When choosing or evaluating a horse, there are many factors to consider: breed, breed type (how the horse embodies the characteristics of his breed or type), pedigree, colour, temperament and personality. However, the most important element is the conformation, particularly if you want the horse to have an athletic career or breed. Choosing a horse based on an understanding of conformation makes it less likely that you will endure the disappointment or heartbreak of a career-ending injury or early loss of use due to arthritis or injury.
A horse with good conformation has no apparent faults that detract from his general appearance and function. Crucially, however, conformation is not just about looks but also about suitability for the job the horse will be asked to do. Some of the ‘rules’ of conformation are based on pure physics – structural strength, leverage forces and proper angles, for instance – and these help us understand why some horses stay sound and others do not.
Of course, some horses with poor conformation go on to be winners, but these are truly the exceptions to the rule. Most of the best equine athletes possess certain qualities of good conformation that enable them to perform at a higher level. Generally, the horse with good conformation and proper body and leg angles experiences less wear and tear on joints and other structures. He is more apt to stay sound and perform well during a long life of athletic service than a horse with serious conformational flaws.
In this issue, we continue our examination of the neck, looking at how the shape of the neck affects conformation.
The shape of a horse’s neck (and its underlying bone structure) is more important than its length in athletic ability. There are seven neck vertebrae (C1-7), and each has a different size and shape. The joints between the vertebrae cause them to fit together in an S-shape. This means that the vertebrae do not follow the curve or line of the neck (which is primarily made up of muscles) but instead form two curves.
The first curve is a small curve right at the top, just behind the head (creating the crest). The second curve is the larger curve at the bottom of the neck, where the last neck vertebra forms a joint with the first vertebra of the withers. The shape, length, and range of motion of the neck depend largely on the proportions of these curves.
The most important aspect of neck shape is the lower curve in the S. If the lower curve is short and shallow (so the base of the neck attaches high on the chest), manoeuvrability, flexion and collection will come naturally to the horse. It is, quite simply, much easier for him to hold his head and neck properly. Straightening out that lower curve (as the horse must do to collect himself) is much easier for the horse with a curve that is already short and shallow.
On the other hand, if the horse has a lower curve that is excessively large and deep, attaching low on the chest, the horse will be ewe-necked, even if the neck is set on at a good angle. Thus, in a ewe neck, the widest part of the neck is lower than the midpoint of the shoulder. By contrast, the widest part of the neck on a horse with a properly arched neck (with a flat, shallow lower curve, coming higher out of the shoulder area) is higher, with improved potential for efficient muscle development and movement.
The upper curve of the S determines how the head sets onto the neck. A short upper curve creates an abrupt attachment and acute angle at the throatlatch (known as hammer-headed), and the head is often carried too high, with limited flexion at the poll. A medium to long upper curve creates a better angle at the throatlatch, enabling the horse to flex more effectively through the poll.
If the lower curve of the S is too deep and wide (no matter what the size and shape of the upper curve), the horse has a ewe neck. A horse with an ewe neck appears to have an upside-down neck. The topline is concave rather than arched, and the head usually forms a right angle to the neck at the throat instead of a curved arch. There is a downward dip in the neck ahead of the withers, and the muscles at the bottom of the neck are thicker. Many horses with this conformation also have an upright shoulder.
The ewe-necked horse has trouble forming a proper bend in his neck for flexing at the poll. He will find it harder to flatten out the lower curve for proper flexion. Thus, it is more difficult for him to achieve collection, and he will struggle to shift weight back to his hindquarters. He, therefore, travels heavily in front, especially with a rider on his back, making him less agile, clumsier and more prone to stumbling.
A short ewe neck tends to be thick, making the condition less obvious than in a horse with a longer neck. The short-necked horse has a shorter upper curve behind the head, creating a thick, relatively inflexible junction between the head and neck.
A long ewe neck has a longer upper curve behind the head that creates a small crest at the top of the neck, but the basic neck structure is concave rather than convex. The dip in front of the withers makes a ‘kink’ in the neck when the rider asks him to flex. Collecting a horse with a long ewe-neck is easier when his head is carried relatively low. As a horse with a long ewe-neck raises his head, the kink in the neck is accentuated, tightening all the neck, shoulder, back, loin and hindquarter muscles, resulting in stiffness and limited movement.
Unfortunately, as it is so difficult for the ewe-necked horse to lower his head and neck, raise his back and lower his hindquarters for good collection and impulsion, he has to carry his head relatively high, especially under saddle (often with the nose out in front). This can make communication through the bit challenging, and if riders become hard in their hand, these horses are very prone to throwing their heads or taking the bit back against the molars, leaving the rider with no control (literally, taking the bit in his teeth). It takes a lot of patience and slow work to achieve good flexibility and improved musculature in a ewe-necked horse, and this work should not be undertaken by an amateur.
The movement of a ewe-necked horse
A ewe-necked horse, unless trained and ridden very correctly, is likely to have high head carriage with his nose poked out in front. This posture prevents him from making smooth transitions from one gait to another. He will move in a disjointed manner, with poor synchronization between the front end and his hindquarters. With his head raised and nose forward, he cannot ’round’ (elevate) his back. Instead, his back is hollowed, which is less efficient for carrying weight. His loins and back muscles will easily become tired or sore and he will need regular physio treatment.
This term describes a neck with an improperly curved topline, though it is not as obvious as the ewe neck. With a swan neck, the top third arches nicely, and the head/neck joint is fairly normal with a good throatlatch, but the bottom third, nearest the withers and shoulders, is concave like a ewe-neck. This type of neck is often set too low on the chest, with the base below the point of the shoulder. The wither may appear quite prominent, with a dip in the neck ahead of the withers, creating the same kink in the neck as in the ewe-necked horse.
Like the ewe neck, the swan neck inhibits proper flexion. The horse tends to carry his head too high and to respond to overuse of the bit by throwing his head in the air and becoming ‘rubbernecked’, evading contact. If a horse has a long swan neck, he may lean on the bit and tuck his nose to his chest, travelling behind the bit rather than elevating the back and collecting properly. Again, a horse with a swan neck needs a skilled and patient trainer to develop the suppleness and musculature necessary for better movement.
Some horses have no arch in the neck. There is no concavity or convexity to either the top or bottom line of the neck, i.e., the top and/or bottom lines are straight. Some horses have a nice upward curve at the bottom of the neck but a straight topline with no crest. Some necks are so straight, top and bottom, that there is no visible throatlatch. A horse with a straight neck is limited in his ability to flex and balance.
The horse with a short, beefy neck and a thick, heavy crest lacks flexibility and will have poor balance. These horses are typically poor athletes. For their size, ponies tend to have thicker necks than horses but provided these necks are not too thick, ponies still tend to retain their agility.
Stallions typically have a thicker, heavier crest than mares, but the crest should not be too heavy, or the horse will have a coarse appearance and be too heavy in front. A stallion should have a strong neck with good muscling – well-arched with some crest.
Draft horses and ponies (and other easy keepers) may develop a high, thick crest due to fat deposits above the nuchal ligament. A horse that displays this fat deposit needs visiting by a vet to create a management and nutrition plan, as these horses are often insulin resistant and thus prone to laminitis.
Did you know?
A thick, heavy neck and large head are advantageous for a draft horse, especially when starting to pull a heavy load. These horses have plenty of neck muscle to help move the shoulders, and these muscles assist him hugely as he leans into the harness to pull.
In our next edition, we will examine the conformation of the chest. The shape of a horse’s chest plays a significant role in his performance ability, so stay tuned for our next edition.