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

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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.

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Horse #2 – QH Gelding

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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.

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Horse #3 – 4yr old QH

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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.

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Horse #4 – Arabian Stallion

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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.

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Horse #5 – TB Gelding

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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

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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):

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http://www.polyvore.com/mpa_giovanni_arabian_horses_stallions/thing?id=26962517

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

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http://dba-oracle.blogspot.com/2011/03/hirohitos-arabian-horse-scam.html

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

This is short:

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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.

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And this is a shallower set neck.

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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.

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 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.

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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.

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http://www.ponybox.com/news_details.php?title=Western-Pleasure&id=1173 (bottom of article)

But this is:

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

The Up And Down Of It – Levelness Of Build

There are many who still think the way to determine the levelness of a horse’s build is to compare wither to croup.  If both are the same distance from the ground, then the horse is level built.  If the withers are lower than the croup, the horse is downhill built, and if the withers are higher than the croup, the horse is uphill built.

Simply put, that is wrong.

Have a look at our skeleton horse and notice that the withers are created by vertebrae spines.  

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Those spines vary in length from individual to individual as evidenced by comparing a Thoroughbred, with their typical prominent withers, to that of a QH, with their general lower withers.  So how then should levelness of build be measured?    

Simply put, by looking at the spine, itself.

First we locate the lower cervical curve and the LS joint, and then we draw a line from point to point.  If that line is parallel to the ground, the horse is level built.  If the line slopes upwards (left to right), the horse is downhill built, and if the line slopes downwards, the horse is uphill built.

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Let’s have a look at our guinea pig horses and see how they measure up.

Horse #1 – 10yr old QH Stallion

Take a look at him unmarked.  What is your first impression?  You’ll probably have noticed that with all that flesh you can’t see the lower cervical curve.  So how do we know where it is?  The best way is of course to palpate.  The lower cervical curve creates the widest part of the neck just before it passes between the scapulae.  Stand in front of your horse and place a hand on either side of the neck below the poll.  Now run your hands down the neck.  You’ll feel it begin to get wider and then as you hit the widest part of the neck, you’ll also feel the cervical vertebrae very close to the surface.  That’s the lower cervical curve.  In some photos we’ll be able to easily spot that point due to lighting differences.  In other photos we’ll best guess it.

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We can see that this horse is a bit downhill built via the ‘old’ measuring way (wither height vs croup height) but also via the ‘new’ measuring way by looking at his spine.

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Horse #2 – QH Gelding

What about this one?

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He’s very similar to our first horse.

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Horse #3 – 4yr old QH

Does our third QH also look downhill?

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This QH has almost identical wither and croup heights, but is more downhill in body balance than our first two.   Your first thought might be, ‘That’s because he’s got his head lower than the other two.’  But the lower cervical curve doesn’t change its orientation within the neck.   Its ‘posture’ can be changed, as in the lower curve can be ‘deepened’ by the horse hollowing its back and ‘dropping its base of neck’, at which point the horse’s head would be higher and we’d see a bulge at the base, or the lower cervical curve can become ‘shallower’ by the horse engaging, rounding its back, and ‘lifting its base of neck’, at which point the horse would lower its head (relative) and hang it freely from the poll.  Our grey QH actually shows some neck telescoping going on suggesting that his base of neck is, in fact, ‘raised’.  If he was under saddle, we could be reasonably happy with his ‘long and low’ frame.

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Horse #4 – Arabian Stallion

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Aha!  Our first horse with withers higher than croup, but look how much more prominent they are than our previous grey QH.  In the end, our Arabian is level built.

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 Horse #5 – TB Gelding

What about this one?

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Yes, this one is downhill too as expected.  Most QH’s and TB’s are going to be downhill built.  It’s the nature of breeding for speed/racehorses, which undermines riding these horses in other disciplines.

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Horse #6 – Paint Mare

Here’s your last chance to test your eye.

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Yes, Paint horses often fall into the downhill category as well, since they are essentially QH’s with color.  Note that this horse has a similar downhill build to our grey QH, but has her head up.  Putting her head up didn’t suddenly make her more level built.

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What amount of importance should be placed on levelness of build? 

A level built horse carries more than 50% of its body weight on its forehand, making him heavy on the forehand.  Even an uphill built horse carries more than 50% of its body weight on its forehand.  That weight percentage increases the more downhill built a horse is structured.  Forehand weight is all well and good – for a racehorse – but not for a riding horse. (See Hooves Blog article – Speed Kills – for an explanation of the biomechanical difference between a racehorse and a dressage horse.)

Since we know that we must ‘lighten’ a horse in front, get them ‘off their forehand by transferring weight onto a lowered haunch’, to improve its ability to carry a rider in balance and with the least amount of stress to its body, it only stands to reason (logically) that horses of level or uphill build will find that task easier.

Consider as well some of the things we ask a horse to do, such as jumping fences.  A downhill built horse is not only going to struggle to carry its rider in balance, but it will also find it difficult to get that heavily weighted front end up and out of the way in time to navigate a jump of any significant height.

You might ask; what about horses in speed events (other than flat racing)?  Well, let’s consider barrel racing.  It is an event that requires a horse to navigate three barrels, with the fast time winning.  I contend that the best horse for this event is one of level build and here’s why;

To be truly fast around the barrels a horse has to be able to engage to a high degree significantly lowering its haunch to ‘slide’ around the barrel tightly on that haunch, then once around the other side with its haunch still lowered it can then thrust off the haunch and powerfully launch itself forward ‘onto’ its forehand (as if coming out of a starting gate or roping chute) and ‘race’ hollow and on its forehand to the next barrel, where it should then reengage to a high degree, lighten its forehand, and sit on its haunch to once again slide around the next barrel…rinse and repeat. 

This is the fastest and most efficient way around the barrels.  It’s not, however, what we typically see.  Most of the time we see horses coming into the barrel heavy on their forehands and then the rider pulling on the brakes (er…mouth) and yanking the horse’s nose and head around the barrel (with the tiedown/martingale taut as the horse struggles to keep its balance during this contortion), the horse stalls and loses all momentum,  gets either too close to the barrel with the shoulder or too far from it losing valuable ground, before pulling itself back into gear with its front legs, instead of propelling itself forward from the powerful haunch, which has been left in China.  Yes, barrel racers would do well to spend at least half their training time and focus (of themselves and their horse) in dressage.

Levelness of build is pretty darn important because it can’t ever be changed; only temporarily manipulated by strength of conditioning and work.  The horse lives with it its entire life and either struggles against it or is helped by it in daily under saddle work.