The Culling Of Alberta’s Wild Horses by Lisa Lewis

The last few weeks I have seen a lot of articles about the plight of the Canadian Wild Horse come across my newsfeed. The one thing that really piqued my interest was this video:


Hearing a government official say that there are no predators in the Canadian Wilderness really made me want to look a little deeper.

What I’ve gathered is this:

The government believes that Alberta’s free-ranging horses are descendants of domestic horses used in logging, guiding and outfitting operations in the 1900’s. They have been labeled an invasive species, feral domestic animals. It seems they have come to this conclusion because the horses were not discovered out there until the 1920’s.

Advocates for the horses say nobody knows when the horses arrived and they could have been there much longer considering nearly 40 years later in 1959 a herd of 200 Wood Bison were discovered in Northern Alberta. Up until then the Wood Bison were thought to be extinct. Advocates for these horses say that preliminary michrochondiral DNA testing of captured Alberta Horses have shown that they are direct descendants of colonial spanish mustangs and and further testing should be done to investigate their evolutionary history in Alberta.

However, I have come across an article written by D.Phillip Sponenberg, DVM, PhD the interesting part is this paragraph:

Recently some conservationists have mistakenly concluded that Iberian blood type variants can be the basis for deciding which horses of a population are more (or less) Spanish in origin. Due to the inheritance pattern of these markers it is easily possible for an absolutely pure Colonial Spanish Horse to have missed inheriting any of the Iberian markers. It is likewise possible for a crossbred horse to have inherited several. A carefully selected Quarter Horse, for example, could easily have a preponderance of Iberian markers. A conservation program based heavily on blood types without considering other factors could then easily exclude the very horses whose conservation is important, and could include some that should have been excluded. Therefore, conformation type is a more important factor than blood type or DNA type, and will always remain so. It is impossible to determine the relative percentage of Spanish breeding in a horse through blood typing or DNA typing, at least currently.

That’s right, their conformation could be the only way to tell. Their conformation could potentially prove how long they have been there and give them the right to be called a wild horse versus a feral horse.

But I have my doubts that the origin of these horses will ever matter. The fact is they are getting in the way of big business. Alberta’s top 3 industries are: Oil and gas, logging, and cattle. All of which make these horses a nuisance. Alberta’s Environment and Sustainable Resource Development Department (ESRD) claims the horses interfere with responsible forestry practices, ranchers complain they eat grass meant for cattle and they get in the way of the oil and gas pipeline workers.

The ESRD maintains the horses are also hindering the grazing of the cloven hooved animals such as deer and elk. The horses advocates say it is a fact that the animals with small cloven hooves are known to follow the horses with big paddle like hooves, perfect for digging in the snow.

The government is going ahead with the cull even though they are using numbers taken from before the major flooding in Alberta last year and the unusually large amount of snow this winter, things that cull the horses naturally.

Take a moment to look through the albums of photographer Duane Starr:

He’s captured some amazing photos. I find myself completely amazed by these creatures. I know that there is not a horse in my barn that would survive a week out there. Trying to move through the belly deep snow alone would do all mine in, let alone try to forage for food in it. I cant help but look at their physical bodies, wondering. They are untouched by the fads and whims of people, no human for many generations if at all has decided bone ratios or joint placements. I really think these horses are quite unique, I can’t think of a harsher environment to shape these horses than the foothills of the Canadian Rockies, strictly survival of the fittest and healthiest. My favorite is the White Spirit Band, unfortunately he is really close to a capture pen in the Williams Creek Area. I’m holding my breath waiting to see who stays and who goes.

Ken McLeod is out in the Alberta wilderness and sharing his pictures and experiences on his Facebook page for all.

Breaking Down The Sale Ad – #1

I put my pelvis out and twisted my sacrum playing Wii. When I showed up at my chiropractor’s office she was hobbling around in a walking foot cast, her fourth week. No, she didn’t break her foot playing Wii – that would have been hilarious – but neither did she break it doing something risky like skiing, climbing or descending stairs, or even running to make her plane. I won’t out her on my blog. Suffice it to say, I didn’t feel nearly as badly about my injury.

