AS we all know, a well-trained horse with a skilled rider can often perform some of the most complex movements without saddle or bridle, their skill surpassing any need for specific equipment. Trainers like Frederic Pignon of the world famous show ‘Cavalia Shine’, demonstrate exactly this – that communication depends on the skill of horse and rider much more than on any specific tools. And with increasing interest in bitless riding in recent years, some of us might wonder; why should we use bits anyway?
Bits are incredibly useful tools. From beginning a young horse to schooling higher level movements, they give us access to key biomechanical pathways in the horse. They are not simply for applying pressure to get a horse to comply! And, as with any tool, their usefulness is determined by the knowledge, skill and tact of the hands that guide them. While there are many ways we can communicate with and train a horse, by choosing to use a bit we can uniquely and precisely act on the mouth to affect pathways throughout the rest of the horse.
How…? Through the hyoid connection.
The Hyoid Connection
At the centre of this connection is the hyoid apparatus. Located at the base of the horse’s jaw, the hyoid bone acts as the attachment point for the tongue and for three significant muscle and fascial chains that extend directly to the chest, shoulders and poll, and indirectly to the abdominal muscles, neck, back, pelvis and hind legs of the horse. It is the core touchpoint that connects together the main muscle and fascial chains of the rest of the horse’s body.
If we look at these key pathways in more detail, we can begin to see how significant the tongue and mouth can be in influencing the shoulders, forelimbs, abdominals and hindquarters.
The sternohyoid and sternothyroid muscles connect the mouth and tongue of the horse via the hyoid (and thyroid cartilage) to its chest. From this point, muscles and fascia continue this connection through the pectoral and along the abdominal muscles on the underside on the horse, which extend into the pelvis. This contributes to the ventral chain between the mouth, chest and abdominals, that are key for lifting the forehand and lowering the hind end.
The Hyoid Connection and Movement
When we use a bit, there are muscular and fascial connections between our hands and the rest of the horse. This is enormously helpful if we learn how to use bits to influence and improve the horse’s movement, and work with this connection with great tact. For example, some in-hand exercises of classical dressage are designed to supple the jaw and neck in this way to enable the rest of the body to move freely.
The direct connections from the tongue and hyoid to the shoulders and forelimbs, and the indirect connections to the hindlegs, hindquarters, back and abdominals, indicate that if there is restriction in the hyoid, such as due to tension or restriction in the mouth, tongue or jaw, the myofascial (muscle and fascia) networks extending from the hyoid may be compromised.
This means that tension and restriction in the jaw and mouth could impact the horse’s ability to freely move its shoulders, properly use all four limbs in extended and lateral work, and engage its back and haunches for collected work.
Susan Harris, author of “Horse gaits, balance and movement”, who has spent decades studying the movement of horses, notes that: “A stiff poll and jaw, holding behind the vertical or a rider that hangs on to the reins can inhibit the engagement of the ventral muscle chain and therefore the hindlimb. This is why over-bending to the inside or pulling on the reins can inhibit hindlimb engagement.”
With all of this to consider, it instils the importance of making sure we take time to consider the bit we use, asking, ‘is my horse comfortable, is this the best option for my horse?’.
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