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?