Written by  2013-12-04

Forward and down: The story of the nuchal Ligament

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Forward and down or long and low: The story of the nuchal ligament
Online School student Åsne Arnestad from Norway asks the following question:
“I wondered why down and forward movement is considered so imported in dressage, when  transferring weight to the hindquarters also is “the point” of a lot of the exercises?”
This is an excellent question which needs answering, so a good excuse to take the time and write and article about it.
As always the answer lies in nature and the way she created all living beings to function perfectly. You see, as Horses over time developed into grazing and fleeing animals, those with a body adjusted to this lifestyle best, would survive best and therefore procreate most. This lifestyle, in my mind best described by Jaime Jackson as ‘eat and go’, ensured that a Horse in order for survival needed two things most:
1. the ability to eat from the ground constantly
2. The ability to always maintain fully mobile in order to make quality flights in a split second.
The first one comes from the fact that a large grazing animal needs to eat little bits almost around the clock. Walking with your head stuck to the ground and eating just about always, does not seem a good way to be wary of predators all the time and be able to get away quickly. If we humans would attempt to walk bend forward for only 10 minutes, we would already start feeling (and moving) like 80 year olds, holding our lower backs and feeling stiff and disorientated. Still, Horses pull it off and evolution has made sure that the ‘eat and go’ lifestyle even improves the Horse’s locomotion!
But how is that possible? The answer lies in the following body part: The nuchal ligament.
The nuchal ligament, in German called ‘neck-back/Nacken-Rücken band’ (which is the best way to describe it according to me) starts at the poll and ends just behind the withers.
When the Horse stretches his head forward and down (to reach for grass normally), the nuchal ligament gets stretched. In doing so, the upper neck muscles will engage which will result in the withers and, in fact, even the ribcage will be pulled upwards. This in turn makes more room for the pelvis to tilt, helping the hind legs to bend better underneath the body and thus take on more body weight. With the ribcage and withers up, the shoulders have more room to manoeuvre forward, which prevents the Horse’s movement to get stuck in the shoulders or in other words, on the forehand. Last, but certainly not least, when the nuchal ligament gets stretched, the longissimus dorsi, or long back muscles, are completely free to move. This is also a very good thing, since the longissimus dorsi is responsible for the correct movement throughout the whole body of the Horse. The longissimus connects front and end so to speak. Therefore, the stretching of the nuchal ligament not only prevents the front legs from being over loaded with the weight of the head and neck, but even helps keeping the body fit and mobile. So, in my view, a feral or healthy green Horse does not lean naturally on his forehand, on the contrary, he is in a natural horizontal balance. Maintaining his body simply by doing what comes natural to him, grazing and moving forward.

Now, just as with all other High School or old school exercises and movements, forward and down or long and low, is simply an exercises that comes natural to the Horse and is therefore used to maintain his body healthy, which should be of importance to any rider, in my humble opinion.
Again, I am speaking strictly from the point of view of working with Horses to keep them healthy, while doing something that is unnatural to them (with which I mean ‘riding’), usually without certain preparations (with which I mean ‘the Gymnasium’), will certainly cause them harm. Now, if you start a Horse with the ground Gymnasium (no matter if it is free and playful or in hand with the soft cavesson) at the appropriate age of at least 3,5, one of the natural movements you need to reproduce is Forward and Down; purely because of the explanation I have written above. Would we just start riding without preparing the Horse’s body by means of the Gymnasium, making it thus stronger and more supple, forward and down would just turn into ‘on the forehand’. The reason would be that the body of the Horse is to weak and not equipped to be able to lift withers and ribcage with our weight on there as well. What the Horse in effect then would do is: Lower the ribcage and withers and release the stretch in the nuchal ligament. As a result, the back would hollow.
Now, when the upper neck muscles contract due to the stretch of the nuchal ligament, the lower neck muscles relax, as they are an antagonistic pair. This is good news, because as soon as a Horse contracts the upper neck muscles, the nuchal ligament can do it’s function to ease the forehand by means of lifting withers and ribcage.
Alas, it also works the other way around: When the nuchal ligament is not stretched, the upper neck muscles will release and the lower neck muscles will contract, causing a detrimental effect on the Horses body, especially if a rider is on top of the Horse.  For more info, please read the article on ‘contra collection’.
So, in practice, when we get on a Horse, a good way to know whether he is strong enough to carry us, is to see whether he stretches forward and down and with that takes the rider up, together with the ribcage and withers.
If that does not happen, I would suggest to get off and work from the ground some more on forward and down next to the other Gymnasium exercises and here is why:
As soon as a Horse is unable to stretch his nuchal ligament, his longissimus dorsi gets stuck. When this happens, we get a so called ‘leg mover’ instead of a ‘back mover’. The Horse does no longer move ‘through’ or ‘over’ his back. The forehand gets all the impact of the weight of  both rider and the Horse’s own weight, because the lower contraction of the neck muscles limit the range of the shoulders and the sacked withers and ribcage prevent the pelvis from tilting. This in turn prevents the hind legs from bending and taking up weight. What you see is a Horse who has a bulging lower neck, a hollow back and no bend in his hind legs. The rhythm of the gait or pace is also lost. This is because of the longissimus being stuck and in result, front and hind legs will have a different movement and rhythm. It will be as if you look at 'two half horses' in stead of one whole one moving in correct rhythm. You can see this with all horses who's head is heald down with (draw) reins.
Thus, before anything else, a Horse first most be able to move in the ‘eat and go’ position, ‘forward and down’, as this way of moving is simply designed to keep the Horse’s body healthy and mobile. So this is why in Classical dressage, forward and down is paid so much attention to, especially in the beginning of the training, but also later on, after each exercise.
The reins ‘aids’
Just being on top of a Horse and disturbing all that is natural and safe, is for a lot of humans simply not enough. Instead of making sure the Horse is able to stretch his nuchal ligament and therefore maintain his health, many riders prevent the Horse from stretching it right from the start. You see, a very important tool for the Horse to maintain his natural and horizontal balance, whether with rider or without, is his head and neck. The head contains the vestibular system, which sends signals to the brain and the body to maintain balance. The neck of the Horse plays an important role as a balance instrument. To maintain balance, the Horse needs to be able to move his head and neck as freely as possible. Try yourself to maintain your balance while someone tapes your head completely unmovable to your chest: You will walk really strange at best, but it is more likely you shall fall at one point. Alas, with Horses it is no different. It is already more difficult to maintain balance with a rider on top while still being able to use the head and neck. But, what if the already balance-disturbing rider prevents the Horse from using his head and neck, by means of forcing a certain outline of head and neck with (side)reins? The effect – of no surprise to you, I might presume – is detrimental and will cause the Horse a lot of harm. This is the negative effect of a rider simply holding on to the reins and thereby preventing balance by means of head and neck movement.