Anyway, here I am in bed, full of muscle relaxants, and grumpy from the pain. Because I believe in sharing, I’m going to take my grumpiness out on an unsuspecting equine ad.

Irish TB 9 YO Gelding 16.1HH $18,000

Irish TB 10 YO Gelding 16.1HH


River is a 16.1 hand 10 y.o. Irish TB gelding who has shown in the hunters but has potential for dressage, hunter paces or jumpers. River is a lovely mover, generally winning the hack, with a lovely jump and auto changes. He is always brave and never looks at the jumps and has fantastic flat work. Stick and spur ride. Great mini-medal type! Eligible pre-green, top ribbons at Hits, Vermont, etc. Finished 4th overall at his first Hunter Derby October 2011 out of 35 entries. He likes trails, easy to tack, groom, lovely personality. Good for farrier, trailers well, good in a group for turnout or in a stall, steady mount for a man, woman or teen.

At first glance, this looks like a pretty decent ad. The horse is wonderfully groomed and in good flesh, the photo is a good conformation shot, and the background doesn’t distract. The text of the ad is well-thought out and tells relevant points about the horse. And yet…

Is this horse 9 or 10? The title of the ad says 9. Directly below that the ad says 10. In the body of the ad the horse is 10. Perhaps a typo, but it would be an odd one to have. Either way, 9 or 10 isn’t a big deal, but remember I’m grumpy.

…but has potential for dressage. Why the owner felt a need to put this in, I don’t know. This horse has no more potential in dressage than any other randomly chosen TB of Irish, or American, or Australian, or English heritage. If a horse can’t ‘easily’ do medium dressage without a lot of ‘professional training’, then it doesn’t have ‘potential for dressage’.

Medium dressage, in case there’s any confusion, is not Training Level, or Level 1, or Level 2. There’s a huge step up from Level 2 to Level 3. It’s that stage that separates the men from the boys and is much like the difference between Training Level Eventing and Preliminary Eventing (in Canada). Most horses top out at Level 2 dressage, like most horses top out at Training Level Eventing, making them low level horses.  That’s not a bad thing.  Most owners/riders don’t have the skills or ever will have the skills to progress higher, so there’s plenty of opportunity for low level horses.

What stops this horse from that ‘potential for dressage’? Its racy TB conformation; downhill build and straight leg behind are the two main points. The low point of shoulder, upright shoulder, low set neck, and high knee also play a role.


Stick and spur ride. What? Does that mean you have to ride the horse with a whip and spurs to get him to go?

Okay, so I found this ‘Spur Ride’ video on You Tube:

Oh, and here’s a ‘stick ride’.  Not a great head, imo, but the spots are to-die-for.


$18,000. WHAT? Is that a price premium for basic ground manners?  It can’t be for any extensive training since it is still Eligible pre-green.  That had me scratching my head.  What comes before a green horse?  Shouldn’t it be ‘eligible untouched/wild’?

After some digging I found out that Pre-Green has mostly to do with the height of the fences, and a little bit about the horse.  See page 8 of this link –

Basically, we’re talking a lower level horse here, but what had me really chuckling was a) it makes no difference what a horse did at 3 years of age in the ring (and don’t tell me nobody has ever jumped a 3 year old this height in a class before), and b) there’s another ‘reinstatement’ rule allowing experienced horses at this height to compete in this class as long as they didn’t jump more than 4 times in competition at that height prior to September 1, or didn’t jump this height after September 1 of the same year.  WHAT?!

It’s no wonder the regular folk get so frustrated with the Hunter World and the ability of those with money to buy made horses, stick on their child or paying client, and clean up.  If that’s not a rule inviting such activity, I don’t know what is.

My guess is that the premium pricing is because of temperament.  A horse being a steady mount for a man, woman or teen, especially if it can also jump the lower levels without much rider input can certainly command a rich price.

I question this horse’s soundness.  And no, I don’t think the horse is head bobbing lame, but there’s some real issues going on with this horse’s body.


The odd muscling behind the poll signifies an issue. The large lump at the base of neck is also an issue. Neither should be there, and neither is ‘normal’. The line of muscling in front of the scapula is also ‘extra’, and the wither has a lump of muscle on the front half of it and none on the back half of it.

