A comment that you may sometimes see on your dressage score sheets is ‘poll too low’ or ‘poll dropping’.
An unsteady frame of this nature is often commonly seen in young horses or in those that are not sufficiently fit or developed to be able to carry themselves consistently and correctly.
But what can you do to correct this problem?
Working in the correct ‘frame’ or ‘outline’
When the horse is working correctly on the bit and into the bridle, demonstrating sufficiently engaged hindlegs relative to the level of training, the poll will be at the highest point of the neck.
This is inevitable and clearly indicates that the horse is happy to accept the bridle and the rider’s aids.
But sometimes, for various reasons, the poll does not always stay at the highest point of the neck.
It may be too high, demonstrating a ‘hollow’ frame, or become too low, demonstrating a shortened frame, which is commonly known as ‘behind the contact’ which also appears as ‘behind the vertical’ – a commonly used phrase on dressage sheets.
More often than not, horses that come easily behind the contact are quite light in the mouth.
By staying behind the contact they can make the bit lighter in the mouth and resist working correctly by keeping their hindquarters disengaged, thereby not overtracking or working from the hind legs through the body and into the bridle.
As a consequence, the rider cannot develop the gaits to show sufficient engagement or self-carriage or even changes or tempo within the paces.
The rider will have limited ability to bend the horse correctly, thereby making it very difficult to teach the horse higher level movements, such as lateral movements.
Very often horses that consistently stay behind the contact are also difficult to ride in a forward, active tempo. This has a negative effect on the quality of the delivery of the rider’s aids, consequently, the pairing can become a picture of discord and antagonism.
Sometimes, the young horses do not have the balance or relative engagement to stay connected to the bridle and maintain the poll as the highest point for long periods.
They may briefly come off the bit, either too low or too high, but quickly find the aids again and reconnect.
With intelligent and sympathetic riding this is ok, and is to be expected with the young horses; they usually quickly allow themselves to be adjusted up to the contact.
The problem becomes difficult to resolve if the young horse has learned to ‘sit’ behind the contact from early on in their career, with little or no correction from the rider.
Sometimes the rider does not ‘feel’ the horse to be too deep and therefore does not make the quick, necessary corrections. Or sometimes the rider is ignorant and believes that it is easier for the horse to stay behind the contact.
This will quickly develop into the horse staying behind the aids as learned behavior. As a result of this, the horse can learn to resist, sometimes badly.
How to correct a horse that works with his poll too low
There are a number of ways in which you can work with your horse to correct the problem of him carrying his poll too low.
1. Make the horse more reactive to the ‘go’ aids, namely the legs and seat. The rider may need to use a whip to ‘tick’ the horse’s hips in the rhythm of the tempo the rider wants to reinforce the forward meaning. The horse should learn to be helped with the whip and not become frightened by it.
2. Try not to ride with strong rein aids. Initially, it is better to ignore the position of the head and concentrate on maintaining prompt forward responses. When the prompt forward responses develop and become reliable, then you can incorporate ‘useful’, not antagonistic, rein (restraining) aids.
3. When the forward and restraining aids can be used collaboratively, allow the horse to build confidence and trust working within them. When the confidence builds, the horse will be able to connect onto the ends of the reins, and from this, will be in a better position to keep the poll up and allow the rider to ride forwards into the bridle, not the other way around.
Slowly, over time the correctness and quality of the frame will improve and become more reliable which will inevitably enable the rider to have more control of the horse and progression of the training, as well as being able to make necessary improvements to their position and riding ability.
An unsteady head carriage is common in young horses who are not yet sufficiently developed physically to enable them to remain engaged and connected throughout the duration of a dressage test.
Working thoughtfully and systematically over time will ensure that the horse is able to carry himself correctly and consistently for longer periods, and you will no longer see the dreaded comment, ‘poll too low’ on your dressage score sheets!
- How to Stop Your Horse Coming Behind the Contact
- How to Keep a Consistent Rein Contact
- How to Teach Your Horse to Accept The Bridle
- How Long Should Your Reins Be?
A topic that might be of interest to lots of people is tracking-up / overtracking – where the hind foot lands in relation to the print left by the front hoof.
I know that in my horse’s free walk, his hind hoof lands about a hoof-length or more, in front of the print left by the front hoof. However, in medium walk, his hind hoof lands barely in the print left by the front hoof. Watching him on the lunge yesterday, I noticed that in a brisk forward-thinking working trot, his hind feet only just reach the front feet prints. Other horses seem to be the same.
It would be helpful to know if this is actually ok. I have always assumed that the further under the horse the hind feet come, the better. But I’ve also read that in the collected paces, the steps are shorter – would this mean that it’s ok for the hind hooves not to reach the prints left by the front hooves?
Score sheet comments often say that he needs to engage more behind. I’ve always assumed that this just means his hind feet seem to come forward more – I’m just beginning to learn that he’ll actually need to alter the angle of the bones of his quarters too.
Thank you very much for your comment. I have added a note for our team to produce an article on tracking up and over-tracking. This may take some time as we always work a few articles ahead of ourselves, however, in the meantime, here’s some info that may help.
You are right that not every pace requires the horse to track up/over-track – for example, the passage is a highly collected trot that needs lots of engagement, but the hind feet do not land in the prints left by the front feet. But in the regular working trot the horse is required to track-up, and in the free walk the horse is required to over-track. In medium walk, over-tracking is ideal, however tracking up is sufficient. This helps to demonstrate the horse’s longitudinal (over the back) suppleness.
You are also right that we want the horse’s hind legs to come under the horse’s body, but we also need them to take the weight – or in other words, engage. A horse could be very supple and able to track-up and over-track but still not take the weight behind. Here’s an article that explains the three phases of how the horse’s hind legs works which explains this better – https://howtodressage.com/dressage-theory/horse-use-hindquarters/
We hope that has helped 🙂