Equine Conformation Part 1
Equine Anatomy - The Head, Neck and Body

There is no such thing as the perfect horse...
However, by being knowledgable about the finer points of equine anatomy and conformation, you can find a horse that is more likely to be able to do what you want him to do, without being compromised by his shape and build.

Below is a drawing showing the main points of equine anatomy and conformation, including some of the things I will be discussing.

Parts of the Horse
Art Explosion by Nova
A Muzzle B Poll C Crest D Withers
E Back F Loins G Croup H Dock
I Point of Hock J Hock K Thigh L Stifle
M Chestnut N Ergot O Coronet P Pastern
Q Fetlock R Cannon S Forearm T Point of Elbow
U Shoulder

Let's start at the front end
The first thing people look at in a horse is the head. Although it has little to do with the actual performance of the horse, except for the points noted below. most people like to see a horse with a refined head, bright, kind eyes, pricked ears and an alert expression.

Old English terms such as fiddle-headed refer to horses with coarse, unrefined features, and roman-nosed refers to a horse with a convex profile such as is found in the draught breeds, as opposed to the concave, or dished, profile of the Arabian and similar breeds.

Horses are not capable of breathing through their mouths, so the size and shape of the nostrils are important to horses in highly aerobic activities, such as race-horses. This is the reason that Thoroughbreds tend to have larger nostrils, with finer cartiledge than, say, a draught horse.

The eyes and ears can give clues to the temparament of the horse, if not his athletic ability. Large, kind-looking eyes, with no white showing and no rolling of the eyeballs, indicates a more tractable demeanour, as do ears that are pricked and alert, rather than pinned back against the horse's head.

Two areas of the head which can have an effect on the performance of the horse are the throat and the poll. The poll is where the skull of the horse fits on to the spine, right behind the ears. Stiffness in this area can cause the horse to have difficulty in softening to the rider's hand and "come on the bit". Likewise, a horse with a thick throat area may have difficulty giving to the rider and may give the rider the feel that he is riding a plank of wood.

The horse's neck should be in proportion to the rest of the body, appearing neither too long nor too short. A gentle arch to the neck is pleasing, without excessive muscling underneath. Stallions are more prone to have more crest along the topline of the neck than either geldings or mares, although the more a horse is worked in certain disciplines, such as dressage, the more the muscle along the topline will be toned up. A horse with thick muscling along the underside of his neck will feel stiff and resistant to ride. This can also be changed with exercises to build the muscle along the top of the neck, encouraging the horse to relax the muscles along the underside.

The term ewe-necked refers to a neck that appears to be put on upside down and a horse with a swan-neck has a very long neck, usually with excessive bend similar to a swan, from which the term is taken. Both of these conformations are considered undesirable.

Equine Anatomy - The Shoulder
The way the neck joins the body can influence the way the horse goes. Some horses, such as the Quarter Horse, have a lower set-on neck than do others, such as the Saddlebred. This predisposes the Quarter Horse to carry his head lower than the Saddlebred, such as is desired in Western Pleasure classes and makes him a natural choice for these classes, Many of the carriage breeds, such as the Cleveland Bay, the Friesian and some of the German Warmbloods (who were originally bred as carriage horses and who now excel in sports such as dressage and showjumping) have a much higher neck, giving them a higher head carriage which lends an air of presence.

The shoulder itself is critical to the horse's way of going. A well sloped shoulder (as measured from the point of shoulder to the withers) will allow the horse to take a long, economical stride, enable him to extend in the trot, gallop easily, will make for a more comfortable ride, and is desirable in the riding horses such as the Thoroughbred, the Quarter Horse, and the Hunter. However, it is not found in all riding horses, and the breeds in which a high-stepping, showy action is required, such as the Andalucian, the Saddlebred, and the Morgan will be more apt to have a more upright shoulder, which places the foreleg more underneath the body and results in less extension of the forelimbs, but more upward knee action.

Equine Anatomy - The Body
There are several points that should be noted about the body. This is where all of the horse's major organs are, such as the lungs and the heart. They need to have room in order to be able to be most effective. The shape and size of the chest controls the amount of room that the lungs have to expand, important in the athletic horse. Ahorse with a chest that is too narrow, not only will have his aerobic capacity reduced, but his forelegs will also be too close together, making him more likely to brush his forelegs together when being worked, possibly causing injury.

The girth, or barrel, of the horse should be deep, giving the horse plenty of heart room to contain the internal organs. The body should be rounded and the ribs well-sprung. The term slab-sided refers to a horse with a narrow, flat-sided body.

The back should be considered to be the most important part of the riding horse. The horse is not naturally a weight carrier, it is more designed by nature to be a weight puller, so it is expecially important to make note of types of conformation that predispose the horse to even greater weakness in the back.

First of all, the back should be shaped in such a way as to accept a saddle comfortably and should be neither too long nor too short. A back which dips excessively is called a sway back and which is generally found in older horses, and its opposite, a roach back both can cause difficulties with fitting a saddle. An excessively long back will have inherant weakness which may not stand up to concentrated work, and a very short back will give the rider a bumpy ride as the propulsion of the hind legs will tend to bounce him out of the saddle.

