivel only his head towards you, without bending the neck.
  4. Once his head swivels towards you, hold in this position for several seconds.
  5. Look for signs of the horse releasing tension: yawning, eye blinking, licking lips, sighing.
  6. Repeat on both sides.

Be sure not to force the horse’s range of motion. Generally, your horse will flex his head as much as he is able and then let you know where his limit is. Do not try to push/pull him further. Instead, hold light pressure at the point where he stops stretching. After several seconds, release your hands and allow him to straighten out again. Most often, one direction of flexion will be more restricted than the other. Make a note of this. With regular poll flexions, you should feel both directions becoming more even. If, when you release the flexion, your horse shows signs of releasing tension—yawning, licking lips, rolling eyes—step back and give him a little time to do this before repeating the flexion on the next side.


Western Dressage Weekly Exercise – authored by Jec Ballou | Copyright © 2012

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