A Note about Sugarbush Draft Horses

I see it over and over again, and no matter how many times it's said, it's still wrong. "Sugarbush Drafts are just an Appaloosa Draft Cross". Uh.... no. The Sugarbush Draft Horse was a breed created many years ago in Ohio. While the initial cross was made using Percherons to Appaloosas, in the many generations following, the breed has been solidified into a consistent type. Saying these horses are "just" a draft cross makes as much sense as saying that AQHA horses are "just" a Thoroughbred cross, American Cream Drafts are "just" a dilute Belgian, or that Morgans are "just" a grade.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Conformation Clinic: The Neck

Previously, I discussed the conformation of the horse's head.  You might have noticed that many things considered "flaws" are nothing more then personal preference, others are little more then "old wives tales" which are now outdated due to advances in equine medicine and understanding of equine physiology, and only a handful of points on the head are relevant to health and well being of the horse.

Well, the horse's neck is a bit different.  Most of the "beauty features" accepted for the neck are directly related to either health or function.  The horse's neck is a large portion of their overall body, a main source of the horse's balance, and is filled with vital internal features such as the trachea, esophagus, and large veins and arteries.  Flaws in a horse's neck structure could relegate an otherwise amazing horse into little more then a pasture pet.

Many diagrams used in this segment were taken directly from the International Model Equine Hobbyists Association (IMEHA).

The Ideal Neck:
The accepted standard is that the head and neck should be about 1/3rd of the horse's total body length, and shaped with a long upper curve in the bones just behind the head and a shallow lower curve in the bones that join into the withers.  This shape allows for flexion at the poll, and lift at the withers.  The muscles in the horse's neck are used in extending the forelegs, and counter balancing the body.  The underside should be almost straight (blue line in picture to left), and the top side should be shaped in a smooth downward arc (Green line).

.The curve of the neck is affected by the shape of the horse's spine below it.  Just as Scoliosis can inhibit a human's abilities (depending upon severity) a poorly built neck can do the same for a horse.  Faults such as ewe neck, swan neck, short necks, and bull necks all directly impact the horse's agility and physical ability to maneuver its body.

Short Necks:
One of the most common flaws in American horses is a neck that is too short.  Horses with short necks lack the counter balance to engage the rest of their body as easily as a properly proportioned horse.  This means it is harder for them to elevate their shoulder, extend their forelegs, and basically to be "graceful".  While short necked horses can be quite flexible laterally (side to side type work, such as cutting) tasks which require vertical movement, such as jumping, dressage, and trail riding over hills and varied terrain, are more difficult for them.

Riders of short necked horses should be aware of this flaw, as their balance affects the horse's center much more then on a horse with a longer neck.  A rider shifting their weight back could be the difference between allowing the horse to climb a hill with ease, and the horse struggling to make it to the top.

Short necks are very common in the draft breeds though.  This is because the shorter length of neck allows the horse to lean into weight.  Rather then using its own muscles to balance, the horse relies on the weight it is pulling, resulting in "more horsepower".  A thick muscular neck, or a bull neck, also gives the horse padding against the collar, and has been bred for in some breeds in the past.

While it is often denied, many American horse breeds have draft horse ancestry.  The AQHA, APHA, and ApHC all can be traced to horses with obvious draft characteristics.  As a result, short necks are more common in these breeds then in many European breeds of saddle horses.

Long Necks: 
Yes, it is possible to have a neck that is too long.  While this is a rather rare flaw to find, it can be even more cumbersome to the horse then a short neck.  Because the neck is a counter balance, too much of it means that the horse has to work to hold it up.  This results in similar problems as a too short neck, as well as a problem in building proper neck muscles.

As you can see on this young horse, whose neck is only slightly too long, the muscles along the top of his neck are under developed, and the underside of the neck has the stronger muscles.  Coupled with his stage of growth (picture taken as a yearling) his high hip and long neck resulted in difficulty carrying himself with grace.  Horses with long necks may be prone to tripping, tend to work heavy on the forehand, and lack the agility of a properly balanced horse.

Long necked horses may have a tendency to work behind the vertical (tuck their nose too far into their chest) which also creates improper muscling and will affect the horse's athleticism, and they will fatigue more easily then a well balanced animal.

Proper exercise and training will allow a long necked horse to work easier though.  These horses also find vertical work much easier then lateral, and often make very good jumpers. 

The Shape of the Neck:
The shape of the horse's neck is determined by the shape of the spine, and muscles that attach to the spine.  Most horse owners/lovers have heard the terms ewe neck and swan neck, and know these to be undesirable, even if they aren't exactly sure of the meaning.  Well, these terms relate to the curve of the spine, and deviations from the ideal.

