Looking for info about head angle from an expert in horse breeds
December 8, 2019 4:32 AM   Subscribe

Horse experts, please weigh in: Do some horses have a different bone or muscle structure that changes the angle of their heads relative to the body as they stand or walk or run?

I took a photo of a New Forest pony recently and looking at the photo afterwards I noticed that the horse held its head straight out nearly horizontally as it walked. That seemed so different from horses that hold their heads and necks up at about seventy degrees from the horizontal.

Coincidentally, my wife was sketching using examples from a book of animals. On the 'horses' page that she happened to have open, there are two horses (no captions, just the images) and one has its head held high and it looks like what I might call an Arab stallion. The other has its head held low and forward, and it is drawn with a shaggy mane and a bulkier build and looks like an Icelandic pony or something of that nature.

I know there are different breeds of horse, but I wonder whether what I observed is a generally recognised difference in horse anatomy or whether I just happened to catch a photo of the horse in the New Forest while it happened to have its head down.

As a kind of parallel with allied species rather than different breeds, Red deer, for example, hold their heads up while Reindeer are constructed differently and hold their heads out horizontally.
posted by Quillcards to Pets & Animals (14 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Yes. This is called "conformation". Conformation affects movement and ability to perform certain things. It varies between breeds of animals, and also between individuals within those breeds. Conformation is what dogs shows are evaluating.
posted by biscotti at 5:06 AM on December 8, 2019 [4 favorites]

Conformation includes the angles of the head and neck; but angles of the head and neck are not what conformation is. Conformation is about how an individual conforms to an arbitrary standard, and it applies to show breeds but not to wild animals, which also vary widely in their head and neck angles, both within and between species.

To me, saying that a horse’s head angle is called conformation is like saying the shape of a human’s nose is called a judging a beauty pageant, or the shape of the chest is called winning a bodybuilding contest: it’s mixing up biological variation with human social norms and competition.

When scientists analyze quadrupeds and their gaits etc, the use terms like “Neck angle relative to space... head angle relative to the neck... and neck angle relative to the trunk”.
posted by SaltySalticid at 7:05 AM on December 8, 2019 [5 favorites]

I'll go with what SaltySalticid says - Conformation is about conforming to a standard rather that a feature of anatomy that describes different breeds.

So, the question remains - are there breeds that hold their heads out horizontally because of their anatomy, and others that hold their heads high because of their anatomy?

I was thinking just now about zebras, which are related to horses and which hold their heads up by virtue (I believe) of their anatomy.
posted by Quillcards at 9:55 AM on December 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

Here’s a freely accessible scholarly article about variation in horse heads and necks and human preference which I think addresses some of your general questions. I think the answer to your follow-up must be “yes” based on biology and historical breeding for different tasks. How these features influence certain tasks is discussed a bit at the link above.
posted by SaltySalticid at 11:02 AM on December 8, 2019 [2 favorites]

From what I remember, yes, horse neck angle is due to both what the horse was born with (differences in neck length and position) and then also how the muscles have developed, with I believe the emphasis on the former. There are differences across breeds, but also within individuals (you can see this in YouTube videos of trainers evaluating horses within the same breed they are considering buying, where the neck and how it is held is discussed). Arabian horses have fewer bones than other other breeds, which effects how they move and their general look, but they have the same number of neck bones, I believe.
posted by umwhat at 12:10 PM on December 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

Horses also hold their heads in different positions depending on what gait they're using, whether they're carrying weight, what kind of mood they're in, and how their muscles have been developed. My wife's horse naturally likes to trot like a giraffe - head way up, back hollowed - because it's easier for him and requires less work. It's hard on the rider, though, and not actually all that healthy for him, so she's spent several years teaching him to hold his head down and support himself with his back muscles. It has gotten easier as he's gotten stronger. (He is, incidentally, an Icelandic.)

It's more accurate to compare it to posture than anything - it is affected by the horse's body shape, and different breeds will have different tendencies, but it is also very much about the specific situation.
posted by restless_nomad at 1:18 PM on December 8, 2019 [5 favorites]

The term for this in the horse world is "head carriage" or "headset." There are a lot of things that affect what position a horse's head will be in at any given point in time: there certainly are breed tendencies in conformation to be "high headed" (e.g., Arabians, Friesians, or standardbreds) or "low headed" (quarterhorses, some draft horses, many pony breeds) and they are selectively bred for those traits. Breeds also vary in terms of their neck length, which can affect how high the head seems to be carried, even if the angle is the same. Training and exercise can either enhance or attempt to counteract the horse's natural tendency. Finally, whatever the horse is doing or thinking in the moment someone captures an image will affect where their head is. An anxious horse will hold their head higher or raise their head more often. A relaxed or "dull" horse will appear more droopy. Handlers posing a horse for a photo will encourage the horse to adopt a higher or lower headset depending on the preference in the breed standard. Etc.
posted by drlith at 1:59 PM on December 8, 2019 [4 favorites]

