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"flaws" are nothing more then personal preference, others are little more then "old wives tales" which are now outdated due to advances in equine medicine and understanding of equine physiology, and only a handful of points on the head are relevant to health and well being of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 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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.