While this horse is telescoping its neck in this photo, it’s not quite right. The uneven, flat development of the horse’s crest supports that. The neck is out of alignment, significantly. And I suspect it has been that way for quite some time by the incorrect muscle patterns of the neck, shoulder and wither.

That disruption extends into the horse’s back with a tight, angular topline, saggy abdominal muscles and too much breast muscling.  Despite being of downhill persuasion, and with the straight hind leg, the horse’s posture should be better for one competing in the show ring.    He’s got a medium back with a ribcage that carries back very well adding flexibility and strength.  His loin is short and deep, and he’s got a great hip and solid pants muscling.  This horse has not yet been ridden off his forehand.  Good thing he’s got that dressage potential.

Addendum – Equine Neck

As requested I’ve attempted to give a general outline of the cervical vertebrae of our sample set of horses.  The points neither mark individual bones, nor the center of the bones, though; I’ve tried on that latter point to give the best indication of location within the neck.  Hope it helps.

Reviewing:  Here is a picture of the horse’s skeleton with this representing a high set, naturally arching neck that you might see on an Iberian.  Such a neck requires a medium to long upper curve, a medium middle segment and a short, shallow lower curve that is placed high in direct relationship to the scapulae.


Horse #1 – 10yr old QH Stallion


I mentioned in the previous article that this horse had a quite good neck.  The main difference between it and the skeleton horse is that the lower cervical curve is deeper and longer in this horse.  The depth is partially due to our stallion dropping his base of neck in this photo, while our skeleton horse is lifting it, but I’m going to now call this horse a touch bull necked.


Horse #2 – QH Gelding


The big thing to note with this horse is that much shorter upper cervical curve.  Compare it to any of our sample horses except the Paint.


Horse #3 – 4yr old QH


This is a unique view because we have the horse with his head lowered, but we also have a good amount of lifting of the base of neck making that lower cervical curve flatter.  In this case you need to imagine what happens to that lower curve when the horse lifts his head and isn’t lifting the base of neck.  As well, note how much longer that lower curve is than to the Arabian stallion.


Horse #4 – Arabian Stallion


This is a GREAT equine neck.


Horse #5 – TB Gelding


This horse has a slightly better (higher) neck set than the grey QH.  Their structures are very similar, but our TB has a slightly shorter and shallower lower curve.  Even though our TB’s lower cervical curve appears a bit deeper, while holding his head at about the same height at the grey QH, you must take into account that the TB is not lifting his base of neck at all.  If he was putting in the same effort, then his lower curve would be a touch flatter than that of the grey.


Horse #6 – Paint Mare


This horse is hammer headed, and if you compare to the roan QH, you can see that she has an even shorter upper curve.  I was reluctant to call the roan hammer headed, but wouldn’t argue that point since he’s right on the borderline, but it’s clear this one is.  We also see the long, wide lower curve of a bull neck.


A Study In Dazy

BayDemon has asked for some input on how to progress and move forward with her mare, Dazy, and graciously allowed that to happen on Hooves, providing us with the opportunity to exchange ideas and learn. Please keep that in mind should you wish to add to the conversation.

Here is what BayDemon says about Dazy and the goals she’s set for her:

Dazy is a 9 year old quarter horse mare. She was an orphan foal. She also does not have the best work ethic, but she tries. Dazy has had a shoulder injury about 4 years ago. Vet couldn’t find anything wrong with her. She was also attacked by a cougar when she was three that resulted in some sutures in her fetlock. She is Investor bred on bottom, and has a few ROM earning horses on top. (Cutting, Reining). 

My goal is to run barrels on her sometime this year. Issues that we are currently working through are bucking when going to the second barrel, and getting bendy to the right. She is very stiff on her right side and we are working on doing stretches and getting more flexible. It’s something that she has always struggled with.  She can currently touch her knees with her head, and her belly stretches are getting better. She cannot currently reach her hips unless she really has an itch to scratch. Because of the current weather we are having, she has been a pasture ornament. She is usually ridden about 3 days a week.