The horse shown at left has an ideal bend to its neck.  The spine at the base of her neck meets the body in the middle of her shoulder blade (scapula) and curves gently upwards to the head, with a small S type curve.  The muscles which attach to the spine can build properly, with no bulges or weak points, and give the overall appearance  of a smooth arc.

This shape allows the horse the mobility of its entire neck, both laterally as well as vertically.  Now, compare this shape, to that of an improperly formed neck.

Ewe Neck:
Horses with this flaw often have the appearance of an "upside down" neck, or one that bends the wrong way.  While improper muscling can cause a similar appearance, you can determine a ewe neck by the evenly matched shape of both top and lower side muscles.

Horses with this flaw will tend to "hollow out" and most commonly also have an upright shoulder angle as well (because the neck bone is attached to the shoulder bone, and pulling one thing affects the others).  This means that a ewe necked horse will often carry its head high, it's back ducked away from the saddle, and its gaits will be tooth jarring.

While these horses can make wonderful family pets, and light riding companions, do not expect a high level of performance from them.  They simply can not move in that manner.  Trying to force a horse with a true ewe neck into a "proper shape" may create the proper appearance in the neck, but it will never change the horse's bone structure underneath, or the horse's ability to move it's body in a true rounded position with comfort.

False Ewe Neck:
Now, with that said, there's a "type" of ewe neck that can be corrected through training.  This horse, Quaker, has a false ewe neck.  At first glance his neck appears to be on "upside down" but analysis of his bone and muscle structure reveals that this is simply an optical illusion due to having his muscles built in all the wrong places.

First, notice that the muscle along the top of his neck is weak and poorly developed, while the muscles on the under side of the neck are strong, and well built.  This is the first clue that this horse's incorrect neck is caused from training, not from bone structure.

Quaker was previously owned by a timid rider who would hang on his mouth.  He's one of the most tolerant horses I've met, and would gladly lift his head, and hollow out his back, turning his entire body into a U shape.  Over time, the muscles on the underside of his neck strengthened, the upper side muscles weakened, and his neck took on this appearance.  With proper training, his muscles were later reconditioned to a more comfortable and normal shape.

Notice the gentle S curve of his neck in the red lines drawn (even though the neck photo is not a true side shot).  There is no excessive dip in the angle of the spine near the shoulder, and his vertebrae are lined up in nearly the ideal angle of the gentle S curve.  A ewe neck is an obvious S curve with a large bottom swell.  This horse does not have that.

Instead, when comparing his muscles on his neck to the shape of his spine, the obvious bulge in the lower neck muscle is apparent.  Just as men who work out get a bulge in their arm muscles, making them larger, this horse's muscles show signs of training, not conformation.

Often times on forums I see people confusing a true ewe neck with a false one, and assuming that all ewe neck appearances can be altered through proper training of the horse.  This is not the case.  While a false ewe neck is more common, a true ewe neck is a genetic trait, and can be passed on to offspring, and will never be 'fixed' through exercise of any kind.

Now, to show you the difference, here's the same horse after 3 months of proper riding:
Still slight signs of the underside of the neck being over muscled, but greatly reduced, and the true shape of his neck can be seen.

Swan Neck:
The term "swan neck" is used in 2 ways, which are very different from each other.  Many "high headed" breeds, such as Arabians and Saddlebreds, refer to their horses having a "swan neck" appearance on horses with properly shaped necks.  In this form, the horse owners are talking about the elegance of a swan, and not a conformational flaw.

The flaw of a swan neck is a similar deviation as that of a ewe neck, but the upper curve of the neck is exaggerated (instead of the lower curve)   Many horse people are fooled into finding this attractive simply because the horse has a high head carriage, and tends to arch its head near the poll..

In reality, these horses tend to duck behind the vertical, and in many cases have problems with their trachea being pinched from over flexion.  A horse with a swan neck will experience serious difficulties if it does not have a nice wide throat latch, as the angle of the head to neck attachment accentuates any crushing issues a narrow throat latch can cause.

Do not confuse a high neck set with a swan neck though.  While the 2 often go together, the conformational flaw is actually the excessive bend of the neck near the head.  Just as humans may stoop as they age due to osteoporosis, a swan neck "stoops" the angle that the head sits on the neck in a similar fashion, straining muscles, obstructing the air way, and preventing some forms of extension through the body.

Heavy Crests:
Many of us like a horse with a lovely thick neck.  Look at any baroque breed, and you can see this style has many admirers.  Unfortunately, a well rounded neck, and a large pocket of fat above the neck muscles are not the same thing.  Just as sumo wrestler might be strong, you also have to be aware that most of his mass is from fat.

