If your horse tilts his head and carries one ear lower than the other, chances are he’s stiff at the poll. You might see first see this on circles or the lateral work with a bend such as shoulder-in, haunches-in, and half pass.
Here’s an exercise you can do to supple your horse’s poll.
- Start in the halt on the rail so you can check that you’re keeping your horse’s body absolutely straight. If he’s straight, his body is parallel to the rail from nose to tail.
- When you start to supple the poll, keep his neck parallel to the rail. The most common mistake is to bend the neck. Your horse can bend his neck and still stay locked in his poll.
- Use an indirect rein to move his face only one inch to the left and one inch to the right so you can just see his inside or outside eye and/or nostril (this is also sometimes called position left and position right, flexion and counter-flexion, or +1 and -1).
- Remember, when you use an indirect rein, keep your fingers softly closed around the reins. Then, turn your wrist quickly and smoothly as if you’re locking or unlocking a door, turning the ignition key (right hand) to start your car, or scooping a spoonful of sugar out of a bowl.
- Don’t vibrate the reins while suppling the poll. That will just flex your horse’s jaw and close the angle at his throatlatch.
- When turning your wrist, keep your hands stay side by side. In the moment that you turn your wrist, your fingernails face upward, your baby finger points diagonally up toward your opposite shoulder, and your hand comes quite close to the withers.
- Once you’ve turned your wrist, return to your “starting position” with your thumb the highest point of your hand. That is, don’t hold your hand in the position with your fingernails facing up and your hand near the withers.
- Never bring your hand across the withers. Also, be sure you support with the opposite rein so your horse doesn’t just bend his neck.
- If you’re next to the rail, you’ll easily be able to see if you’ve used your opposite rein enough. If you haven’t supported with the opposite rein, your horse’s neck won’t be absolutely parallel to the wall anymore.
After you do the previous exercise, check to see if you’ve unlocked your horse’s poll by doing the following test:
- Pick either position left or position right (+1 or -1), and give your hand forward toward your horse’s mouth to put a little loop in the rein.
- If you’ve suppled your horse’s poll successfully, he’ll stay flexed in that direction and not “boing” back with his face in the other direction. For example, flex him left, and then give the left rein. See if he stays flexed left without your hand.
- Once you can do this at the halt, go to the walk. When you can do it in the walk both to the right and to the left (flexion and counter-flexion), ask in the trot. Once you can get the answer you want in the trot, go to canter.
- Don’t expect to get anything in a faster gait that you can’t get at a slower gait. Also, if you have success in the trot, but not in the canter, go back to the trot (or walk or even halt) until your horse passes the “poll suppleness” test successfully.