We all know what an ideal neck looks like… Just think of Valegro and his delicate arching neck.
But necks can be long, short, upside down, ewe, swan, and upright. Sometimes poor muscle development hides a well set on neck, and likewise good muscle development can enhance an average neck.
The ideal neck is about one third of the horse’s length, and of a comparable length to the length of their legs. A long neck can be weak because it is difficult to build up the long muscles and the horse can fatigue quicker because they carry more weight on the forehand. Long necks, which can make it hard to balance the horse in the arena, are common in Thoroughbreds, and particularly suited to jumping and galloping as they can alter the level of their head more to counterbalance the action of the hindlegs, without quick changes of direction. A shorter neck appears more bulky and muscular, but flexibility is usually unaffected, and the horse’s stride length similarly unaffected. These horses may find it harder to jump large fences or galloping, but find changing direction quite easy. Draft horses usually have short, muscular necks to help pull the carts.
A ewe neck is an upside down neck, with an overly developed sternocephalic and brachiocephalic muscles, and an under developed crest. This can be due to poor skeletal conformation, or poor muscle development so very often riding a horse correctly, in a long and low frame so that their trapezius, rhomboid and splenius muscles are strengthened will improve the appearance of an average neck. As these muscles grow, the crest will become more defined and the under neck muscles will atrophy due to not being used as much. Then the horse looks less ewe-necked. If a horse has an ewe neck then they find it harder to engage the hindquarters and collect in the gaits and transitions, often becoming sore in their back. Ewe necks can develop if a horse spends a lot of time with his head in the air; stargazing or eating from a hay rack.
A swan neck, which is not as pretty as you envisage, is when the neck is set on at a high upwards angle, often on an upright shoulder, and then curves at the top, leaving the nose on the vertical, but no muscle in front of the wither and an over developed brachiocephalic muscle. These horses usually have a short, choppy stride and ride quite small. One of my least favourite horses to ride in the riding school that I trained at was 16.2hh but had an almost vertical shoulder, a stride to rival a 12hh pony, and a swan neck. I hated riding him! He felt so short, tense, and I never liked the feeling that I was about to be head butted. To jump he was even more uncomfortable as he didn’t lengthen his neck to use his back and shoulders. I think once I managed to ride him in a long and low frame, but unfortunately for him he would have needed that sort of work every day for a decade to undo all the “wrong muscle”. Swan necks are partly conformational, due to the angle of the cervical vertebrae, but correct work can enhance and improve the top line and teach them to lengthen their neck to the best of their ability. One horse I ride at the moment has the tendency to go swan necked, but I’m finding that he is quick to learn to carry himself in a longer frame, which will build the muscle in his trapezius and hopefully create a full crest. He finds it very hard though as his head is heavier when carried further away from his body – think about levers and how they work. Hopefully with time he will find it easier and I will feel the improvement in the flatwork.
Researching for this article I read a description of a “knife edge” neck, which is one purely lacking muscle from both the top and bottom. I guess this will be see more in horses of a poorer condition score, or young horses not yet learnt to carry themselves.
I’ve only really discussed the basics of the shape of the neck, let alone the importance of how is comes out of the chest and this impact, but horses can’t help the way they’re put together, it is our job as riders to teach them to use their neck to the best of their ability, be it encouraging them to lower the nose, or stretch out their neck at the base, or even flexing through the jaw so that they aren’t braced against the bridle and tense through the brachiocephalic and back. It is easy to enhance the appearance and function of the neck so that the horse moves freer, can utilise their back end, can stay in rhythm and balance, and can jump economically.