A heavy crest is the same thing.  This donkey shows the accumulation of fat on the top of his neck (and other places), and shows a fallen or broken crest.  This is due to gravity working on the weight of the fat in the equine's neck.  This is due to gravity working on the weight of the fat in the equine's neck.  The round shape of the neck should be from the building of the neck muscles, not from weight gain in the neck.

The downside to a heavy crest (whether it has fallen or not) is that these horses tend to be predisposed to founder.  The cause is not yet fully understood, but the incidence of founder is greatly increased in a horse with a large accumulation of fat on its neck (as opposed to those who carry their fat mainly on their body).

We spoke above of the balance of a horse's neck, the effects of too long and too short of necks, and how the neck of a horse affects its performance abilities.  An over weight neck also affect a horse's performance and overall balance.  While this can be a corrected problem, it is also a genetic problem.  Horses who gain weight in their necks will often produce foals who do the same.  This means increased management of the horse's weight (to keep it down) and possible heart break from the damage from founder.

You might notice that some of the traits described as flaws here are actually useful for specific purposes.  Both overly long and overly short necks have their place in specific disciplines.  Cresty necks are a common trait of many of the baroque breeds, and gives them a part of their defining look.  And yet, while in some areas these traits are desirable, overall they are considered flaws.  This is because the "ideal" is based upon a riding horse for general use.  In today's world we have horses that are built exclusively for a specific discipline, and their "flaws' have been found to be beneficial.

The point is that it's important to understand a conformational flaw, and how it affects the horse, and to be knowledgeable about the horse's limitations from it.  While breeders should strive for nothing short of excellence, the average pet owner does not need  to refuse a horse simply because it has a very minor flaw that has no bearing upon their chosen style of riding.  As an example, if you're looking for a low level jumper, you would want to stay away from a horse with an overly short neck, might consider a slightly short necked horse, and shouldn't see any problems with a horse whose neck is too long.  Conversely, if you're looking for a cutting horse to mess around with, a horse with a short neck is not anything to be concerned about, but a long neck is not going to make your life easy.

Conformation in horses is all about how the horse's form relates to function.  The more we horse owners can understand it, the easier it is to find the right horse for each of us.  There's no such thing as a perfect horse, and we all will have to accept some variance from the ideal.  We just need to know which ones we can work with, and not make the horses suffer for it.

The Sugarbush Draft Horse:
So lets apply all of this to the Sugarbush Draft Horse.  This picture of Sweetie shows the ideal SBDH neck.  It is of a good length, leaning toward the long side, her throat latch is large with ample room, although not overly refined, and her neck is well shaped.

Unlike most draft breeds, the Sugarbush Draft Horse should not have a short neck.  This does inhibit them from pulling large amounts of weight, and prevents them from being the ideal "work horse" type of draft.  Conversely, this also allows them more agility then the typical draft horse.

The Sugarbush Draft Horse has a neck conformation similar to that of an ideal riding horse.  This is because even though they are heavier boned (and suited to all size of riders) they are built and bred as a light work horse, not a weight pulling breed.  The SBDH should not carry excessive weight on the upper side of its neck, and ideally should have a well rounded, yet refined shape overall with out excess fat.  This allows the horse to balance its rider in all situations, and to perform well at most lower levels of any discipline.  Individual horses may excel in specific areas, but the breed is generally designed to be a "jack of all trades" type of conformation.


  1. I love reading your blog! I learn so much! Thank you so much for taking the time to explain things like this to us. I am no horse novice, having had them since I was a child...But still I come here and learn something new every time..

  2.  Thank you!  Much of what I post here is directly related to my work (Registrar of the SDHR) and I probably never would have had to learn it otherwise.  Since I tend to get the same, or similar questions a lot, it makes a light bulb go off in my head and say "hmm, maybe I can explain this in a way that makes sense... that's why I have a blog after all, right?".

    I admit, feedback encourages me more, and I have to be braced for a bit of criticism as well (since putting your knowledge out there is asking for people to correct your mistakes) but even when I'm flat dead wrong I find that I learn so much from the process, and often make friends doing it.

  3. This is another great post. I appreciate it being explained in terms that are easy to understand. Princess Pout has a short neck, and while he is excellent laterally, he'll never be truly able to extend.I I've also just fallen in love with Sweetie's head.

  4. I've been listening to Marty Robbins lately and was wondering what a U-necked horse was, as referred to in "Strawberry Roan." I really know nothing about horses other than I love to look at them because of their beauty. Your page has taught me a lot about a horse's neck which I wouldn't have known, otherwise. Thanks for your informational page.

  5. I love how you point out that characteristics usually considered flaws can, in some breeds and disciplines, actually give the horse an advantage. That's so neat! Question: with the false ewe-neck horse, how did you know where to draw the red line indicating his spinal column? What are you looking for externally? Thanks.