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 ARTICLES > TTouch > Balancing Act
  TTouch  Article:
Article By: Sarah Fisher        Publish Date: 2005-08-17

Balancing Act

Part One


By Sarah Fisher


Sarah Fisher is a TTEAM Instructor and runs the TTEAM training Centre in the UK which is home to 22 horses.    She works at rehabilitation yards around the UK including the Thoroughbred Rehabilitation centre in Lancashire and contributes regular features for national and international magazines including YOUR HORSE magazine.  Sarah has ridden horses since the age of four and owns a variety of horses including OTTO, who despite a major fall as a two year old, has gone on to win a variety of classes at county and national level including Show Hunter, Coloured Ridden Horse, Dressage and Working Hunter thanks to TTEAM.  



If you consistently struggle to get your horse working through from behind the chances are he has poor balance. So much attention is often paid to the hindquarters to improve hind limb action that the source of the problem may be over looked. Lack of engagement often stems from a neck that is tight, contracted and unevenly muscled, with inhibited movement through the mouth, Temporomandibular Joint (TMJ) and poll, all of which has a knock on effect through the rest of the body. 


Improving the balance and co-ordination of the horse does not have to take hours of rigorous training on the lunge or under saddle. Groundwork, bodywork and awareness are the keys. By releasing tension in the body, helping the horse to become less one-sided and by teaching him how to distribute his weight more evenly over his fore and hind limbs as required, you can enable your horse to develop the elevation and freedom of movement that every rider strives for.


Balance and Proprioception

Balance is a state of body equilibrium or stability where the horse is distributing his weight equally on all four feet and where the horse is able to move and alter his posture as required without the need for obvious re-organisation of his body. Self-confidence and self control influence, and are influenced by, self-carriage. The horse that is physically out of balance will tend to be more reactive and more emotional than the horse that is evenly developed through the body.  Improving a horse’s balance not only improves performance but also behaviour.


Proprioception is the part of the horse’s nervous system that tells your horse where his feet are without him having to look at them. It is also part of the horse’s coordination system.    Horses with poor proprioception may rush through narrow spaces or gateways, spook, or lack spatial awareness.


The average horse at rest takes approximately sixty per cent of his body weight on his fore limbs with the centre of gravity being roughly underneath where the seat bones of a rider would be if they were in the correct position. The balance of the horse changes as it moves through the gaits and the centre of gravity moves back towards the hind quarters when the head raises. In order to engage the hindquarter the horse must be able to distribute his weight effectively through his body as required.  If there is incorrect muscle development, lack of awareness or tension through the neck or back the horse will struggle to alter his balance through transitions and will have a tendency to work on the forehand.   


The natural balance will vary from horse to horse and will be influenced by many factors including growth patterns, conformation, breed type, teeth and foot care, and muscle development. The way we lead and handle our horses can have a dramatic effect on their balance and even though we strive to develop straightness and self carriage in the ridden horse we traditionally spend a large part of the time influencing the horse purely from the near side. It is probably no coincidence that the majority of horses are stiffer on the right rein.


The horse primarily uses his neck for balance but also relies on his eyes (visual balance) and inner ear (vestibular balance) for stability and position awareness. As the eyes and the ears can be affected by tension in upper part of the neck, muscle restriction around the upper cervical vertebrae will have a dramatic effect on the horse’s ability to establish true self-carriage.    


Tying a horse down to create an illusion of working in a collected frame can cause so many problems for the horse as it inhibits the natural movement of the back and hindquarters. The more restricted the horse becomes in the upper part of his neck the tighter he will be in the lumbar and pelvic area.


Other factors that immediately influence the horse’s ability to balance when ridden are of course the fit of the saddle and posture of the rider, but also the bit.  The action and shape of the bit not only affects the mouth. It directly influences other parts of the horse’s anatomy through its relationship with the tongue which lies between the bones of the lower and upper jaw. Some of the muscles from the tongue connect to a small set of bones in the throat called the hyoid bones. Small muscles connect the hyoid bones to the TMJ and to the poll. The TMJ is an important centre for nerves involved with balance and proprioception.


Two major neck muscles originate from the hyoid bones. One attaches to the sternum and one attaches to the inside of the shoulder. With a direct connection from the tongue to the sternum and shoulder, bitting problems, over collection and tight nosebands that inhibit movement of the tongue can cause tension all the way down the neck to the sternum and shoulder. If tension exists through the sternum, the horse cannot raise its back. This pattern inhibits movement through the base of the neck and causes tension through the bottom line. As these are the very areas that need to lengthen and release for the horse to be able to engage and work in balance, incorrect bitting can be a major factor in poor performance and incorrect posture.

The Neck

The neck is made up of seven cervical vertebrae. The first two vertebrae, the atlas and the axis allow the head to nod up and down and to move from side to side. The other cervical vertebrae allow the neck to arch and bend.


Whilst breed type obviously determines the set and shape of the neck, tension or restricted movement in the neck will have a direct influence on stride length, body awareness, the ability to move forward, proprioception, range of movement, and collection.  

What to Look for

Take time to study your horse in the stable or moving around in the paddock.  If possible watch your horse whilst he is ridden and look for signs that your horse may be carrying tension through the neck.


You may notice incorrect muscling with over bulking and under development of the appropriate muscles, a tight or non-existent top line, or over defined cervical vertebrae. You may notice the mane ‘jumping’ as the horse lowers or raises its head, which can be another indicator of tight muscles and ligaments. The strong Nuchal ligament supports the head and neck and allows the neck to be raised and lowered.   If the horse has worked in a consistent high headed frame he may struggle to lower his neck even at rest as movement in the ligament may have become limited.


Changes in the way the mane lies often corresponds to tension in the neck although the mane will also change direction where a swirl is present in the coat. 


