Football Horse Collar Penalty

Football Horse Collar Penalty

A horse collar is a penalty in American football called on a defensive player in the process of attempting to tackle the ball carrier. The horse collar penalty is called when the tackling player grabs the ball carrier’s collar and pulls them toward the ground. A horse collar tackle is illegal due to the risk of injury to the neck.


A horse collar penalty is called when a defensive player grabs another player by the inside collar of the back or side of their jersey or shoulder pads in an effort to bring them to the ground. The runner does not need to go to the ground for this penalty to be called as long as there is an attempt to bring them down. If the ball carrier’s knees simply buckle due to this illegal act, it is a penalty for the offender. The result of this penalty in the NFL is a personal foul, a loss of 15 yards, and an automatic first down.

A defensive player can grab the upper back side of a runner’s jersey without being penalized at the referee’s discretion. This can occur if the defender releases the jersey quickly without pulling on it, thus offering little or no risk to the ball carrier. Notably, it is also not illegal to perform a horse-collar tackle on a quarterback who is in the pocket.

The horse collar was a legal play in the NFL until 2005. The banning of the play came in response to a number of horrible injuries throughout the NFL due to the horse collar tackle in 2004. Dallas Cowboy safety Roy Williams notoriously used the horse collar tackle as a technique when he entered the NFL in 2002. Williams was responsible for causing a number of injuries through the use of this tackling technique in 2004 alone. Most notable among them was in a game with the Philadelphia Eagles when he used the horse collar tackle to bring Eagle’s Pro Bowl wide receiver Terrell Owens backward to the ground and, in the process, Owens suffered a broken leg.


PenaltyNFLNCAAHigh SchoolCFL
Horse Collar15 Yards, Automatic First Down15 Yards, Automatic First Down15 Yards15 Yards, Automatic First Down

In all American football leagues, the result of a horse collar tackle is a 15-yard penalty. It also may result in an automatic first down for the offense. In high school football, the penalty does not award an automatic first down.

Penalty Signal

football penalty signal illegal horse collar tackle

To signal a horse collar penalty, the referee will make a fist with their hand, raise their fist toward their collar, and make a downward pulling motion.


  • The ball carrier runs past the defense and in a last-ditch effort to stop them, the closest defensive player reaches out to grab the back of the runner’s jersey to keep them from scoring a touchdown.
  • The quarterback is out of the pocket, scrambling away from the pass rushers, and one of the pass rushers reaches out to stop them, grabbing the quarterback by the shoulder pads and pulling on them.
  • The quarterback throws a forward pass to their receiver in the end zone, but just as the ball hits the receiver’s hands, the beaten defensive back pulls them down by the back collar of their jersey, and the receiver drops the ball as they’re going to the ground.


What is a horse collar penalty in football?

A horse collar penalty in football is a 15-yard penalty assessed for tackling a runner by grabbing them by the side or rear collar of their shoulder pads or jersey. In order for the foul to occur, the offending player must pull the other player toward the ground, although they are not required to be tackled. A horse collar penalty is a personal foul, and it results in an automatic first down. 

Can you horse collar tackle anyone legally in the NFL?

According to NFL rules, while a horse collar tackle is illegal when performed on a ball carrier or runner, it is a legal means of tackling against some players. For example, the rule against horse collar tackles does not apply to quarterbacks who are in the pocket or a runner who is within the tackle box. These players can be tackled legally with a horse collar.

Can you challenge a horse collar penalty in football?

Since a horse collar tackle is illegal in football and a penalty, it cannot be challenged by coaches after it is called. However, as with all penalties in the NFL, coaches can challenge the enforcement of the penalty, such as yardage or the spot of the foul.