August 07, 2008 | | Comments 0

Horse Physiology – Opportunity and Obstacles

Horse Body in Motion

Written By: Jennifer Walker

A horse’s conformation is more important than just making him pretty enough to win ribbons. Every part of his physiology affects his balance and movement. Conformation faults can not only impair the gaits, but lead to soundness problems when the horse is worked. Here are some of the basics of equine physiology.


The legs, of course, are the part of the physiology that carry the weight and do a large part of the work when the horse is moving. They are also the place where most injuries occur and conformation faults are the most Horse Legsproblematic. Leg action starts with the shoulder, which should be long, muscular, and sloping. The longer the shoulder, the more muscle there will beand the stronger the gaits will be. A sloping shoulder allows for the freedom that makes for the large movement favored in dressage and many pleasure classes, as well as the ground-covering trot needed for endurance. A straight shoulder will make for a shorter, choppier gait.

Moving down to the bottom of the leg, the angle of the pastern should parallel the angle of the shoulder. Short, upright pasterns (a condition referred to as post-legged) restrict the movement and make for a very uncomfortable ride. On the other end of the spectrum, a long, steeply angled pastern (coon footed) will give the horse a smoother gait, but the excess strain on the pastern causes weakness that can lead to unsoundness later in life.
The hooves can also have an effect on soundness and movement. If they turn in or out, the horse may clip himself when he moves and injure himself. His movement will not be square, putting stress on the other joints.

Horse Head and NeckHead and Neck

The head and neck serve as a rudder of sorts, helping the horse to balance and steer. Although the head rarely affects the rest of him, a proportionately overly large head can affect his overall balance. The neck is a much more important part of the equation: a neck that is short and thick may indicate the horse will have difficulty flexing through his poll and collecting. Some problems are easier to fix, however. A horse with a neck that is overdeveloped on the underside and underdeveloped on the top will have difficulty working in a round frame until his muscles are properly developed. He will tend to be high-headed and hollow-backed. He will have a hard time stepping through from behind and using his body to its greatest potential.

Horse Body

The withers are an often overlooked part of the horse physiology. The withers hold a ligament that runs from the horse’s back to his neck, which can affect his ability to lift his front end and move freely. A mutton-withered horse (where the wither is low and round) will tend to be heavy on the front end, making his gaits heavy and rolling rather than up and light. Likewise, a higher, more sloping wither will allow the horse to shift more of his weight to his hind end for freer movement and greater collection.
When you study the effect of equine physiology on movement, it is easy to see just how important it is to look for and breed only those horses with the most correct conformation you can find.

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Filed Under: Horse Wise

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