Dazy is super smart, and she tries most of the time, until she gets frustrated. I started her under saddle as a 2 year old, when I put thirty days on her and put her back out in the pasture until she turned 3. At three, she had another 90 days on her and she was turned out until she was 4. At 4 I started teaching her the skills that would make her marketable in the event that I ever had to sell her. She was ridden by kids up until a few months ago when she started bucking. She’s been on a lot of trail rides, and has only been doing arena work for about the last 8 months.

The horse in question is an unconditioned, lightly used 9 year old that until recently was amicable about allowing children (typically unbalanced white noise makers unable to work through unwanted behaviors in a horse) to ride it.

Whenever a horse suddenly changes its behavior, the most common causes – in no particular order:

  1. Injury/pain/disease/lameness/sore muscles/inflammation/ulcers – all things related to unsoundness
  2. Diet change
  3. Management change such as; not getting turned out as much, change of pasture mates, change of stabling routine or location etc…
  4. Mental breakdown – ie., the horse that spends every waking work moment in a ring, going round and round and round, suddenly throws itself on the ground and refuses to enter the ring.

In other words, something happened a few months ago when she started bucking and it’s yet to be discovered and addressed.   My first guess, without knowing all other details of how Dazy is managed and fed, and without seeing video of her moving and exhibiting the behavior, is that there’s a physical reason for the bucking.  Let’s have a closer look at her conformation and conditioning to see if it gives any clues.



Nowadays, being of cutting and reining breeding can be almost like being a crossbred.  Quarter Horse breeding has become so specialized that a top cutting horse doesn’t have to look anything like a top reining horse, and often doesn’t.   I have no idea if this applies to Dazy or not, but it’s certainly something that people should consider with QHs.

I like to start by identifying a horse’s outstanding strengths.  It puts the owner in a good mood to know that their horse has at least one or two redeeming conformation traits.  🙂  For Dazy we absolutely must acknowledge that huge hip (>34%) covered in powerful muscle, including the pants muscling.  We must also praise her fantastic LS joint placement and her short loin.  These traits are often seen in Quarter Horses, so it’s no surprise that Dazy should possess them.


She also has good substance, especially for her breed, and she shows proper forelimb alignment.  It’s quite common to see calf-knees in QHs and pasterns that are too upright.  Dazy suffers from neither of those traits.

Certainly there is plenty of power and speed potential in that haunch for a barrel racer, and there’s no worry about the steeper slope of the pelvis.  Adding in the good substance and the right bone alignment through the forelimbs, the ability to stay sound when put on the forehand by speed looks well in-hand.

Dazy also has a well-constructed upper forelimb, possessing excellent length in the humerus bone (>65%) and an adequate shoulder angle.  Note:  in the photo she measures about 88 degrees for the shoulder angle, but she is standing with her front legs a bit too far underneath, artificially closing the angle.

She has a medium length of pastern with a short cannon bone.  So far, all of that is suitable for barrel racing, and her short forearm is of no consequence for the discipline.


So far Dazy has a lot going for her for the discipline of barrel racing.  Now it’s time to look at her weaknesses to see what, if any, issues they may present for her.

Starting at the front and working our way backwards, the first thing of note is the shortness of Dazy’s neck.   Because the horse uses its head and neck to balance itself and rider, a short-necked horse loses some of that ability.  This would become increasingly important when adding the speed and tight turning of barrel racing.  The upper cervical curve is short enough that we need to call her hammer-headed.  The set of the neck is just above the mid-point of the scapula, making it low to medium-low in set.   This is not an ideal neck for a barrel horse.


Her back is short (approx. 43%), but her ribcage carries back really well (106%), which adds flexibility.  Ideally, we’d like her to be a touch longer in her back with her ribcage carrying back this well, but as she is she should still have enough middle body flexibility to be able to negotiate the tight radius of the barrels, and the shortness of her back adds longitudinal strength.


Next we see that Dazy is clearly downhill built.  This doesn’t interfere with speed, but barrel racing isn’t just about speed.  The horse also needs to have the ability to collect and sit on their haunch as they come into the barrel, slide around it, and then thrust off its coiled haunch.  A barrel horse benefits greatly from a closer to level build allowing easier shifting of weight from forehand for speed to haunch for collection.  As much downhill build as Dazy possesses the task of sitting on her haunch just got exponentially more difficult.


