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.


23 thoughts on “The Up And Down Of It – Neck – Part 1

  1. Great post. I’m a neck lover – I tend to visually prefer a longer neck unless it is set slightly high with good muscle tie-in to the wither. I can’t get past ewe or bull necks regardless of the rest of the horse, I like the right ‘taper’ from shoulder to poll and a thin throatlatch, my favorite of those you posted is the gray Arab. It’s beefy and shapely.

    Two of my horses have long necks, both easily overflex and want to break at C3 though they will lift at the base. I find it difficult to get the middle of the neck to push toward the poll and telescope. They’re a lot harder to work with than shorter necks – my little mare with the average length neck just pops into place with little effort.

    On the subject of length and flexibility, do Arabs get a pass? I find that they can flip their necks left and right in the blink of an eye like a cat’s spine, that flip thing they do. Is there something else going on there? Bone replaced with rubber perhaps?

  2. This is a bit of a segway, I suppose , but that WP horse appears to have a neck with upside down muscling. Might it be ewed if raised or is it just poorly muscled? I imagine its probably a baby though – they do ride them incredibly young. Altogether a very stilted looking picture. The power flowing through the grey, hind legs right through to neck is wonderful. What a contrast!

  3. Sweet Jesus I thought the black horse was walking. A jog? Really?? Damn.

    “On the subject of length and flexibility, do Arabs get a pass? I find that they can flip their necks left and right in the blink of an eye like a cat’s spine, that flip thing they do.” I loved this! It is so true….especially when they have escaped a pasture and you are trying to get them back in. The tail goes up, the flippy neck, and off the run…well it is a nonverbal F you!

    This is OT but I think I could throw my Arab off a roof, and like a cat he could flip around and land on his feet.

    • Yes, look at the placement of the feet, it’s definitely *supposed to be* a jog.

      So, um…Arabs being thrown off roofs…is that an offshoot of cattle tipping?

  4. I love these posts. Its nice to know that there is a science and reason for why I like the things I do in my horses. Sometimes you just know there is something right/wrong about a horse but you don’t know for sure what it is. Little by little these kinds of posts are showing me. Love all the pictures too. I am kind of a visual learner with these kinds of things.

  5. No cattle tipping. My stupid adolescent days are long gone. The stamina of youth is truly wasted on the young…..*sighs*

    Just the wee little devil is slightly flexible from nose to tail…..all the stretching I make him do.

  6. So the depth of neck in the handsome grey baroque horse who ties in lower in the chest is not related to the actual height of the level at which his neck is joining to his spine? He has such smooth muscling that I can’t really see his neck bones though presumably one could feel them with a bit of poking around. In contrast, the bay horse’s neckbone line is quite visible in a photo.

    I’ve been looking at necks for a little while, and didn’t realize you could have a reasonably high-set neck that tied in that deep. With a lot of draft crosses, for instance, the neck is both deep and low. So that’s very useful to know!

    Also I thought “stupid long,” your first photo, was a Breyer model for a moment!

  7. I am still googling at the WP horse! It’s hard to believe THAT is supposed to be a trot. I can’t understand why in the world people actively breed known conformation faults into horses. Crazy stupid.

  8. Thank you for those photos! Yes, when the Andalusian is moving, any question about the quality of the neck disappears.

    That completely makes sense that less-fortunate draft cross horses get the double whammy of deep-set and low-set necks from both sides of the family. I’ve never much liked draft crosses that turn out heavy. I was assuming I just didn’t like draft horses at all (there aren’t many around here) until I saw a purebred Clydesdale plowing team at a fall fair last year, and they were stunning: completely coherent physically and totally fit for their job (which was not to be a riding horse). And you’re right, they didn’t have low-set necks, now that I’m thinking about it. I’m going to go snoop around some draft crosses now and see if they have low set necks, or just deep necks, and I’ve been misjudging them.

    The other cross that often turns out way worse than I’d expect is the qh/tbd. I know one cross (a Paint) who got everything (good and bad) from both sides: Tbd height, qh muscles; Tbd speed and jump, qh cattiness; Tbd spook, rear and bolt, qh buck and sass. He was extremely athletic, a handful, and a gorgeous monster, but I gather his owner finally got him broke (after a bad spill) as he grew up. But as against him, I see alot of qh/tbd crosses that get the worst of both: short thin necks, weedy bodies, like a qh with no muscles, or a tbd with no height, grace or oomph. Probably in part the collision of different kinds of low-set necks from both parents. However, I’ve never seen the parents of any of these horses. But I just always thought it would be a better cross than it often is.

    • The whole point of understanding conformation and biomechanics is so that you can look at an individual, see past the poor musculature, see past the awkward stance, see past the (temporary) poor posture/slouch/hollowness and understand what is and what could be. Then…to be able to see the nuance of musculature and stance and posture, and understand why it’s like it is, and if there’s issues are they permanent, can they be fixed and how. In that regard, there should be no question about the Andi’s neck simply based on the quality of connections and muscle. That latter didn’t get that way by chance and certainly a poor neck structure would affect it. It likely will surprise you to know that that horse hadn’t seen a day of work/conditioning in three years when that photo was taken. He had been, for all intents and purposes, a pasture ornament.

      Like a purebred, a crossbred is only (possibly) as good as its parents. The two biggest mistakes when crossbreeding are a) parent/parents of poor quality, and b) crossing conformation types (ie, racing conformation with draft conformation).

      The reason the QH/TB cross doesn’t consistently work well is because due to their popularity (numbers) you’ve got people perpetuating faults and breeding in faults, You’ve also got one breed (TB) whose numbers are predominantly racing bred and the other (QH) that has many highly specialized lines, offering a huge variety in type/traits. That means when combining the two, if you don’t know what you want to end up with and why, you can’t possibly know what to start with and why.

  9. Yes, I learned something about necks that I didn’t know that I didn’t know here! I knew low was bad, but didn’t have it sorted out from deep-set. Thank you!

  10. We stumbled over here from a different web address and thought I might check things out.
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