DISTINGUISHING CONFORMATIONAL FLAWS FROM POOR POSTURE

In today's world of Internet access to information there is a glut of incorrect or erroneous information running rampant. Arm chair experts seem to be growing out of the woodwork yet many of these people have very little actual experience or education when it comes to equines. Horses are being mislabeled and discredited for things they are really not deserving of.

When looking at a horse it is vital to give credence to condition, true conformation, and realize where conformation ends and posture begins! To be in tune with your horse one should educate oneself in such matters because when a horse changes posture it may be telling you something…such as it is in pain!

One of the most common mistakes being made is to look at a horse and declare it is sickle hocked or cow hocked. In all actuality these conformational flaws are not very common in today's horses, particularly in those bred from known, registered stock. There are some exceptions to be true because some unenlightened breeders do not tend to such matters in selection of breeding pairs. Some breeds are also more prone to certain conformational weaknesses than perhaps other breeds but overall today's modern horse is a pretty solid character all be it that some are more polished and finished than others.

To analyze conformation it is important to stand the horse up squarely on all four feet before assessing it.

Keep in mind that young horses are prone to being out of balance and not fully developed in their frame or muscles. They may stand in very odd positions during this time.

Adult horses, just as in humans, do not tend to always stand with perfect posture! They slouch and stand all at odds just as 99% of we humans do! Horses that are over trained, ridden improperly, used with ill fitting or misplaced tack will frequently stand in a guarded manner that can lead to a less than balanced stance. The most common of these positions is to stand with a hollow frame, legs up under itself, or bracing in the body any place from the neck to the hind quarters.

Here are some examples of such differences between posture and actual conformation. The first example is sickle hocks. The point to this conformational flaw is that a truly sickle hocked horse CANNOT straighten it's hind leg to a point the cannon bone runs straight up and down. The hock joint is defective and will not allow the leg to straighten. There is a huge difference between that and a horse that stands up under itself in a sickle hocked POSTURE!

 

SICKLE HOCKS OR SICKLE HOCKED POSTURE?

This particular horse was accused on the Internet as being sickle hocked. Clearly he is not yet he is standing sickle hocked in one photo. Were this horse mine ( he was at one time) I would look at that posture and recognize he was either in discomfort or he was not conditioned properly. To accuse him of being sickle hocked may prevent him from being properly diagnosed and treated for his discomfort.

The horse in this example is Foxvangen's Captain Midnight who has been accused on some Internet chat lists as being sickle hocked. As anyone can clearly see he is not, however his stance in one shot shows sickle hocked posture. That sort of posture often signifies discomfort or pain and should be taken seriously.

Captain Midnight at the age of 2 months clearly is able to straighten his hock which proves he was not born with a defective joint.

Captain Midnight at age two clearly standing up square on his hind legs with the cannon bones straight and perpendicular to the ground... clearly not sickle hocked though grossly overweight.

Captain Midnight standing in sickle hocked posture with his front legs up under him. This posture is often an indication of guarding against pain or discomfort and should be taken seriously. Most generally horses with this posture are sore in the back and/or shoulders.

This posture can be caused by a saddle that does not fit the shoulders properly, a saddle placed as this one appears to be, too far up on the shoulder blades, or from over training particularly in the area of circling which causes the bars of the saddle to dig into the shoulders, or from repeated quick stops and starts. It can also be caused from not warming up and cooling down a horse when put to work.

When horses are sore in the shoulders they frequently shift their weight to the hind quarters. Since they are not supposed to carry more than 40% of their weight on the hind quarters this can lead to muscle spasms in the back, haunch and soreness to the hocks. The result is often this posture. We see this a lot in Quarter Horses that are worked for reining and/or cutting with repetitious work that does not allow the body to stretch and relieve cramped muscles.