I was a breeder of New Forest ponies (and hope to be one again when I retire)*, and with no other information that posture would be disqualifying for the breed. To be honest, it's been decades since I visited the stud book so I don't remember the years, but at some time Arabian stallions were introduced to the Forest, to lighten up the breed. Among the "lightening up" factors, the carriage of the head is very important. Back in the day, we also looked for a short back and a tight and low rear end, though those factors have loosened. I'd bet the head posture hasn't because the ponies are not useful if children can't ride them and children want to participate in competitions. The pony you saw will have had a lot of "native" British pony genes. Every now and then, you get a pony that reverses to the origin, and that may both be the Arabian and the native origin, that's how genes work. It's life, and depending on the other qualities of that pony, you'll either sell it out for other use or pair it with individuals that lack that attribute.
As the semi-outsider I am now, I feel the ponies have become a bit too horsy, so maybe a very rustic pony can have a purpose, but I can't speak for the breeder since I have no contacts in England at this point.
Islandic horses are originally a mix of British ponies and Norwegian horses, and specially the Norwegian horses are genetically very close to Eurasian wild horses. (Well, so are Dartmoor ponies, but since the ponies that immigrated to Iceland were probably Irish, it may or may not be relevant).
Oh, and there is something else, but again I don't know how it works out in England or the UK: Icelandic horses have become hugely popular among middle-aged people. They are very comfortable to ride, and low maintenance. I don't know if the pony-market is going in that direction too. In that case a more rustic pony is absolutely interesting.

* My Bellis was the best ever New Forest mare in Denmark, judged by a New Forest jury. She is still unsurpassed. My Music was one of the best young stallions. I'm not bragging, I'm saying that I am very serious here, and also that I miss those days terribly. I still dream of my ponies and my pony colleagues still encourage me to get on with it.
posted by mumimor at 1:59 PM on December 8, 2019 [10 favorites]

As others have said conformation is definitely a thing & plays a part but also horses communicate a lot of information with the position of their their ears & heads to other horses.

Also if the horse is being ridden the style of riding or what you are doing on the horse can play a part, is the horse "on" the bit,(neck arched head straight up & down) being ridden loose rein, western style. It can even come down to the type of bit & style of rein/s being used.

A horse holding it's head high is probably nervous or feeling aggressive, they lift their faces up to protect them from kicks from other horses or attacks. The horse with it's head down could be leaning into a heavy load it's trying to pull if harnessed, or relaxed or even feeling playful with the "wind under it's tail" (horses often a case of the zoomies like dogs do. Heck it could even be lowering it's head to flick it up which is often used as a warning.
posted by wwax at 2:23 PM on December 8, 2019

I was thinking just now about zebras, which are related to horses and which hold their heads up by virtue (I believe) of their anatomy. Which is their conformation. It has nothing to do with conforming to a standard. It has everything to do with the way any particular horse is put together, or conformed.

Different breeds have different standards, but many, many horses are not of any particular breed, or are purposely bred crosses. Each horse has its own conformation. It could be ideal for one discipline, and lousy for another. There are conformation faults (over at the knee, sickle hocks, etc) that have nothing to do with the particular breed or its standards. Some horses are short backed, some are long backed. Some have a steeper shoulder angle, some a straighter shoulder. Some have higher head carriages; some have necks tied in low. These are aspects of each horse's individual conformation.
posted by Dolley at 2:51 PM on December 8, 2019

So, the question remains - are there breeds that hold their heads out horizontally because of their anatomy, and others that hold their heads high because of their anatomy?

Yes. Its related mostly to shoulder angle and the overall balance of the horse be it uphill or downhill. Uphill horses elbows are higher than their stifles and downhill horses are the opposite. Uphill horses will carru themselves higher in front, have more knee action and run slower. Often bred to pull carraiges, trot and look flashy. Downhill horses run faster and have lower more horizontal necks and genetally longer smoother gaits with less joint flexion in the lower legs. Bred to race and trek. Shoulder angle is also a big effect: a flatter, or laid back, shoulder leads to longer smoother gaits, more flexibility in the neck and a more upright shoulder makes for shorter more up and down gaits and less ability to position the neck. Finally a thick throat area limits flexion between head and neck causing a horse to be more or less able to arch the neck while keeping the head at or near the vertical.

Riding horses are somewhere in the middle depending on the use.
posted by fshgrl at 6:35 PM on December 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

Its related mostly to shoulder angle and the overall balance of the horse be it uphill or downhill

And again, it can be *really individual*. My mother-in-law's horse, also an Icelandic, is so downhill she has to use extra-long reins, because Skugga really aspires to be what Western riders call a "peanut-roller". She contrasts strikingly with my wife's red giraffe. But in both cases, you aren't going to be able to tell anything much about them from a single picture unless you know a fair bit about horse conformation. (Giraffe on the left, if you can get to that, peanut-roller on the right.)
posted by restless_nomad at 5:27 AM on December 9, 2019 [3 favorites]

And again, it can be *really individual*

Its still based on confirmation. Within a breed you'll have a lot of variety of course but a horse with high stifles and a thick throatlatch like the one you posted will always have low head carriage becuase they have to.
posted by fshgrl at 9:54 AM on December 13, 2019

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