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Talking Horses 

Anatomy Lessons

Let conformation help guide you.

by Scott Thomson



For more than a year I've been reading with great interest a regular column in Equus Magazine written by Deb Bennet, PhD. Her area of expertise is in the anatomy and biomechanics of the horse. She is a well-known horsewoman who has competed and judged in virtually every riding discipline. Her new book, Principles of Conformation Analysis, volumes I, II and III, pulls together many of her past writings into one source.

Now, I'll admit that if you failed high-school geometry or if you're not competing in the show ring, much of this might seem far too complicated or even irrelevant for the recreational rider. What I love about her work, though, is she's always quick to point out that in the end the horse will tell you, if you are willing to listen, what he does best and where he's most comfortable. This is why I think her work has relevance for any horse person. Combining some of her insights with those of Linda Tellington-Jones, who has studied the relationship between conformation and behavior/personality, can truly help you understand why a horse does what it does.

Using my own horse as a real-life example, I thought it might be interesting to show how some understanding of conformation and biomechanics can help you develop a better working partnership with your horse.

I bought my quarter horse, Cody, when he was 5; he's now turning 18. I was his ninth owner (!) so he obviously had a few issues. In our early days together, he clearly showed why so many people had given up on him. He'd throw you a nice big buck from time to time for no apparent reason. He was pretty clumsy, especially on the trail. This was bad enough that my trainer thought he was showing early signs of the dreaded EPM. Cody would come back from most rides with dings on his fetlocks and heel bulbs. He would toss his head, mostly when going downhill. He got nervous when asked to canter in collection, and collection actually seemed difficult for him. He felt like he had a "flat tire" when tracking to the left, but never tested lame.

People I was working with at the time attributed most of this to either his personality or my riding. I'd hear things like "he's lazy, he needs to go forward, he has a lousy work ethic, he needs a job." Or comments aimed at me like "you're riding on your pockets, you're leaning forward, you need to kick him, you're riding him downhill into the ground, your reins are too lose, your reins are too tight, blah, blah, blah." As expected, I also heard the inevitable "your saddle doesn't fit and this is why he tosses his head." There was no discussion about his conformation and how that might play a part.


Using Deb Bennet as my guide, here's what I saw: Cody has a slight club foot on his left front, making it boxy and tall. Over time this caused a different-shaped hoof on his right front — lower and flatter. This led to a shortening of his right side from shoulder to hoof, not an enormous difference but enough to affect gait when combined with the hoof shape. He has a broad chest, which can cause a horse to be slower in his gaits, but tends toward being narrow-based front and rear. Combined with a slight toe turn in on his front feet, more on the right than the left, his athletic ability is limited and he is set up to interfere.

His shoulder movement is characterized as "flat" by Bennett, meaning there is minimum flex in the knee and hock during movement. This is deemed "efficient," as there is less wasted or upward movement and is typical of the quarter horse breed. In his hindquarters, his legs fall slightly behind the vertical, making it uncomfortable for him to canter in collection. He over-reaches and also interferes in front and back, so much so that if you looked at his prints in the sand you'd think he's walking on a tightrope.

There were two other significant issues. He has a slight "ewe neck," which can make it difficult for any horse to collect or carry that collection for very long. Also, and more telling, is that he has a definite "downhill balance" to his body. In fact, the angle of this measurement is at the upper limit of what Bennett considers acceptable for a riding horse.

The fact that bucking and head tossing almost always happened going downhill in steep or bad footing made sense now given his downhill build, the shape and angles of his front feet, and the interference. He'd stumble, his legs would cross, and flight-animal fear would surface. His clumsiness is influenced by the shape of his front hooves (especially the turned-in toes), his flat shoulder movement causing low ground clearance, and the interference and over-reaching. Anxiety at the canter in collection could be tied to the positioning of his hind legs and ewe neck. The feeling of a "flat tire" on his right front when tracking left was definitely a result of the shape and length of his right shoulder and foreleg. The small dings on his legs came from his style of movement. His speed, or lack thereof, was influenced by the conformation of his chest and forelegs, and his overall conformation. The severe downhill build clearly contributed to his "heaviness" on the forehand.

Given all these issues it would have been easy for me to say I need another horse, but Cody was doing so many good things for me and my students it seemed smarter to accommodate his physical limitations instead.


What have I done? I've worked with my farrier to gradually achieve the best possible shape for the hoof that causes many of the clumsiness issues. It'll never be perfect but it is much improved. I've developed arena routines focusing on agility and lifting his feet, such as work over ground poles and caveletti, and some low jumps. I've added basic dressage exercises to improve balance, hindquarter engagement and strength. I do a lot of my collected work from the ground, either in long lines or work in hand, so that Cody can develop strength and suppleness without the weight of a rider.

On the trail, I pay particular attention to how we go down hills, especially given the steep and rocky terrain around here. I ride slowly, focusing on engaging his hindquarters, keeping him straight, and using my leg and hand aids to prevent his front legs from crossing. He wears splint boots and front bell boots whenever I ride, even on the trail, so the inevitable bumps don't lead to injury or silly behavior.

I also take the time to go walk a new trail to check out the footing. I'm willing to cross a trail off my list if it's beyond his ability. I've seen too many accidents where a horse is physically frustrated by conditions and a rider forces the issue. I've even made the decision to rarely ride with anyone other than my wife or a student on a teaching ride; I ride to the level of my horse and don't think it's fair to other riders to have to alter their style or pace to fit what I'm doing.

This might seem like a lot to go through for a horse. I choose to look at it another way. There are no perfect horses. Accept that not every horse can do everything well. If your horse's assets far outweigh his liabilities, and you really want to help him, then study his anatomy to see how he is put together. It might lead you to some easy adjustments in your approach. Rather than get frustrated by what he can't do, focus instead on helping him succeed with the physical abilities he has.

And Cody — he's still slow and deliberate in certain situations and trips from time to time, but I haven't seen a buck in years, he rarely tosses his head, he goes down hills engaging his back end and stays pretty straight, his legs are ding-free and he can carry collection for much longer periods. He's never been lame or sore-backed. He's a happy boy!




Scott Thomson lives in Silver City and teaches natural horsemanship and foundation training. You can contact him at hsthomson@msn.com or (575) 388-1830.

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