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.