Horses have long mobile necks that evolved to facilitate efficient feeding and drinking. In many horse sports head and neck posture resulting from the relative positioning of the cervical (neck) vertebrae and the atlanto-occipital joint (the poll) is given high priority and is typically manipulated via rein tension (see Figure 1). It is common to see the horse’s neck either extremely flexed (see Figure 1c) or extended (see Figure 1d) in a wide range of disciplines including (but not limited to) cross country, dressage, driving, reining and showjumping. In many cases, these positions cannot be self-maintained by the horse either at all or for any length of time. There is substantial evidence that head and neck postures such as these have a negative impact on horse welfare.
When balancing the gymnastic effects with the evident costs of impairing equine welfare, there remains little reason why the use of extreme/hyperflexed head and neck postures in equine training should be considered an acceptable practice.
ISES recommends that: Riders, trainers and sports officials must be aware of the gradual effect of flexion on welfare and ensure that head and neck postures do not compromise physiological or psychological function. Maintaining an open airway and ensuring the horse is self-maintaining the posture (rather than it being enforced by the rider/trainer and/or tack or equipment) are essential. Extreme or hyperflexed head and neck postures are not acceptable.
ISES recommends that: Riders, trainers and sports officials must be aware that psychological compromise (due to perceived vulnerability as a result of vision impairment and/or stress as a result of enforcing head and neck posture) occurs well before physiological compromise.
ISES recommends that: The FEI dressage rules emphasising the maintenance of a craniofacial profile at or in front of the vertical at all times are prioritised (in FEI and non-FEI regulated disciplines).
Based on the substantial number of scientific studies on the impact of hyperflexed head and neck postures on horse welfare, the knowledge gained from these studies and the physiological and psychological compromise they cause, ISES does not call for additional research on hyperflexion. Further research may be warranted on the physiological and psychological effects of lesser degrees of flexion and extension (inverted head and neck postures).
ISES recommends that: Researchers who wish to study additional aspects related to head and neck posture should distinguish between the various postures by clearly defining the following aspects:
- The shape of the gullet (to account for differences in individual conformation)
- The angle of the craniofacial profile relative to the ground (or the vertical)
- The angle between craniofacial profile and neck (degree of flexion in the atlanto-occipital joint), i.e. the ‘openness’ of the head/neck junction (intersection of mandible and ventral surface of the neck)
- The angle between neck and withers
- The lateral displacement of the head in relation to the body
- Lateral flexion of the neck.
Since it is unlikely that some or all of these factors can be standardised, appropriate measures of central tendency (e.g. mean or median) and variability of these angles as well as the shape of the gullet should be reported.