Lastly we look at the hind legs.   I had left this as the last to discuss in the conformation series because it’s one of the more complex aspects of the horse, and unfortunately Dazy represents a lot of that complexity.  Without having to cover the entire topic here, I’ll highlight the main points as they relate to Dazy.

It’s important to know that the horse’s hind legs act as springs, unlike the forelimbs that act like pillars.  The joints close absorbing and holding energy, the haunch lowers, then the spring uncoils, the joints open, and the horse dispenses energy to either propel itself forward, upward or both.    For this action to occur, the hind legs have a ‘Z’ shape, some horses possessing more ‘Z’ than others.   Dazy possesses quite a bit of ‘Z’ shape.  When we also consider that she’s quite croup high the natural conclusion is that Dazy is over-angulated.  That means her hind legs are too long for her body.  Over-angulation is a fault, placing extra stresses on joints.  Horses possessing this construction are more suited to dressage or gaiting.


Part of the extra ‘Z’ shape created is because Dazy is standing with her hocks partially closed.  Some people are likely to call her sickle hocked, but she does not possess the other requirements of sickle hocks, namely misshapen and too small joints, as well, a sickle hocked horse cannot fully open their hock joint because the stifle is already wide open.  Dazy, therefore, is not sickle hocked.

Horses with neck, shoulder, back, loin, hip or hock pain will also stand in this manner.  Over-angulated horses will sometimes stand this way simply because they have no other place to put all that leg length, but also because they often have neck, shoulder, back, loin, hip or hock pain.

And sometimes it’s just an awkward stance.

For Dazy I think it’s a combination of her hind leg construction and having some discomfort.

But that’s not all…

Dazy’s hock is quite a bit forward for the little bit of joint closure that it has, in a location that is reminiscent of post-leggedness, the opposite of over-angulation.  It is possible for horses to be over-angulated in part of their leg and post-legged in another.

A quick and dirty way to check for post-leggedness is to drop a plumb line from the point of buttock to the ground.  If the back of the horse’s cannon bone (when perpendicular to the ground) falls in front of that line, then the horse is post-legged.  If it (when perpendicular to the ground) falls behind the line then the horse is over-angulated.

In the following first photo I’ve marked the bones (note I have drawn to the thigh joint, not the point of buttock) and cannon bone as they currently are and dropped a plumb line.  In the second photo I’ve attempted to show how the bones would be positioned if Dazy stood correctly behind with the back of her cannon bone falling directly on the plumb line.  I acknowledge that this may not be entirely accurate, but I have made sure to keep each bone the same length.  The purpose of this exercise is to help the reader see how the hind leg can change.  Note that in this second scenario, Dazy’s croup would have to rise a bit to accommodate the opening of her joints.



Without going through the whole process of measuring for THL (total hind limb) length, and doing those calculations and the subsequent upper limb length and lower limb length comparisons (which will be talked about in the next conformation series article), I’m going to simply say that Dazy is over-angulated behind and that that is not the ideal construction for barrel racing.

A straighter hind leg is seen on racehorses because it creates a shorter, thrustier and quicker stride to power the horse forward.  Viewing the start of races or the beginning strides of a roping horse coming out of the pen illustrates that hind leg stroke well.   In a barrel horse we’d like to see that type of construction, perhaps with a slight change of bone ratio between the femur and tibia, and a lower set of hocks and stifles to accommodate the need for collection.

To summarize Dazy’s conformation for the goal of barrel racing:

There’s plenty of speed for that aspect of the task, but there’s real questions about whether or not she’s capable of effective and efficient turning around the barrels.  Her ability to collect is hampered by her excessively high croup and downhill build, and while more angulation is required in dressage horses to reach high degrees of collection, the over-angulation in this case is not a collection asset.  Her short neck somewhat limits her ability to balance herself and rider through quick changes of direction needed for the discipline.  Being hammer-headed and with a neck set on the low end of the scale also makes collection more difficult.

