I would have to say that one of the most common issues I run into with horses is hidden tension in the jaw and poll. Sometimes it’s a mental issue, and sometimes it’s a physical one. Issues at the poll are like having a very bad headache. It clouds your thinking, effects your ability to perform, and effects your attitude. Solving this issue can bring dramatic changes body wide. Some signs of tension in the poll are:
*Not giving to the bit
*Pulling on the reins
*Ear/head sensitive to touch
*Swelling and heat in the poll
Here are a few things to consider when dealing with this issue.
*Using the wrong bit
Just like people, every horse has a slightly different shaped mouth. They are also more sensitive in different areas. Some are more tongue sensitive, some in the bar, some more sensitive in the roof of the mouth. That old “go to” bit that you always use will not be the best fit for every horse. If you are having a lot of resistance in the jaw and poll, try using a different style of bit. A horse should show signs of being relaxed and accepting the bit. Chomping on the bit or a gaping mouth may be signs of discomfort that can be solved by simply changing styles of bit.
Even with a comfortable bit, a rider with “busy” hands can cause discomfort. Next time you ride, take notice of how quiet (or loud) your hands are with the reins.
*Nervous rider/nervous horse
Horses are herd animals. Your nervousness directly translates to the horse. If your horse also tends to being nervous, tension will tend to collect in the poll area. Many people get nervous headaches…so do horses.
Teeth in need of care can cause a lot of issues with horses. If a sore or jagged tooth bothers you when you eat, think of what it does to a horse that has to eat dry hay all day long! This is one of the first things you should rule out when dealing with head issues.
Horse allergies are on the rise. Allergic reactions can be as mild as minor swelling in the joints, to full blown allergic reactions. Even if you don’t see hives or breathing issues, when dealing with chronic swelling in the poll consider a possible allergic reaction.
Has your horse ever had a “pull back” episode when tied up? Those tendons and ligaments in the poll area take quite a beating when that happens but people rarely stop to think of the residual problems. It can take months to heal properly and will cause pain and swelling in the poll area. If your horse is a chronic “puller” there can be permanent damage.
Though horses do not often have to deal with parasites inside their ears, bugs infiltrating the ears can happen, as can wax buildup, fluid buildup, hair overgrowth and plaque sarcoids. This can cause pain and swelling in the head and poll area as well.
So what can you do about these issues? First is process of elimination. Go through the list and rule out possible issues, then make a plan for correcting known issues. The next step will be rehabilitation. How do you correct the tension now that it is there? After correcting known issues, incorporate some gentle stretches, massage, and pain relieving and muscle relaxing herbs. The stretches and massage will work on improving circulation and relieving swelling while herbs can help with pain levels and muscle relaxing.
A very simple riding exercise (once you have ruled out known problems) that will aid in rehabilitating issues in jaw and poll…
I prefer to ride in a double jointed snaffle, as it has a lot of “give” that can be used to flex through the jaw and poll while riding. Using the horse’s walking gait as a tempo and having good solid contact from hands to bit, squeeze one hand three times as if you are holding a sponge. This will cause a very slight pull on one side of the bit. Relax for a count of three, and then squeeze the opposite hand for the count of three. Keep a good tempo count. If you aren’t seeing your horse’s nose slightly tip toward your “squeezing” hand, you do not have good enough contact with the bit and you will need to shorten your reins. If you horse tends to go “behind the bit” (over flexion) there is a good chance you may need to try a different bit for this exercise, one they are more comfortable in. If your horse is rushing through the bit (moving too quickly) relax and slow them down some. As the horse gets used to the repetition, they will begin to work with you on this exercise. After a lap (or half a lap if your arena is large) let out the reins so your horse can stretch. As circulation improves they will want to stretch down and out, and may have a lick/chew response or yawn and shift their jaw several times. If these things happen, it is a very good sign that you are doing the exercise correctly.
All very good points Chelsea! I was trying to go more for things that are not normally addressed when dealing with tension at the poll (such as ear issues and past “pull back” accidents etc) and….there was only so much room in my article However, all your points are very valid!
As an Equine Massage Therapist I agree with what you wrote but want to note that their could also be a couple other issues as to why there is tension! Horses carry stress and tension in 3 areas. The poll, withers and sacrum. Its like you and I carrying it in our shoulders (the weight of the world). Sometimes you will notice a horse with lower withers than rump. This is due to tight muscles and tension and can be corrected with massage. I’ve seen it happen!
-Tension in the poll can be due to saddle fit, usually a saddle too narrow and pinching. This causes the horse to hold head higher to get away from pressure.
-Poor training! If a horse has been rewarded for holding head at a certain level or angle, they will continue to hold this as taught, whether correctly or incorrectly. This can cause tension if it’s not a natural head hold or stance.
-Out of alignment. Tight muscles pull bones out of alignment. Supple muscles allow them to go back to normal. Over time, if not corrected right away by the use of massage and chiropractic, muscle memory forms and it takes longer to get your horse back to what would be natural or normal. Adjustments help to free up the tension in the poll area as well to create natural movement again. Most of the time, we put our horses in this situation, we need to be educated enough to get them out of it and get it fixed so they are pain free and enjoying life!
Just wanted to add a few things, thanks for helping us all to continue a healthier and natural route of equine care!