Riding Deep

When people talk about riding a horse deep, you (or at least I) immediately start thinking of rolkur. But rolkur is the extreme.

Let’s start by talking about what is riding a horse deep. A deep frame is when the horse’s nose is pointing towards the knees, the neck rounded and the topline stretched, and poll no longer the highest point. There’s a fine line between being deep and being hyper flexed, i.e. Rolkur – I saw an explanation that stated that rolkur is when the nose is towards the chest, rather than knee, for a prolonged length of time. The important thing when observing or riding a horse in a deep frame is that the hindquarters are still pushing through actively and they are not behind the contact with a short, tight neck.

So why do we ride horses deep? Rolkur is the sin of all sins, but often competition riders warming up will ride a horse deeply for a few minutes, treading along the delicate line. Firstly, I guess it is a good stretch for the topline muscles, and putting a horse deep for a few strides will improve the horse’s way of going when you revert to the classical position, of poll being the highest point and nose on the vertical as the back muscles are more released so are lifted and more supple.

Secondly, if you have a spooky horse, riding them round and deep can improve your control and prevent them spooking as you can position them more easily into shoulder in. Then once they’ve settled to work you can encourage them to lift the poll.

Some horses naturally put themselves in a deep frame. I think this can be partly due to conformation, and partly due to past training. One horse I ride is very spooky so I tend to have her a little bit deep when warming her up so I get some decent work, rather than numerous sideways jumps. Once she’s settled to work and her focus is on me I start to encourage her to lengthen her neck into a longer and lower position. This tests her balance quite a lot because the head and neck count for a significant percentage of the horse’s weight, and just like it’s harder to carry a weight out away from your body, it’s harder for them to carry their heads further away from their body. I’m sure a mathematician could provide a lecture about levers here, but I’ll leave that to them. So in this case, being able to adjust her frame makes her more rideable.

If you’re riding a horse that likes to put themselves a bit deep, how do you encourage them into the classical position of their nose on the vertical? Firstly, a horse can go over bent if the hand is too restrictive, or if they are not coming through from the hindquarters. So check that your reins aren’t too short or your hands heavy. Then do some transitions to help activate the hindquarters and improve their suppleness over their back, keeping your attention on the feeling underneath the saddle rather than how the front end looks.

Once these corrections have been made then you can turn your attention to actively correcting the horse as they tuck their neck in. When you feel the neck tucking in and the nose dropping, keep your legs long and wrap them around the barrel, to lift the horse up and to encourage them to engage their abdominals. Feel that your pushing the horse from the leg into the hand and as the horse moves into the contact, allow the hand to move up the neck to encourage the horse to lengthen his neck as he seeks the contact. This doesn’t want to be a big movement because the horse needs to find the contact so they don’t lose confidence in your empty promises. Keeping your shoulders up will also help the horse by not overloading the forehand. 

These corrections to their balance is very subtle and should be done as frequently as the horse tucks behind the contact and gets deep. Then hopefully they will learn and strengthen this new frame. Lunging in side reins is also quite useful so long as the side reins are slightly on the long side and you actively get the hindquarters pushing forwards, otherwise you risk tying the horse’s head in. You always want to encourage the horse to be stretching forwards towards the contact.

The aim of correcting a horse who likes to work deeply is to encourage them to lengthen the neck out, but as I said earlier it’s hard for them so build it up by tiny increments and remember that they will tire quickly. Matt has a tendency to get a bit deep, when he stops tracking up and forgets to push with his hind legs, but just closing the leg and letting my hands inch forwards puts him back into the classical frame with his nose on the vertical and gets his back swinging nicely again.

We had this issue, if that’s the correct word, on a lesson earlier this week when one of the mares I was teaching with decided to demonstrate hyperflexion. Her rider wasn’t doing anything wrong, but I think the mare was evading using her back (which is tight, and work in progress) by curling her neck to her chest. While I desperately hoped no one thought I was encouraging this behaviour, I asked my rider to squeeze with her legs and then allow with the hand when the mare lifted her head and neck. A “good girl” when she’s corrected herself and hopefully as the mare gets more supple and stronger in her back she will find it easier to carry herself properly and we’ll see less of her curling her neck down.

The Hyoid Apparatus 

I learnt something new this week. 