I see Dazy being able to get to the barrel in a timely fashion, but struggling to shift weight rearward, sit on her haunches, and negotiate tightly around the barrel without losing valuable momentum and time.   She’s more likely to use her front legs to slow and control her speed coming into a barrel, causing her head to lift, her base of neck to drop, her back to hollow and her hocks to trail.  She’ll have to use her shoulder to throw herself around the barrel and as she comes out the other side, will have to use more foreleg to pull herself forward, rather than primarily propelling forward from coiled hind legs.   This type of negotiation of the barrel often sees the horse going wide or knocking the barrel over, and without the hind legs coiled to push off towards the next barrel, much time is lost.

The last thing I want to address is general posture and condition.  We can clearly see that Dazy is lacking in conditioning (at least when this picture taken).  And certainly riding three days per week isn’t going to see her fit enough for barrel racing.

Performance horses require six day a week work with plenty of variety in workouts and turnout.  While BayDemon may not be aiming for a full show schedule, it’s imperative that Dazy be fit as if she were.  A speed event, such as barrel racing, requires more conditioning to prevent injury than a horse that’s simply going to do a few laps around an arena in a flat class now and again.

On the topic of posture, we can see that Dazy’s high croup and downhill build has put additional stress on her back, causing it to hollow and her abdominals to sag.  That tightening of the back and weakness in the belly can cause pain and result in such things as bucking.  They’ll also make engagement more difficult.  As a result we see some over-development of muscling over her sacrum followed by some under-developed glutes.

In the following picture I’ve marked where this horse’s posture should be.  Move what’s below the belly line up and fill in the back with it.  And this isn’t an exaggeration.  Dazy has low withers and they should be barely visible in her topline when she’s fit and properly conditioned.


BayDemon is on the right track with her stretching routine that she’s started.  I’d recommend that a full gambit be done twice daily, seven days a week, for at least a 6-8 week period, at which time a reassessment of her posture and condition would be done to see if a reduction in frequency is warranted.

Dazy’s conformation isn’t going to change.  She’s always going to be croup high, so any layoff from regular ‘correct’ work is going to see her condition return to its current state.  It’s only a matter of time.  Like some people, some horses have to do more throughout life to maintain than others.

I’d also suggest that training be concentrated in the area of engagement.  Certainly classical dressage practices, following the training scale would be of utmost importance.  Suppling exercises alone would resolve any stiffness issues to one side.  I’d be inclined to turn this horse into an ‘English’ mount, meaning I’d work her in ‘English’ gaits – trot and canter, rather than jog and lope.  I’d employ the use of groundpoles and cavelletti, and I’d likely also do grid jumping with a particular focus on verticals.  Of course the ever awesome hill work would be in there as well.  Notice I’ve made no mention of actually running barrels or doing speed work of any kind.  I’d not bother doing any of that, until I’d significantly improved Dazy’s posture and ability to engage – as much as she’s physically capable of doing.

Perhaps others could offer very specifics in the way of exercises?

Finally, on the topic of bucking, it’s most prudent to eliminate any and all possible physical issues.  It’s quite possible that the saddle is pinching with her current posture.  Also make note that a saddle that fits her now, will not fit her in six months if the work done is correct and consistent.   I’m most inclined to believe that she’s suffering some discomfort and pain in her back, and that’s the reason for the bucking.

I wish BayDemon and Dazy much luck and success going forward.

The Up And Down Of It – Neck – Part 2

After breaking down the structure of the equine neck in Part 1, it’s now time to look at our original sample group of six horses to see how their necks measure up.

Horse #1 – 10yr old QH Stallion


This fellow has a medium length of neck.  It could be a bit longer and it wouldn’t hurt him, and it could be a bit shorter and it also wouldn’t hurt him; and ‘that’ references not hurting him athletically.  His neck is also set with a medium depth.

In terms of height of neck set, we can see that his lower cervical curve is quite high in relationship to his scapulae, and therefore he has a high neck set.  Even though he’s standing in a chill manner, we can still see evidence of correct development of the tubular complexus muscle; that is be partly due to him being a stallion and a stallion’s natural tendency to telescope the neck as a means to ‘get the ladies’, but it’s also due to the underlying bones.  This is a beautiful equine neck in terms of structure, usability and athletic performance.


