The poll, more than a simple joint

We often encounter horse owners struggling to get the bridle around the head or even just touching the poll area. We will explain why it is such a common problem and how osteopathic techniques could help.

The joint between the head and the first cervical vertebra (C0 -C1) is one of the key parts of the body in more ways than one.

It’s anatomically linked to the rest of the body, for example it is where the nuchal cord starts. This ligament is structurally important point for the body as it links the poll to most of the vertebrae up to the sacrum. Many significant muscles link this joint to the shoulders and the withers allowing the balance of the neck and the movement of the forelimbs. Any restriction of movement within the forelimbs or withers can create tension around the poll.

Horse head anatomy image
Horse head anatomy image Source

The whole area is integral to the nervous system. It is where the spinal cord originates before going all the way down to the sacrum, connecting every segment of the spine.
Some of the cranial nerves also find their way out of the skull through this joint. An example of this is the vagal nerve which reaches and controls some parts of the digestive system.
The close relationship within the body parts mean that any disturbance of the digestive organs, could irritate the vagal nerve and this would in turn have a negative impact at (the origin of this nerve) the poll.
An important ganglion of the sympathetic nervous system which we will describe later is situated right under the first cervical vertebra.

As a result of the importance of this joint, the poll is surrounded by a great number of blood vessels and lymphatic nods which nourish as well as protect the joint and its surroundings.
The area can however become a weak point if any trauma or injury is sustained.
Unfortunately, as it is such an exposed area this is fairly common. We have all seen horses knocking their head in the doorway or trying really hard to pull back when attached.
A rider’s stiff hand or a poorly fitted bridle would definitely have a damaging effect on the area.

As the poll is such a key point the body is prone to compensate by restricting movement elsewhere, possibly causing further problems down the line via the muscles, joints, nerves and blood supply.
The restriction of movement will also create a lack of blood flow in the area which will limit the nourishment of nerves, lymphatics nodes, muscles etc. When nerves are not properly supplied, they can get hypersensitive and irritable. This can explain the reluctance of a horse being touched there as this can be very painful.
We also mentioned earlier a sympathetic ganglion, it is a part of the nervous system that takes care of the fight or flight mode, having it irritated constantly can cause a horse to be stressed and hyperalert.

Osteopathic techniques are designed to give movement back to any restricted joint. This allows the blood and nerve supply to return to a normal flow and the whole area to work again.
The practitioner also concentrates on re-balancing the whole body and treating any secondary dysfunction caused by the aforementioned compensation process.
Often horses will feel relieved and relaxed after a session due to the movement coming back in this area.
In some cases behaviour issues can make a horse reluctant to be touched around the head. Before trying to solve problems of this nature make sure that the behaviour is not caused by pain.

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