Have you ever heard of the hyoid apparatus? Me neither.

The hyoid is a series of eleven tiny bones, about half the thickness of a biro, which make up a shoe shape, and is situated between the cheeks of the horse. The name comes from “shaped like the letter upsilon (Y)”, which actually describes it’s appearance well.


Here’s the fascinating part. Every single muscle in the horse’s body eventually connects to the hyoid. 

The next fascinating thing about the hyoid apparatus is that it is the only bone in the body not connected to another bone, instead held in place by ligaments. Incidentally, it sits lower in humans, which allows us to form sounds for speech.

The main use of the hyoid apparatus is to support the tongue. However, when dentists manipulate the tongue to rasp the teeth they often upset the balance of the hyoid, knocking it off centre. 

You can tell if the hyoid is misaligned by looking at your horse square on. If one eye is sitting lower, or not facing forwards, giving the face a slight wonky appearance, then the hyoid has been disturbed. Otis’s right eye was fractionally lower than his left, but after his red light therapy session (more on that in a couple of days) I was impressed to see that his eyes were level again.

The importance of having a correctly aligned hyoid bone is mostly observed in ridden work because the hyoid is very influential on balance. A horse with a wonky hyoid will be slightly crooked, prefer one rein, and struggle to accept the aids.

I found this interesting article, and have quoted it below because I don’t think I can better the explanation as to how the hyoid is linked to the ridden aids.

There is a connection from the riders legs to the tongue, neck, jaw and poll. Via the hyoid apparatus, the serratus muscle, which makes the connection between the rib cage and the base of the neck, can be influenced by the lower legs and consequently involves the muscle directly connected to the tongue. This sustains the coordination of stride and breathing. When the horse blocks his atlas-axis mobility, this is the whole muscular system and skeletal chain that the rider must unblock. The connection from the mouth with the rider is seen when the horse makes a soft clicking of the bit with motion of the jaws and with his lips closed. This action is a reaction to the acceptance of the riders aids, legs and hands. Since the horse is a nose breather, and the cantering stride is in time with breathing, a misuse of a bit can interfere with a normal function of swallowing. For placing the horse on the aids correctly, it connects the muscle and ligament of the tongue towards chewing the bit, allowing the contact into the rein and adjusting the neck vertebrae from convex toward the ground, to concave, producing an arched neck. 

Faults with the tongue are always linked to the hyoid apparatus. When adjusting a bridle, the horse must have sufficient room to keep his jaw mobile. If the horse flicks or sticks his tongue out, it is a sign that bitting or the use of the aids are associated with pulling hands. In conclusion, the tongue and larynx are both fixed to the hyoid apparatus. Any tongue movement results in laryngeal movement and would interfere with breathing. The hyoid apparatus is also as we just described, a crucial part of the anatomy involved in the effect of the aids from seat, legs and hands. When a rider can say his horse is in front of his legs and on the aids, and/or on the bit, it is because the muscles connected to the tongue via the base of the hyoid are relaxed and offer a soft chewing and swallowing of the bit.

So you can see that having a displaced hyoid apparatus will affect the whole of the horse. Signs of a dislodged hyoid, are the visual one I mentioned earlier, chewing more on one side, resentment of the bit, headshy, difficulty flexing at the poll, has sensitive to the touch, and the upper and lower incisors not aligning. Horses with an out of place hyoid are also said to suffer from headaches, which could lead to head shaking and other associated behaviours.

As I’m sure you’re now thinking about how to prevent upsetting the hyoid apparatus, let’s look at management techniques. Encouraging the atlo-axis joint to flex reduces tension and helps stabilise the hyoid apparatus, so feeding from the ground is highly beneficial. Making sure bits are a good fit and nosebands aren’t too tight so stopping tension there, and also allowing the horse room to move his tongue, open his mouth and swallow whilst ridden. Rolkur and having the horse overbent is a big no no for the hyoid as well as the numerous reasons we should all be aware of. Instead, ensure jaw flexion originates at the base of the neck Instead of the head just tucking in. Oh and of course any dental problems will affect the area, so you want your horse to have regular dental checkups.

I thought the hyoid apparatus was very interesting, and I’m surprised I hadn’t heard of it before, but one googled I found hundreds of articles to satisfy the inner geek!