When a horse is moving straight forward, it can be difficult for a rider to evaluate the horse’s head position. In particular, is his head vertical to the ground, or does his nose point too far in front of or behind that vertical?

To help riders better evaluate head and neck angles from the saddle, American researchers have developed ‘on-board’ technology—a simple device that attaches to the horse’s bridle at the poll—using colour codes.

The team demonstrated their hi-tech device—called “Vert”—during the 15th annual conference of the International Society for Equitation Science (ISES), held last August in Guelph, Canada.

When the device’s light is green, it means the horse’s head is close to a vertical (ideal) position, according to co-developer Hilary Clayton, BVMS, PhD, FRCVS, Dipl. ACVSMR, McPhail Dressage Chair Emerita at Michigan State University (MSU) and president of Sport Horse Science, in Mason, Michigan.

If it’s yellow, the horse’s nose is too far in front of the vertical, suggesting the horse might be trying to avoid the bit (for a variety of reasons, including mouth, neck, or back pain), she said. And if it’s red, that means the horse’s head has dropped behind the vertical—a position which, if prolonged, can lead to serious health and welfare issues.

Hyperflexion of the neck—also known as rollkur or riding behind the vertical – could compromise breathing, interfere with vision, provoke pathological changes in the vertebrae, and induce stress, according to an official ISES statement.

“Riders want to know when they are going behind the vertical, and Vert provides a more convenient way to find that out,” said co-developer Dominic Lombardo.

While the Vert signals critical neck angles to riders, it isn’t meant to replace good riding, cautioned Clayton. On the contrary, it can help school riders to become better attuned to the “feel” of different head and neck positions, while alerting riders who might otherwise be missing the horse’s signals.

This can include riders of all levels of experience and training, she added; her recent study of top-level dressage horses revealed that most of them were ridden behind the vertical most of the time during Olympic performances.

“This device gives the rider immediate and continuous feedback about the horse’s head position,” she said. “This helps to educate the rider’s feel and also facilitates training the horse in the correct position, thus training the horse’s muscle memory correctly.”

While head and neck position is often considered a “dressage issue,” any ridden horse is at risk of performing below his potential due to poor head and neck angles, according to Clayton. “It’s useful for riders in many disciplines, and in fact Icelandic and Western riders love it!” she said.

The Vert device also includes a speed gauge as well as a GPS tracking tool. Riders can monitor their horses’ speed in real-time by following the related application on a connected mobile phone. And they can record their rides to see a map of where they went and at what speeds—particularly useful for eventing and racing. An upcoming version will also include a real-time heart monitor reader, Lombardo added.

“We also have several other projects in development, some for riders and some for horses,” he said. “We can’t say much about them just yet, but the future is going to be amazing!”

This practical demonstration took place at the 15th International Equitation Science Conference, the proceedings can be found here.