Understanding the Poll
The confluence of energies that flow through the poll are life itself. All the energies of the cranium spread throughout the regions of the body; the life sustaining responsibility of the brainstem as it transforms into the superhighway of the spinal cord. Afferent and efferent nerves communicate everything from monitoring the body’s position in space (proprioception) to organ function, from locomotion to temperature of the breeze coming up the canyon, and every other type of nerve impulse obtained within.
All of these systems are unequivocally susceptible to interference from within and without. A few examples:
Have you ever had trouble with haltering or bridling your horse? How about just trying to rub behind the ears? Does the horse act as if it is going to get hit when you raise your hand towards it’s head? Will the horse willingly lower it’s head when asked? Does your horse hang on the bit, push through, or get behind the bit? Do you hang on the reins? Has the horse ever had a pull back incident where the halter dug into the flesh behind the ears? Does the horse have a nervous or ADD type disposition, or always seem ready to flee?. Maybe he hit his head on a doorway or rafter, trailer, or stall? Is the horse crooked, can it travel a straight line? Does it circle evenly to both directions? Is the horse’s dental work up to date?
There is a direct mechanical & neurological connection between the TMJ (Jaw joint) and the neurobiology of the poll. If the jaw is tight or clenched or irritated in any way, this has a direct affect on the status of the poll. If the jaw is relaxed, this has an affect on the poll. This area of the head has the highest concentration of proprioception receptors, (the ability to know where the body is in space), than anywhere else in the body so it is very cautious of anything that might be a threat to it’s well being. It will protect at all cost with this kind of attitude, until taught otherwise.
This neuro-biological activity can be considered the Mainframe computer and everything downstream is a subservient desktop. Everything processes through the mainframe; if the mainframe breaks down, everything else suffers. That being said, when something downstream is not working, that information is fed back and affects the mainframe. Of course this is just a simple analogy of a terribly complex system but it lends an understanding of how integrated the system is.
So what do we do?
Call the therapist? Maybe. Only so much can be accomplished in a single session and guaranteed, the therapist will NOT remove the cause of the problem. At best the therapist can lessen and possibly rid the SYMPTOM of the actual problem.
The answer lies in the daily care and training of the animal and it starts with awareness.
Next is desire. What do you want in your relationship with the horse?
- Do you want a willing happy partner that will go to the ends to please you, or do you only care that the job gets done?
- Do you want a partner that comes running to you at the gate, or do you not mind the chase?
- Do you want a horse that uses its body properly, with lightness, grace and relaxation?
- Do you not mind a horse in resistance that will eventually get you there, maybe?
- Are you willing to work properly for what you want?
Many times I have read the analogy that a horse’s body is a pile of clay molded by the riders hand. As an equine therapist for over 25 years I couldn’t agree more.
What follows might not turn your horse into a Grand Prix, Eventer or Ranch Versitility performer but it’ll put you on the right path. It is not going to train your horse in any particular pattern or move. What it will do is make it easier for the horse to follow your direction, and when a horse can follow your direction (assuming he is mentally and physically conditioned), he performs better. Essentially, she will move her body in ways that may have been previously blocked, or prevent potential blockages from occurring. As the saying goes “The Devil Is In The Details”. These are some of the details.
Awareness starts with the visual. When I first started with horses utilizing chiropractic and body work it was because a patient asked if I could look at their horse because of back pain. At the time I had no specific knowledge of equine anatomy, what I did know was that they had a spine and a nervous system just like any mammal. So I tried some things that worked surprisingly well. I was not afraid of failure because I really didn’t know what I was doing and I could just rack it up as a learning experience . With that successful experience I was asked “What did you do? It worked so well.” I didn’t have the answer for that either. Many years later, I think I do have an answer. My Intention was purely to help the horse. I have learned that horses have a very refined intuition as to the intentions of their surroundings. Almost to the level of what some would call ESP. “Is that thing going to eat me or feed me?” When your awareness matches the equines awareness a better partnership grows. I do believe that the fairly recent discovery of “Mirror Neurons” (a subject for later discussion) play a major role in learning theory.
What I give the horses through my intention is healing energy, Eventually, if not immediately, most animals will accept this energy of intention, combined with proper positional movement to release the brace of protective muscle spasms which have impeded normal movement of articular surfaces (joints). My intention is supported by a knowledge of functional anatomy and bio-mechanics. If I don’t know how it should work I can’t help it as much. If you are not familiar with how the bones move in this area there is a video of just that associated with this article on Horsechiro.com.
One does not need to know everything to help but one does need to know awareness and have intention.
After my initial success, I started to laboriously study the horse. It took many years of filming, going to shows, and listening to people that know, before my eye was trained to where gait problems lie. I could easily tell when a horse was not going right, but could not identify the location of the problem when the poetry of motion was lost. This is a lifetime journey for those on the path. So don’t be discouraged, everything worthwhile takes time. Be aware.
If a desire exists for a calm obedient partner, patience and action is the key to successful outcomes. Most all horses in the initial stages of learning this seem resistant at some level. They do not just blindly cooperate, especially when working with this most sensitive area (the head), and here is where we get the opportunity to develop our sense of feel and direction. We cannot force our horse into relaxation, but we can guide them there with finesse. Here comes the difficulty, how to teach feel. In this exercise the sense of feel is paramount. The ability to focus and concentrate on the task at hand. Visualization of the anatomical structures in your minds eye can guide your movements. My hands are my eyes at work.
We want to guide the horse’s head to follow the range of motion directed by the facetal planes of the joint of the poll. Specifically the joint between the occipital base of the skull, the almond shaped facets as they fit deeply into the cups of the C-1 vertebrae. The feel we are looking for is a release, not a movement. We can get a movement but that does not mean we get a release.