Horse #2 – QH Gelding


Our second QH has a shorter neck than our first, most significantly shorter in the upper cervical curve (a fraction shorter and we’d have to call him hammer-headed, and I wouldn’t argue with anyone who wanted to call him that now) and through the middle segment.  You can see that that shorter upper curve causes the horse to have less room through the throat latch area.  Fortunately, this boy also has a high neck set, so the ability to use the neck correctly is there.  In training, there should be focus on stretching the neck correctly so that those little muscles and ligaments behind the poll and ears are made as long and supple as possible.  As well, we’d not expect or ask this horse to come as tightly onto the vertical.


Horse #3 – 4yr old QH


It’s more difficult to examine this horse’s neck due to the angle of the photo.  His neck is proportionately medium in length, with a medium depth of set.  In those regards he’s much like our QH stallion.   He is quite different, though, in height of neck set.  This is a low set neck at midpoint of the scapula.

On the plus side, the person training this horse has done an excellent job of preventing this horse from excessively dropping his base of neck and creating the typical inverted neck muscling so often seen, but  we can see how this low set neck puts additional weight down and forward onto the front end.   While both the QH stallion and this one are clearly downhill built, the stallion – with his superior structured neck – can easily lift his base of neck and the rest of his front end up, while this horse is stuck in perpetual ‘down the hill’ motion.  Further evidence of being stuck on his forehand can be seen in the muddy shoulder bed and the lumpy, excessive muscling covering the shoulder.


Horse #4 – Arabian Stallion


This is a neck on the longer end of the scale.  We wouldn’t want it to have any more length.  Like most Arabians, the actual bone structure underneath is quite good.  This is your classic arched neck and it’s beautiful and highly functional.


Horse #5 – TB Gelding


This neck, imo, is a fooler.  There’s a ‘double bulge’ in the lower cervical curve that shouldn’t be there.  This is typical of a horse that is out of alignment.


If we take the lower bulge and compare it to the scapula this horse’s neck set is right at the mid-point, making it a low set neck exactly like our grey QH, and it just simply is not, while the upper bulge is located too far forward to be correct, making the set fall in the medium to medium-high category, which it is not.


Therefore, I’ve split the different between the two bulging points to establish a medium to medium-low set, which is a more accurate representation of this horse’s neck.  It is set on better than the grey QH’s, but it’s still set on at the lower end of the scale.


In terms of length, this neck is bang on and the horse has a very good upper curve and middle section.  With correct riding and training (after the neck is fixed), the musculature and posture of this neck could be improved substantially.

 Horse #6 – Paint Mare


Here we have a classic bull neck with its short upper curve resulting in a hammer-head, its short middle segment, and its long, wide lower cervical curve creating an unattractive bulging of that part of the neck.  Its overall length is short.


We are almost done examining out sample set of horses, just the hind legs to go!

The Up And Down Of It – Neck – Part 1

Neck Length

The equine neck is made up of seven cervical vertebrae.  Most mammals have seven cervical vertebrae.  That’s right humans, horses, cows and giraffes all have seven cervical vertebrae.  What accounts for the great range of neck length in those four mammals is simply the length of each individual vertebra.

In an earlier, unrelated article (Stretching – Part 3), I mentioned that a longer equine neck is not necessarily a more flexible equine neck.  Indeed, my subject horse has a neck on the short end of the equine scale and he quite adeptly showed very good neck flexibility – and here’s why:

Let’s pretend a giraffe’s neck is seven feet long.  That equates to one flexible cervical joint per foot.  (There’s an eighth cervical joint, but it’s immobile).  Now let’s pretend that the horse’s neck is three and a half feet long, which means there are TWO flexible cervical joints per foot of neck length.

Question:  Which neck is going to have more potential flexibility?

Answer:  The one with more joints per comparable length.  In our example that would be the horse.  And between two horses it would be the one with the shorter neck.

We have created unnaturally long necks in horses through selective breeding.   Initially, adding length to the equine neck served a purpose, to help the horse balance with rider aboard and while doing all sorts of additional maneuvers like jumping or changing direction at high speed such as in polo.

I call this – Stupid Long (also known as Swan Neck):


And this is the longest you’d ever want to see on such an individual:


Funnily enough, if you Google ‘short neck equine pictures’ the above picture shows up.  Go figure.

