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Understanding Your Horse's Neck

Updated: Nov 30, 2022

Within the equestrian world there are sometimes discussion and controversy about what is the correct neck outline or posture. Questions are often asked:

  • What is the best outline for the horse?

  • What is the best way to achieve good neck outlines?

  • How long they should be held for?

  • Which neck outlines have a negative effect on his comfort and musculoskeletal health?

The answer to all these questions lie in understanding more about the anatomy and biomechanics of the horse's neck. Understanding the anatomy of the head and neck gives the rider, coach or therapist the knowledge to train effectively, sensitively and with the best interest of the horse at heart.

This blog looks at the basic anatomy that all riders and trainers need to appreciate and understand. All these aspects are explained in greater detail in the recorded webinar: Understanding Your Horse's Neck available to watch anytime, anywhere in the Horses Inside Out Academy

This is one of my favourite topics because, as well as being absolutely fascinating, an understanding of the anatomy and biomechanical relationships in the neck can directly improve training and riding. It can make such a different to a horse's performance, way of going, cooperation, comfort and longterm health.

The structures within are vital to life and movement. With the oesophagus and windpipe leading to the lungs and stomach respectively, different head and neck positions can influence the function and health of the respiratory and digestive systems.

The horse’s neck is a long lever which connects the head to the rest of the body. The sheer weight of the head and length of the neck means that movement and positioning of the head and neck will affect the balance, centre of mass and movement of the rest of the horse.

Cervical vertebrae, vertebral body, vertebral canal, spinous process, articular process, transverse process and joint surfaces neck horse

Within the neck there are 7 cervical vertebrae. These are lower than many people think. Like the rest of the spine these vertebrae have common features, the vertebral body is the main part of the vertebrae. This supports most of the weight. The hole above this is the vertebral canal through which the spinal cord runs.

Between cervical vertebrae on both the left and right sides a hole called the intervertebral foramen forms a passage way for the 8 pairs of cervical spinal nerves to exit the spinal cord. These nerves send messages relating to body control, function and movement as well as delivering sensory information back to the spinal cord and brain from the neck and the rest of the body. Positioning of the head and neck as well as bony changes and malformations in the cervical vertebrae and can influence the size of these holes, the smooth free running of the spinal nerves and therefore neurological health.

The main bulk of the neck of course is filled with muscles, fascia, tendons and ligaments. When we study anatomy it is easiest to look at structures in parts. For example the muscles and soft tissue structures of the neck in isolation. However in reality these muscles do not work the neck in isolation. Many of the muscles have origins and direct connections within the back, abdomen, forelimb and even hindquarters.

So health, movement and outline of the neck will have effects on and be affected by the rest of the body. It's really impossible to look at the neck in isolation. How outline, position and movement of the head and neck affects the rest of the body is something that will be covered in greater detail in the webinar. Understanding this is imperative if we wish to make informed decisions about what is the correct outline for different horses performing in a variety of disciplines.

This webinar will examine anatomically correct outline and how positioning of the head and neck influences back position and way of going. It will also examine different head positions and allow you, the rider, to make informed decisions according to function. A dressage horse for example will be required to hold his head very differently from a show jumper, Icelandic horse, eventer or western horse. Different head positions can be observed and evaluated in both the book and anatomy video course, ‘Anatomy In Action’.

Other topics that should be studied in detail to better understand the neck, and are included in this video lecture, include:-

  • Cervical Joint Movement. Before we can encourage a horse to use complete range of movement in the neck we need to understand exactly what type of movement happens at which joints and the relationships between them.

  • Exercises to Improve Range of Movement. There are so many 'Pilates' type exercises that can be used to influence the neck generally but which specifically are best for individual horses?

  • Temporomandibular Joint Anatomy. Dysfunction in this highly innervated joint can have far reaching effects within the body.

  • Hyoid Apparatus. These are the bones that support the pharynx and larynx up between the two mandibles and provides attachment of the tongue.

  • The Tongue and it's connections to the rest of the body.

Find out more about 'Understanding Your Horse's Neck' here:

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