Captain Midnight under saddle clearly showing the hind leg can straighten to a perpendicular angle. Riding horses fully collected all the time can cause cramping and muscle spasms because it is an unnatural posture for a horse. Horses need to be built up slowly to that collection. MANY dressage horses become sore and develop suspensory ligament damage, fused spines and muscle spasms from constantly being worked in a rounded frame without relief or time to stretch out to a more normal posture. The result can be suspensory ligament break down, fused spines, stiff necks and muscle soreness.

A good rule of thumb is everything in moderation. If you work a horse rounded, give equal time for him to flex his muscles and relax out of the unnatural posture in order to keep his body from becoming sore. That does not mean to ride hollow, there are degrees of collection. The important thing is to allow the horse to stretch and flex ...to go back to a natural frame frequently.

 

 

 

COW HOCKS OR COW HOCKED POSTURE?

Often times one will hear someone claim a horse is cow hocked. You know the stance where the hocks nearly meet in back with the feet spread farther apart than the hocks? Or the toes pointing out and the hocks pointing in?

In this day and age there are a number of horses with slight deviations to the hind legs but really severe cowhocks are no longer a common occurrence. Cow hocked posture, however, is very common. How does one tell the difference?

Again, if a horse is stood up square with it's weight evenly distributed between the four feet, with the cannon bones running straight up and down on all four legs, then the true conformation of the horse can be seen.

Some under developed horses will brace in the hind legs for balance when they are either in the developmental stage or simply out of condition. But if when stood up square those legs are straight, then the horse is not cow hocked, he is merely standing with poor posture.

Ideally when a horse stands up square, when looked at from behind one can draw a line from the point of buttock to the ground and that line should bisect the leg. Any deviation from that may indicate a slight conformational deviation but it may also indicate a youngster who has not developed enough muscle mass between the hind legs as yet to hold it's legs straight.

If one were to lift the tail of the horse and see the inner muscling of the haunch, it may make things more clear. If that muscling is slight or lacks fullness to it, then there is not much muscle to help the tendons and bones maintain a proper stance.

Actual cow hocks are caused by a deviation in the bones and joints of the hind end assembly. Generally speaking the deviation begins at the hip. If a horse is mature, well nourished and well developed and yet still shows a deviation in this area then he may well be called cow hocked to some degree. In most cases this is not what happens. In most cases where a horse appears cow hocked he is either grossly out of condition, under developed or bracing against some discomfort caused by over exertion or lack of proper conditioning.

 

 



NARROW CHESTED and NARROW BASED HORSES.

In today's world where the average person judges what a horse should look like by comparing them with a Quarter Horse we hear a lot about narrow chested horses and narrow based horses. Once again, most things are relevant. It depends upon what a person is expecting to see to large degree and may not entirely describe the subject horse at all.

There is a vast difference in utility between wide bulging chests and deep sinewy chests. Extremely broad, flat bottomed chests with deep rounded muscling are not meant for long distance work. That is a sprinting chest.

Leaner chests with long muscling running into the forearm and less muscle depth are built for enduring speed and movement. To a person used to looking at a stocky Quarter Horse the chest of an Arabian or in some cases a Thoroughbred may look narrow! In all actuality the shape and size of the chest ought to represent the type of action it was bred most to perform.

Though not skinny she was nutritionally deficient and under developed causing her to be far narrower than she was meant to be and also to stand with less than optimum posture.

Once again, horses that are out of condition, ill fed, or soft may stand narrow when they are in fact not. As an example, I purchased a mare as a five year old that was so narrow in front my doubled fist rubbed on both front legs when I placed my fist between her legs. This mare was not starved or over worked but she was under developed due to lack of nutrition. There is a vast difference between being under fed and under nourished. Even many fat horses are under nourished.

Within 5 months of my purchase of that mare her chest developed and broadened until it took THREE fists to span the space between the front legs. Nourishment and condition made the difference in her development.She is not built for long movement, she is built for quick transitions and spurts of speed.

Five months later she was bulked up and far broader due to proper nutrition. Her stance is still not real good but that is partially due to the handler.

