Thursday, January 14, 2010

Horse Training: Fight or Flight and the Seventh Cervical Vertebra

Believe it or not a horse's fight or flight reflex is triggered by the position of his seventh, or last, cervical vertebra. You can see the logic of this when you think about the position of your horse's head and neck when he is relaxed versus when he is ready to flee.

When a horse is alarmed, his head flies up and his neck becomes more vertical. A relaxed horse keeps his head lower, and his neck is more horizontal. Makes sense, right?

Now think about the "hinge point" of the neck. The hinge point on the horse's spine, in layman's terms, is where his neck joins the rest of his body. In more specific terms, this hinge point is the seventh cervical vertebra, or the last vertebrae in the horse's neck. This unique vertebra is shaped like a bear claw. Depending on this position of this vertebra, your horse will either be relaxed or ready to fight or flee. This knowledge can be very useful when it comes to horse training.

Using the Seventh Cervical Vertebra in Horse Training
So your horse changes the position of this crucial vertebra when he is alarmed by throwing his head up. By doing so, he flips over into his sympathetic nervous system, the one wild horses use to get going when faced with predators. When your horse relaxes again, he changes the position that vertebra again, and flips back into the parasympathetic nervous system, which is associated with rest, relaxation, healing, and rejuvenation.

Many people already use this in their horse training program by teaching their horses to put their heads down on command. That is because they know that by changing the position of this vertebra, they can deliberately cause a horse to relax and to operate from the parasympathetic nervous system.

In fact, one reining trainer I know trains all of his horses to become "dirtologists." That is, he teaches his horses to put their nose all the way down to the ground, in the dirt, on command. He then asks all of horses to do this while standing on the "X" in the center of the round, before the reining round begins. His horses are among the most relaxed reiners in any given competition. It works.

Making Sure You Have the Right Hinge Point

In most horse training programs, there is an emphasis on the placement of the horse's head, either because the discipline calls for the horse to be "on the bit" or because the trainer truly understands the role of the seventh cervical vertebra.

Now here's where it gets really interesting. Often times you will see a horse "on the bit" and think that you've got that seventh vertebra in the relaxed position. However, if the horse is breaking at the poll, meaning his nose is pointing down but his neck is still mostly vertical, then the seventh vertebra can still be in the "fight or flight" position. The poll has become the hinge point instead of the last cervical vertebra.

It really doesn't matter where the horse's head is. What IS important is where the horse's hinge point is. Some others will break over further down the neck, say halfway or three-quarters of the way down the neck. However, the horse's neck is still vertical from the base of the neck, where the seventh vertebra is, to wherever his neck breaks over. Again, like the horse who breaks at the poll, the last cervical vertebra is still not in the relaxed position.

A horse with the seventh cervical vertebra in the relaxed position will look like he's breaking over at the withers, regardless of where his head is or its position relative to the vertical. Here are some examples.

Horse 1: Breaking at the poll, 7th cervical vertebrae up

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Horse 2: Breaking lower down the neck, but 7th cervical vertebrae still up

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Horse #3: Breaking over at the 7th cervical vertebrae, despite head position

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The bottom line is this: if you want a relaxed horse, you have to ensure that the seventh cervical vertebra is in the down or relaxed position. That's the only way to be sure he is operating from his parasympathetic nervous system, rather than his "fight or flight" sympathetic nervous system.

A Little Horse Training Experiment
If you don't believe all of this hooey, I don't blame you. It does sound a little fantastical to be true. However, here's a little experiment for you to try. Take the exercise of backing and try it two different ways.

#1: Back Your Horse Any Old Way
Put a halter on your horse. Now just get him to back. Allow his to position his head and neck in anywhere he wants. If you don't do his exercise with him often, chances are that he will have his head up and his neck fairly vertical. Back him 10-20 steps. Notice the expression on his face and the look in his eye. He will probably be resistant as you try to back him, although he may lick and chew after you are done. You are moving his feet with this exercise so he may acknowledge that at the end with a lick and chew. Now try it the second way.

#2: Back Your Horse with His Head Down Low

This time, squat down on the ground and ask your horse to drop his head. If your horse will drop his head on command, you don't have to squat. Now, from whatever position you can manage, ask your horse to back a few steps with his head down low, with his neck at least parallel to the ground or lower. Now observe his expression. I'm betting that if he manages at least 3 steps with his head down, you'll get an immediate lick and chew release. He will most likely also have a very soft, almost sleepy expression on his face. That tells you he is very relaxed, and operating from his parasympathetic nervous system.

I've tried this experiment with each of my five horses now, and gotten the same results each and every time. That tells me that the position of my horse's seventh cervical vertebra is crucial to his state of relaxation.

A Good Horse Training Exercise for Horse Shows

Now take this one step further. What if you teach your horses backing exercise, first on the ground and then from the saddle? This gives you a way to immediately put your horse in a relaxed state at a horse show or any other event where he might be alarmed or stressed.

Suppose your horse keeps spooking at a golf cart parked outside the arena at a horse show. Wouldn't it be helpful if you could back your horse past it several times with his neck down low? Allowing him to walk past the "scary object" while relaxed prevents a lot of fighting and fussing.

My big mustang mare, Valentine, is the perfect example. She's a great jumper and can do her job with ease, but she gets unusually uptight at horse shows, especially when we first start schooling. I have found that if I get her to trot circles with her nose close to the ground, she relaxes immediately, and stays that way throughout the show. It's taken quite a few shows to get her to do this with ease, but now she does it almost automatically. I also back her past scary objects with her head down. She licks and chews, and then gets on with her job.

All of this, of course, is a working supposition based on anecdotal evidence from my own horses, lore from horse trainers, and tidbits picked up from my veterinarian. So, consider this a hypothesis and try it for yourself. And, if you have any experiences, I'd love to hear about it!

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