But it gets worse: Many riders nowadays not only prevent the head and neck from carrying out their job as balance keepers. No, they also pull the head in towards the hands with sheer force;. Either with a bit, two bits, or (if that does not give enough of the desired effect) draw reins, side reins and what not. With this phenomenon we come across a whole new dimension of problems endangering the Horse’s health.
You see, pulling the Horse’s neck, in a so called curl, will cause the lower neck muscles to contract. As we have already read above, this will cease the action of the nuchal ligament. Not only will the Horse now start putting all his weight on his poor front legs and shoulders, but the rider will also pull up the longissimus dorsi and render it stuck, especially when he is sitting on it!
As I explained before, the longissimus dorsi is responsible for the correct movement throughout the body of the Horse, connecting front and back. When it can not move freely, the Horse looses his rhythm in his gait and will over the long run injure back, neck, shoulders and front legs. Ask vets where Horses mostly have injuries?
But why do people then work the Horse’s neck and head like that? Well, many riders, many reasons. As an explanation for a general rule, please read the article ‘meat for canons’ and find my view on the constant occurrence of this strange phenomenon.
But how about collection?
You might think, okay, this all sounds logical. But surely, in order to collect a Horse, you must not let it stretch forward and down, since the neck needs to go up and the head needs to be tucked in, right? Let me first start by saying that a rider can not collect a Horse. Only a Horse can collect himself (for further information on this, please read the article ‘contra collection’). What a rider can do, is ask exercises of Horses that will help them build up the right muscle strength and suppleness to be able to collect (more easily). Again, these are the Gymnasium exercises. The head and neck carriage will then come by itself as a result of the Horse bending his hind legs and tilting his pelvis. When the Horse bends his hind legs, they simply get shorter. This way, the hind quarters of the Horse lower themselves. In effect the forehand of the Horse will get lifted, IF and only if – and there you have it -the upperline, by means of the use of the stretch on the nuchal ligament, is developed enough to be able to take back, ribcage withers and neck upwards!
Compare the upperline of the neck to the arm of an old fashion scale: To be able to take the lighter weighted plate upwards, the arm of the scale needs to be strong enough.

In conclusion:
Without enough development of the upperline through the stretch of the nuchal ligament:
1.there will not be enough room for the pelvis to tilt
2.therefore the S-joint can not bend
3.the hind legs will therefore not be able to bend in all four joints (hip, knee, hock, stifle)
4.the longissimus dorsi will not be able to move freely
5.the front leg will have to support all the weight, which will therefore come far underneath the body towards the navel
6.the hind legs will only be able to move behind the body without bend
This will cause, in short, what I call 'Contra collection'.
If the nuchal ligament has been allowed to stretch sufficiently and with that has developed the upperline of the Horse, then:
1.the upper muscles of the neck will carry the head and neck correctly
2.the withers and ribcage will be pulled up and make room for the pelvis to tilt
3.the S-joint will therefore be able to bend
4.the hind legs will be able to bend (if given enough Gymnasium) in all four joints
5.the shoulders can move freely forward and the front legs will only minimally support the body and not be injured over the cause of time. The front leg will therefore move from underneath the elbow in a forward fashion
6.the hind legs will move from underneath the hip joint in a forward fashion towards the navel, with that supporting most of the body weight.
The hind legs can bend like a accordion and the front legs can not. Therefore, the hind legs can withstand weight, shock and impact. You can view them as the suspensions in a car. (‘Horse moves with a lot of suspension’… rings a bell?)

Equus Universalis Gymnasium™
In effect, when we start preparing a Horse for being ridden, or if a Horse needs rehabilitation, we first start with rebuilding the topline through the use of the nuchal ligament.
There are many ways to do that.
One simple way to start this with a young or to be rehabilitated Horse can be:
An other good way to rehabilitate the upper neck mucles can be:
But of course, this will not simply fix everything; it will only help showing the Horse the right way again.
If you would like to help your Horse with this and become a healthy, powerful and proud Horse, but you do not know how or where to start, you can take lessons at our Equus Univeralis academy, visit a clinic or work via individual individual video coaching.


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