The point where the back joins the quarters is called the loin and it is very important that this area is strong and muscular if problems are to be avoided. Horses with long backs are prone to weakness in this area. The croup is the highest point behind the saddle and should be level with the withers in the mature horse (as horses are growing, their growth spurts often make the croup higher than the withers) . In the mature horse, a croup higher than the withers will cause a tendancy to lean on the forehand and be heavy in front. This is not the same as goose-rump or jumper's bump, both terms which refer to a high, well muscled rump usually associated with jumpers.

Equine Anatomy - The Hooves and Legs

The legs could be said to be the most important part of the horse, for if a horse has weakness or bad conformation in his legs, his athletic ability is going to be seriously compromised, no matter what you plan to do with him. From a general standpoint, the legs should appear straight, muscular and sturdy, and capable of carrying the horse.

On to Specifics
Looking at the horse head-on, the front legs should be neither too far apart nor too close together as they join the chest. Too far apart will result in a rolling gait, that may make you sea-sick to ride. Too close together, they will predispose the horse to injuries as one foreleg knocks against the other as he moves. This interference may be alleviated somewhat with special hoof trimming and shoeing, but is better avoided in the first place. The legs should appear straight and not twisted in or out.

The forearm should be long and muscular and the knee should be large and flat, not round and puffy. The tendons have to pass through the knee to the lower leg and that is why large, flat knees are desireable, to allow the maximum movement.

The cannon-bone, the bone in the lower leg, should not be too long. Looking at the horse from the side, the knee should appear low in the leg. If it appears high, it means that the cannon bone is longer than ideal, and prone to weakness.

The way the lower leg joins at the knee is important to the functionality of the leg too. In some horses you will see that the lower leg appears tied in below the knee , where the leg is narrower directly underneath the knee than it is further down. This can restrict the movement of the tendons. In some cases the horse may be over at the knee where the lower leg appears set back in comparison with the upper leg. The opposite of this is back at the knee where the knee and upper leg appear set back in comparison with the lower leg.

As the horse's ability to carry weight depends on the inter-functioning of all these parts, it is important that they line up correctly, in order to be most efficient.

The pastern is the horse's shock absorber, at times carrying the horse's entire weight, plus that of the rider. The ideal pastern is neither too long nor too short, too sloped or too upright. Overly long sloping pasterns will place a strain on the suspensory ligament and the tendons which run down the back of the leg. Pasterns which are too upright do not perform sufficiently well to overcome the concussive effects of movement and so the leg may suffer with soundness problems because of it.

Equine Anatomy - The horse's hoof
You know the saying "No hoof...no horse", well - never a truer word was spoken. The ideal hoof is well-matched with it's partner in size and shape (hind feet will be bigger and the footprint more oval than the front feet) The horn should be strong and flexible, not weak and shelly or dry and crumbly. (I plan on doing some extensive research and bringing you the latest information and help on how to keep your horse's hooves in tip-top condition). Problems with the hoof walls will mean that the horse will have difficulty holding on shoes (a problem I am all too familiar with). Different breeds of horse tend to have different sized feet. The draught breeds have huge soup-plates of feet whereas the Arabians have small strong-horned feet. When trimming and shoeing the horse it is necessary to maintain the natural size of the foot, not to trim it down to fit the shoe, as this will cause problems with soundness, by compromising the natural shock-absorbing qualities of the hoof.

The feet should point straight forward and the horse be neither pigeon-toed, where the toes point in toward each other, nor toed-out , where the horse appears duck-footed with his toes splayed out.

The feet should have fleshy, well-sprung frogs and should not be boxy and upright, like those of a donkey. Lateral ridges around the hoof wall can indicate previous laminitis or, at the very least, changes in growth rate due to illness or changes in feed etc.

Equine Anatomy - The hind legs
The hocks are one of the very important features of the hind leg. This acts as an additional shock-absorber. Like the knee, it is preferable for the hock to be set low, thus lessening the strain on the hind cannon. How the hock lines up underneath the hind quarters of the horse will make a difference to its action. Ideally, in the riding horse, the point of the hock should line up underneath the point of the buttocks and a straight line be carried down the back of the hind cannon. However, hocks that fall in front of this line are often seen in jumping horses, as they give additional thrust. Horses with hocks that fall behind this line will be lacking in propulsion, making jumping more difficult for them and well as making it difficult for them to perform the more advanced dressage movements.

Looking at the horse from the back, the hind legs should be straight and neither cow-hocked, where the hocks turn in (accompanied by turned out toes) or bow-hocked , where the hocks turn out. From the side, the horse should not be sickle-hocked, where the front edge of the leg appears overly curved or bent. All of these conformations can cause soundness problems by compromising the way the shock absorbing qualities of the hock are supposed to work.

Equine Anatomy and Conformation - The whole picture
If all of the above points have been taken into consideration, you should be looking at a horse that is well-balanced, nicely proportioned and physically capable to doing what you want him to do. As I said at the beginning of the Part One of this article, there is no such thing as the perfect horse, but being knowledgeable will help you find the best horse for your needs.

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2007/12/10 23:19 2007/12/10 23:19

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