Tightness in the neck in a horse with a high head carriage will often be accompanied by a hollow or dropped back. There will be a dip in the top line in front of the withers and over development of muscles in the upper part of the neck. The 5th and 6th cervical vertebrae will be prominent and there may be rub marks from the rein in this area.  The horse is usually ‘fixed’ through the base of the neck. To initiate forward movement the horse may first raise its head before moving forward or fling up its head when asked for a transition. It will always affect the horse’s ability to engage behind and the horse may be unlevel in his gaits. He will often find it hard to work in a straight line and may drift when working down the centre line. 


If tension in the neck is accompanied by a low head carriage the horse may have restricted movement through the throat latch area. He may shorten and curl his neck and work with his nose on his chest. He is likely to be heavy in the hand as he needs to lean on the bit for support due to the inability to lengthen and soften his neck. He may be hard to get moving or difficult to stop.


Tension in the neck also affects a horse’s ability to learn, changes spatial awareness and can cause problems with depth perception and changes in light. This can make it hard for horses moving from and into trailers, boxes and stables. Horses that are tight in the neck can be spooky and concerned over bright objects. They may react to something they have moved past easily several times before as tension in the upper part of the neck can influence the optic nerve. They may be worse in the summer when more light is reflected off shiny surfaces such as white boards, cars and water. 


Pushy behaviour or crowding when being handled can also be attributed to tension in some part of the neck and the horse may find it hard to stand since the neck is so important for balance. He may also have problems turning the head, raising or lowering the head, and arching or bending his neck. He may involuntarily nod or wobble his head from side to side when moving, and lead with his nose rather than flexing through the neck when turning left or right.


Horses that are tight in the neck may also:


            Find it hard to move forward from the leg

            Spin in hand and under saddle


            Work on the forehand

            Drop behind or come above the bit when asked for collection


            Dislike having their mane pulled.

            Be concerned about being handled from both sides


Neck Exercises

Try these simple exercises to help your horse. As the horse begins to free up in the upper part of the neck you may notice a discharge from one or both nostrils.

Neck Rock

This is a really simple TTEAM exercise that most horses will accept, at least in places, straight away. Neck Rocking helps to relax tight ligaments and muscles, helps to release a tight bottom line, connects the top line to the bottom line and is one step on the path to true balance and straightness.  In addition neck rocking can be useful for:

            Helping the horse become accustomed to having his neck handled

            Starting the steps to teaching a horse to lower his head and neck

            Helping the horse to release the withers, shoulders, back, poll and jaw


You can do this exercise by standing on either side of the horse but for ease of explanation it is described as though you were working by the horse’s left side.


Stand in balance with your feet shoulder width apart and your hips and knees soft i.e. not locked. Place the palm of your right hand on top of the crest and the palm of your left hand underneath the neck. Keep your hands in line with each other. Let your fingers firmly but gently cup the top and bottom of the neck. Refrain from gripping the neck tightly.  You are going to bring the crest slightly towards you with your right hand as you move the bottom of the neck slightly away from you with the left hand, then guide the crest away from you with the right hand as your left hand brings the bottom of the neck towards you.  This exercise is done quite quickly so that you are in fact jiggling or rocking the neck. You can start this exercise anywhere on the horse’s neck. If you can work from the bottom all the way up to the poll or start at the poll and work down to the base of the neck so much the better. Some horses are so tight in the neck that they can only tolerate contact in certain places initially but generally after a few Neck Rocks in an acceptable area the neck releases enough to allow you to work the whole neck.

My horse doesn’t like Neck Rocks

Some horses are so unaccustomed to releasing tension or are so stressed by the feeling of containment that this exercise panics them. This is rare but if your horse does show any concern break the exercise down into the following steps:

Rock him gently from the withers with one hand 

            Place one hand on the crest and keep the second hand away from the horse

            Gently rock the crest but keep the contact light and the movement small

Place the second hand on the underside of the neck and close the fingers of both your left and right hand slowly and gently around the horse’s neck, hold for a moment and then release.

Half rock the neck, that is only move the neck lightly once in one direction before moving to another area.


Caterpillar is a Connected Enterprise exercise that can be done whilst the horse is standing or whilst the horse is on the move. It helps to reduce soft tissue tension around the cervical vertebrae, helps the horse to lengthen and release his neck, and helps to establish true self carriage.  Caterpillar is also useful for:

            Teaching a horse to soften and accept a contact

            Establishing lateral movement of the body

            Reducing a horse’s tendency to brace the neck and fall through the shoulder

Helping the horse to release and yield from the poll right through to the hindquarters

If working on the left side of the horse, support the horse’s head by hooking your fingers lightly onto the noseband or by holding the lead line up by the head collar with your left hand. Place your right hand on the base of the horse’s neck above the point of the shoulder. Your thumb should be on or near the jugular groove, and your fingers should be on the top ridge of the cervical vertebrae so that you cup the vertebrae with your hand.  Start by sliding your hand up the line of the vertebrae to the horse’s ear with the base (heel) of the hand applying the pressure.  Repeat, but this time move your hand like a caterpillar and inch your way up the neck, vertebrae by vertebrae. Finally add the action of opening and closing your thumb and fingers as you travel up the neck.  Experiment with the pressure as it will vary from horse to horse and repeat this exercise four or five times, giving your horse time to process the information, before switching sides.

My horse doesn’t like the Caterpillar

Horses that are crooked, are ear shy or have tight shoulders, necks or polls may find this exercise difficult.  To help them become accustomed to this exercise:

            Try the exercise whilst walking the horse in hand

Start by working only where contact on the neck is acceptable for the horse

Alter the pressure

Ensure that you aren’t pulling on the horse’s head by mistake

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