The Nuchal Ligament

I went to see a friend and old work colleague this week and she showed me a DVD by one of her favourite trainers, Dr. Gerd Heuschmann. It was very interesting and explained some things that I hadn`t fully grasped before, so I`m going to try to explain it to you.

Firstly, do you know where the horse carries the weight of the rider?

I thought I knew too …

It is the neck.

Yes, that`s right, the horse`s neck supports the weight of the rider.

How? I hear you asking. Well, it all starts at the Nuchal Ligament.


The Nuchal Ligament begins at the poll, with the rope-like Funicular part, and extends along the spine to the lumbar vertebrae. The lamellar part of the nuchal ligament is fan-shaped, and extends from the funicular part to the cervical vertebrae. This ligament holds the horses neck and head in position, helps it move up and down and has a great influence over the horse`s back.

So how does the nuchal ligament carry the weight of the rider?

When the horse flexes their cervical vertebrae, that is stretching their head and neck forwards and down, the nuchal ligament comes under tension. As the funicular part connects the occipital bone (the poll) to the lumbar vertebrae, any tension lifts the horse`s back, thus providing a strong bridge to support the rider`s weight, as in the case of a Roman arch. Additionally, the tensioning of the nuchal ligament frees up the longissimus dorsi muscle (the large muscle that runs along the horse`s back, under the saddle area) so that it works solely on propulsion, and not in support.

With the nuchal ligament tense, the back lifted, the hindleg can step under and propel the horse forwards correctly. The abdominal muscles are also engaged which helps support the back and nuchal ligaments. It also helps bring the hindleg forwards. With the back lifted the foreleg and shoulder are free to propel forwards as well, improving the stride. This means that the horse is working correctly and is less likely to injure themselves, so will have a longer working life.

The DVD I watched showed some excellent demonstrations of horses working correctly, with the nuchal ligament taut, and incorrectly with the head and neck pulled in and the back hollow. With the aid of slow-mo videos and computer graphics it was really enlightening. The DVD was called “If Horses Could Speak” and if you can get a copy then I highly recommend watching it.

Gerd Heuschmann has also written a book on the subject, which I am putting on my birthday list!



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