Had one seen her in her initial state they would very likely have termed her narrow chested when nothing could be farther from the truth.

It pays to fully understand what it is one is looking at.

The day she was purchased she was real rough looking with a poor top line. Even though she was not ribby or starved for calories, she was starving for nutrition!

Narrow based horses are those who are narrower where their feet touch the ground than they are where the legs extend from the chest . Once again many times this is caused from under development or lack of conditioning of the horse.

In some cases poor farrier work can also cause a horse to stand narrow at the base. If the feet are not level it can force the posture of the horse to gravitate inward toward one another.

A few months later she came into bloom which improved her posture and her top line. She required work to shape the neck due to the former owner constantly pulling on her mouth. Eventually she became a supple, shapely mare.

Young horses often appear narrow at the base due to lack of muscle mass development.

At 13 years of age, and 8 months pregnant in scorching summer heat, you can clearly see her development has improved her top line, she is still in fit condition and her posture is good.

Horses that are truly narrow at the base frequently lack sufficient muscling in the forearm to maintain and stabilize the posture of the leg.

 

EWE NECKS.

There is a difference between a true ewe neck and a low set neck. Low set necks often mar the smooth top line between the withers and neck with the withers appearing higher than the neck.

A ewe shaped neck is one that when held out forms a downward arch with the head and withers being higher than the middle of the neck.

There are few true ewe necked horses in pedigreed horses today. There are a number of low set necked horses particularly in breeds such as the Quarter Horse, Paint, and Appaloosa.

Horses that are under weight, under nourished or who have suffered a neck injury requiring adjustment may appear ewe necked. Horses who are ridden improperly so they brace in the neck can over develop the under muscles of the neck to an exaggerated degree which tends to make the neck appear pulled down in the middle.

A horse's head weighs an average of 50 to 85 pounds. If the neck is not kept in condition and well muscled it is necessary for that horse to brace in the neck in order to hold it's head up. Just as an example, try picking up a gallon of milk and hold it out at arm's length for 20 minutes without lowering the arm. After just a few short minutes it becomes necessary to lock the elbow and slightly bend the elbow in order to hold the 8 pound gallon of milk aloft. That same scenario applies to a horse's neck.

Horses ridden in false collection where the rider pulls the horses mouth back to collect rather than driving the hind quarters forward, will often cause the neck to flatten and/or ewe.

Here is a mare we purchased that came to us half starved and out of condition. People who came to see her in those first few weeks wrinkled up their nose and declared her to be ewe necked. Those same people were talking a totally different tune however when a few short months later she looked as she does today with a lovely arched neck!

Over the course of nearly five decades of reclaiming horses the necks have been the most common part of the horse that is typically out of alignment and condition and most times that is due to human error. Necks and hind quarters are particularly subject to injury due to poor riding skills.

Scorned and declared ewe necked this mare was simply bracing to hold up her head.

Once she was in condition her neck reshaped to a lovely arch. She was 8 months pregnant in this photo so she appears fat but again,her neck is actually quite lovely.

 

It is vital that people do not jump to conclusions based upon one or two photos. One also should bear in mind that photographic angles can distort the appearance of things due to photo's being only one dimensional.

In assessing conformation, if the animal is not standing up squarely with photos taken from direct view rather than angled views, it is rather impossible to get a clear picture of what truly is before one.

Also in this day and age there are many people who either from ignorance or intent put out erroneous information on the internet. There are those who will jump to discredit others and many who will follow any leader. This sort of "pack" behavior is rather unenlightened. The existence of such mentality illustrates the human race as a whole is not so far removed from our prehistoric animal instincts.

It is important that people do their own investigations when questions arise rather than simply joining the "gang" as it were. Inform yourself by study and observation rather than simply taking someone's word.

There are so many resources available today it is easy to research nearly any subject from your own computer. Be careful not to pass judgment on anything until you have done your homework!

 

 

 

 

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