Giving at the Poll

by Herdis Reynisdottir

Reprinted from The Icelandic Horse Quarterly: Issue One 2003.
The Icelandic Horse Quarterly is the official publication of the US Icelandic Horse Congress. The magazine is printed four times annually and mailed to the membership. Back issues may be purchased for a small fee and may be read online at

A horse that does not know how to flex his neck and give at the poll when you make rein contact can become unbalanced. This could make him feel insecure and could make him pull against you or hollow his back at the tölt or even break into trot.

Bending exercises like "kissing the stirrups" often help a horse learn to lower his head and become soft in the poll. It's good to start from the ground, standing beside the horse and using the reins to guide towards a bend. It's best to start with a regular snaffle bit, since the horse needs to learn how to respond to direct rein contact anyway and it's easier for you to get the feeling of how he responds.

While standing still, you teach the horse to move his head to each side. You start by getting the poll to flex, then gradually getting the whole neck to bend so that the horse can lick the stirrups without his leg moving at all. Remember to praise the horse, pat him on the forehead, and even give him a treat once in a while. When the horse has understood this from the ground, you do the same thing from the saddle. Soon you can start moving your horse's head back and forth, left and right, while walking. Usually the result is that the horse starts to lower his head and neck, especially if this exercise is done while riding in a circle.

To teach a horse about rein contact you need to be very considerate and light in the hands, but also consistent in guiding the horse toward the correct position. First you start in the walk, by playing with the reins a little and even moving the horse’s head a tiny bit from side to side. Always remember to be light in the reins and never try to hold the horse in anyone position. Use leading rein contact, not consistent contact at this point.

As soon as the horse starts moving his mouth and giving at the poll, let the reins go completely free and allow the horse to stretch his head all the way down. A very important factor is how you sit: You need to sit light in the saddle and even lean a little forward in the beginning, halfway up to a "two point seat" or in a halfseat, to allow the horse to lift his back up while he brings his head lower and stretches his neck and back.

When the horse has understood how to walk with a soft poll and neck while the rider has light rein contact, you can start preparing for tölt. Usually it's best to start by riding in a circle and, little by little, collecting the walk so that the strides get shorter but the horse still keeps his nicely flexed poll. Exercise the shortened walk first, and always allow the horse to stretch in between. Then slowly start asking for few strides in tölt from the short walk. Go right back to walk before the horse gets his head up in the air again and hollows the back. This requires that you sit lightly and use your legs to drive the horse forward, but at the same time use the reins to tell him not to go too much faster and to keep his neck and poll soft. Remember to give yourself a lot of time to prepare yourself and your horse. Little by little the tölt strides will get more secure. Then you can allow the horse to go straight as long as he keeps soft in the neck and poll.

When in tölt some horses tend to get pacey while they are learning this new way of moving, and usually that's nothing to worry about. By getting pacey the horse can lift his back and lower his head and train his back musculature easier than when tölting in a clear four-beat. You should sit lightly but always keep the horse properly soft in the poll and bent in the neck. Usually it only takes a few weeks until he almost clears up the beat by himself. You sometimes need to help by bending and playing with the horse's back with your seat while doing little half-halts.

Building up back musculature takes time and patience, but the result will be that the horse moves more freely, gets stronger in all gaits, and often becomes happier and calmer. If a horse is ridden with a hollow back for a long time, it feels like you would if you tried to carry a heavy backpack while leaning back with a hollow back -- it hurts! Eventually your strides will get shorter, your movements will get lower, and your mind will get stressed.

Note: Herdis Reynisdottir, called Disa, is a member of FT, the Icelandic Horse Trainers Association, with the degrees of a Young Horse trainer as well as Competition trainer and Riding instructor C. She has a B.Sc. degree in Agricultural Science and is a breeding judge as well as sport and "gaedinga" competition judge. This article was adapted from the "Train-Icelandics" forum moderated by Heimir Gunnarsson at .

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