Muscles have different jobs, what we need to understand is that some muscles are stabilizers, and some are gross motor movers, some do both jobs at once. These are also termed intrinsic, (postural) and extrinsic (movers). Just watch the difference between trot and a walk. Many more intrinsic muscles (postural) are recruited for the diagonal two beat trot than for the lazier 4 beat dog walk, or even the canter. Observe how much more stable the vertebrae are in the neck and back during trot. It’s easier to sit a walk than sit a trot. With the walk the spine oscillates and the entire body absorbs and dissipates the shock of the foot fall. With the trot, the shock of the foot hitting the ground, with the back and neck more stabilised, does not dissipate throughout the body, but is absorbed by the elastic recoil of the reciprocating system, ligaments, tendons and muscle of the legs which is then converted into the kinetic energy of locomotion and there is more bouncing
It is these stabilisers that we are targeting in the poll. These postural muscles that have a direct hard line to the lower brain,the Autonomic nervous system that sits right beneath them. The lower reptilian brain is responsible for survival. PERIOD. Anything in this area that even mildly threatens the well being of the horse will activate survival instincts, or flight reflex. This is a 2-way street – communication with the autonomic nervous system. If something activates this system into high alert, say seeing a lion or bear, or if the stimulus is activated by local pain, high alert ensues.
This feedback system, for horses with pain in this area, are on constant alert, ready to recruit the entire flight system. Not just busy, but increased heart rate, increased respiration, possible digestive problems from blood being shunted away from the gut to the muscles to flee, and thus throwing many other systems out of kilter for the horse. Constantly on high alert is unsustainable for biological systems.
Relaxation or de-contraction of these muscles are our initial goal to suppress the natural flight reflex so we need to become familiar with the tone of the tissue of this and the surrounding area.
- Using your hands and fingers get to know the area around your horses ears. Identify the Temporalis muscles. The triangular looking muscles on the forehead. Above the depression above the eyes. Are they even and symmetrical, are they uniformly soft with no hard bands or points? Asymmetrical muscles here may reflect dentition problems as they are involved in chewing.
- Get to know exactly where the TMJ is and all the muscles surrounding it. Are they soft and pliable or hard and painful. Put your fingers directly on the joint then have the horse chew and feel the oscillation of the joint. To get the horse to chew stick your finger on the lip where the bit would sit. Be AWARE, listen to the chewing and feel the joint movement. Everything should be smooth and symmetrical. Repeat on the other side
- Move your hand to the poll, find the lateral ridge of C-1 follow it towards the head and take notice of the space between the back of the head or jaw and the front of this ridge. How does it feel underneath that space, soft or hard and lumpy? Now compare this space with the other side. Is the space the same on both sides when the horse’s head is straight. It is this space that will close up with lateral flexion of the poll so if the horse is moving its head around you will feel this space open and close. Compare this side to side. This area will tell you tremendous information about your horses well being.
- FEEL with your fingers the area above and in front of C-1 up to and including the temporalis muscles. Get to know this area. Do not try to figure out what you are feeling yet. Just get to know your horses reaction to this area first. Sometimes you will get a very deliberate avoidance reflex from the horse and may even get the whites of the eyes to expose themselves. Not to worry as long as you keep yourself safe. The idea is to de-sensitize your animal to this contact. Get them used to being groomed here. If they have had an injury to this area, either hitting their head or a pull -back incident you may initiate a violent reaction from them, especially if it has been a recent occurrence. Stay diligent in your awareness!
- While palpating this area make sure your horse responds to your que to lower it’s head so you can comfortably reach the area. If it does not respond to lowering the head, you have more preliminary work to do.
- This next description are the words to accompany the video which demonstrates the movement
- With the head in a comfortable position for horse and handler we now need to get the throat latch to neutral position, around 90 degrees +/- 20°. The jaw/throat cannot be extended or behind the vertical. The bones do not line up properly if extended or flexed improperly. When this relaxed state is reached we now want to entice the horse into lateral flexion of the poll. When on the left side of the horse with your right hand put your right thumb on the angle of the jaw to stabilize and with left hand ask the horse turn its head towards you. Asking only for the head to rotate towards you with the neck staying perfectly straight. ONLY moving in lateral flexion at the poll. Watch the head at the joint we are moving. That space we identified earlier between the back of the jaw and C-1 will close. This will NOT happen easily if the horse is not familiar with the move. This will not happen at all if the horse is braced or in a contracted state. Remember, we are not looking for movement as much as we are looking for release. Try to get familiar with this movement or non-movement, as success may not come right away. It will when the horse understands what you are asking and the horse will get to the point of volunteering the movement whenever asked because it feels good when relaxed.
- Once we get this movement properly, (some say as much as 40°, I’m overjoyed at 10-15°) we then want to stimulate the horse to relax or flex the jaw. This combined movement of jaw flexions and lateral flexions of the poll will de-contract spasms of the sub-occipital region.This leads to relaxation of the poll and a decrease of pressure on the lower brain and a much more comfortable horse.
- This technique is best over the long run. It takes time to perfect and the results will be seen over time more than any immediate miracles. But miracles do happen! This is the original chiropractic paradigm. To relieve pressure and irritation at the atlas so the body may express itself free of nervous system dysfunction.
- When we have established this initial routine it will be relatively easy to follow this movement through to get release of any possible vertebral blockages of the cervical spine in lateral flexion. This will be covered in a future post
- This is the beginning of obtaining decontraction of the poll region and will be the start of learning how to make your horse more comfortable.