Wild Stallions and Poll Flexion

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Dr. Sue Stuska, a contributing editor to Horse Journal, trained in dressage and is also responsible for a federally protected herd of wild horses in North Carolina. Her duties include directing studies on the horses and collecting and analyzing behavioral data.

She has made observations of these wild horses that can be relevant to all disciplines and levels of training. Depending on how you ride, whether you call poll flexion a ”give,” ”going deep,” ”being through,” or any other term of relaxation and submission, you may find her observations of wild-horse behavior can relate to how you’re training your horse. We asked her to explain the relation to us:

I’ve been interested lately to watch national and international champions in upper-level dressage ride extended trot with their horses’ flexion predominantly behind the poll, crest higher than the poll, and the nose behind the vertical. I have a unique opportunity to look at this phenomenon from a different perspective: I routinely watch wild stallions fight.

All fights don’t escalate to rear-bite-strike, but instead the conflict escalates to a level dictated by what’s at stake. For example, a mare in estrus would be worth close combat, while an altercation over a chance to graze in a particular location might only display dung sniffing a few yards apart.

Common movements are parallel prance (usually at collected trot, but sometimes at walk, where the stallion demonstrates how imposing he is by arching his neck and showing his side view), approaching and retreating, and sniffing noses.

In every case, I record who initiated the altercation, what it was over mare(s), a resource, or just dominance to what level it escalated, and who won. The behavior can be subtle, and often the fight is brief, but I recently had a chance to watch repeated conflicts during more than an hour where I saw quite a bit that had eluded me before.

The addition of a new young mare to a two-stallion and one-mare harem clearly tipped the balance of dominance between the two stallions. I watched the previously subordinate stallion repeatedly win, and he carried his nose forward and his poll high. What struck me as relevant to a discussion of poll flexion (including over-flexion all the way to the chest during training) was that the new loser was fighting with a subordinate attitude.

The subordinate stallion repeatedly approached and confronted, but I saw more submissive than dominant moves. His submissive attitude was clear in his hesitating approach, his ears held back, and his mobilizing to retreat by backing. And, relevant to this discussion, his crest was the highest part of his neck, he was more flexed behind than at the poll, and he held his nose behind the vertical.

Watching these stallions underlines principles I’ve learned in dressage about how a horse moves to maximize his performance: These include that the poll should be the highest part of the neck, that the longitudinal flexion in the upper neck should be predominantly at the poll instead of behind the poll, that the nose should be ahead of the vertical for working and extended gaits, that the nose may be carried at the vertical in collected gaits, and that in extended trot the front hooves will not land in front of the line extending from the front plane of the face.