This is short:


The other issue with long necks is that they are also always thin necks.  That means less muscle mass to stabilize the joints, which means they get out of alignment much more easily.  This also gives the horse more opportunity to evade between each joint in the length of its neck.  A long neck is far more likely to be a stiff neck and an incorrectly bent neck.  Look at the Stupid Long neck and see that though the stallion is telescoping the neck, the neck is incorrectly flexed with a visible break at C3.

An overly long neck should be a deal breaker without question.  A plain, ole, ordinary long neck should be reserved for those you don’t particularly like.

Neck Set – Depth

There are two ways to view neck set, height and depth .  One matters a lot, the other not so much.  And contrary to popular belief (and an egregious myth) a low set neck doesn’t cause the horse to naturally carry its head lower, indeed, it’s just the opposite, but we’ll get to that later.

This is a deeply set neck – as in how low into the chest it connects.


And this is a shallower set neck.


Both are good equine necks.  The point you should be taking away right now is that depth of neck is purely aesthetics (with one non-riding exception – draft/carriage horses that need to wear a collar to pull against).

Neck Shape

The horse’s neck vertebrae are shaped roughly like an ‘S’.    What determines outward shape of the neck ie., straight vs arched profile is the length of the upper cervical curve, the length and depth of the lower cervical curve, and the length of middle section.

  • A straight neck is structured with a medium to long upper curve, a medium to long middle section and a short, shallow lower curve, and is best suited on a speed horse; racing, endurance, stock, polo, eventer.
  • An arched neck is structured with a medium to long upper curve, a medium middle section and a short, shallow lower curve, and is best suited on horses that need to collect to higher degrees; dressage, jumping, park/saddleseat/parade, reining, bullfighting.
  • A ewe neck is structured with a long, deep lower curve.
  • A hammer-headed horse has a short upper curve.
  • A bull-necked horse has a short upper curve and a wide, deep lower curve.

Posture and muscle development will also determine the shape of the neck, but it’s the cervical vertebrae curves that determine what the neck can be with correct training and conditioning.

Our skeleton horse has a long upper cervical curve and a short, shallow lower cervical curve, with a medium length segment in the middle – an arched neck.


 Neck Set – Height

What determines ‘set’ ie., high, medium-high, medium, medium-low, low or ewe-necked is the location of the lower cervical curve in direct relation to the scapulae.

The lower cervical curve forms the widest part of the horse’s neck.  You can palpate this by standing in front of your horse and running your hands down the length of the neck toward the shoulder.  When you hit the widest part of the horse’s neck, before it enters between the scapulae, you’ve found the lower cervical curve.  You’ll also notice that this is where the vertebrae are closest to the surface.   Where that curve is in direct relation to the scapulae determines set.

  • A lower curve below mid-point of the scapula is a ewe-neck.
  • At mid-point of the scapula is a low set neck.
  • Easily above the mid-point is a medium neck set.
  • A good amount above the mid-point is a high neck set.

Our skeleton horse has a high neck set.


The last thing we need to know about the neck is its ability to ‘telescope’, like our grey Arabian pictured earlier in the article.  Telescoping the neck is part of engagement.  If it doesn’t exist, the horse is not engaged and cannot flex at the poll and come correctly onto the vertical, onto the bit, or even accept contact.

To telescope the neck the horse must contract the scalenus muscle, which attaches to the root of the neck (at that lower cervical curve) and to the first rib.  When this muscle shortens, it flattens the lower cervical curve and lifts the horse’s base of neck.  The anterior and spinalis portions of the longissimuss dorsi muscles also contract, the horse’s forehead is pushed away from the chest, the dorsal ligament system lengthens, the complexus muscle fills with blood…blah, blah, blah.

The point being, the shorter and shallower the lower cervical curve is to begin with, the easier it is and the less muscle strength it takes for the horse to raise his base of neck.  The higher that curve is located in direct relation to the scapulae, the less muscle strength it takes for the horse to raise his base of neck.  And when the horse raises its base of neck, and everything else happens, the horse lowers its head.

This is not telescoping the neck, the base of neck is not raised nor are the other muscles working properly.  This is simply gravity as if preparing to graze and serves no athletic purpose to the horse.

Image (bottom of article)

But this is:


In Necks – Part 2 we’ll look at our sample horses’ necks.