You and Your Horse

Finding your own way with horses

Basics about anatomy and biomechanics – Part 4: 
The equine neck

Posted by in All, Health, Lungeing

Basics about anatomy and biomechanics – Part 4: 
The equine neck

We will now have a look at the front part of the horse by starting at looking at the musculature of the neck.

For that purpose we need basic knowledge about

  • The nuchal ligament
  • The musculature of the neck
  • The importance of shoulder freedom and
  • You have to be able to distinguish between a “good” and “bad” head-neck-posture.

The nuchal ligament

The nuchal ligament is a strong, stringy ligament which originates at the horse’s cranium, forms the basis of the crest and continues as the supraspinous ligament running across the withers and the back all the way to the sacrum. This ligament is connected with the spine of the horse for its entire length.

If the horse drops his neck in a relaxed way from the withers, the nuchal ligament will pull up the horse’s back.

That’s why all equestrians are out to get the horse’s nose down. And that’s exactly why we find such a huge variety of auxiliary reins, special bits etc. which all have one goal in common: to lower the horse’s head. However, there are small yet very significant differences about a lowered nose and here I see the largest knowledge gaps and most sources of errors. “Nob down” is not enough; actually quite the contrary.

The neck musculature

Roughly speaking, we differentiate between the upper and lower neck muscles. The upper neck muscles are head-lifting muscles. If the horse has a pronounced upper neck musculature, the neck will look beautifully pronounced and arched:

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Here it can be seen during riding:

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The lower neck musculature is located next to and below the cervical spinal cord. It is there to pull the horse’s head downwards, enables the horse to touch the chest with his nose and flexes the neck to both sides.

Here it is where the important brachiocephalicus muscle comes into play. In a well-trained horse, this muscle will more and more reduce in size. However, in case the horse moves incorrectly, the muscle builds up instead. In this picture the brachiocephalicus muscle can be seen very clearly:

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And in the following picture you can see nicely how resistance against a hard hand makes the lower neck musculature bulge out:

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And in this extreme example the upper neck and back musculature are totally missing:

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The influence of the neck musculature on shoulder freedom 

The brachiocephalicus muscle originates from the poll of the horse, runs down the lower neck to the right and left of the cervical spine and ends at the horse’s humerus. If the horse is stretching the brachiocephalicus because it carries his head very high,

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or brings (or has to bring) the nose close the chest,

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the humerus and therefore the shoulder of the horse are limited in their mobility.

In case the horse moves with the head behind the vertical, the lower neck musculature is worked (very clearly visible in horses that are regularly worked with draw reins)!

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Horses that move behind the vertical cannot develop shoulder freedom. Because of the limited mobility in the shoulder, the long back muscle will be limited in movement as well. And if the back muscles cannot work properly, the hindquarters won’t be able to engage in an optimal way (see part 2 of this series: The importance of the hindquarters). On the other hand, the relaxation of the back muscles is a basic requirement for a free shoulder movement.

In the next blog entry I will talk about various neck postures. If you like, look at neck postures of horses in your surroundings; after reading this entry I am sure you will discover already quite some differences.

(Translated by Gesine Jiménez Martínez)