Conformation Part 5

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To continue with our discussion on shoulder conformation and how it relates to “action” or elevation and what uses we might have in mind for our horse:

The humerus with a low angle of 30 degrees or less has several disadvantages. If the angle between humerus and scapula are to be kept at 90 degrees, the shoulder will have to be quite steep, closer to 60 degrees. The shoulder will be long in order to join with the low humerus and this will push the elbow back too far. This results in the horse being “pigeon breasted” with two much of the horses sternum being visible in a side view. This makes the horse heavy in front and he definitely will have trouble going in a balanced way. He will feel like he is traveling downhill, and no training method will be able to get him to pick up his front feet like a show horse. A horse with this conformation will have a humerus angle of around 30 degrees or less. If the shoulder is less than 60 degrees or more sloping, he is in even more trouble because his shoulder isn’t open 90 degrees and his range of movement is further constricted.
By looking at the resting angle of the humerus, you can get an excellent idea of how the horse will carry his head. Low humerus, low head, high humerus, high head. By studying the angle of the shoulder or scapula, you can get an idea of how much the horse will extend his front legs. A line drawn from the point of withers through the point of shoulders and on to the ground will show the farthest a horse can extend. This is seen easily in a trotting horse at the extended trot and in a galloping stride. In a walking horse it is harder to see since he uses a more up-and-down front leg movement, but it works the same way – a steeper shoulder, the less forward movement, a more sloped shoulder the more extension.
We see that there are many variations of the shoulder construction, and the resulting movement of the horse. In order to have a very good horse, both the front and the back of the horse need to work in a balanced manner. A horse can stride in front only as far as his hindquarters are capable of pushing him, but a short reach in front will limit a powerful thrust from behind.

By applying these principles of conformation, you can choose the horse you want for the purpose you have and avoid the horse with conformation likely to be unsound and cause him to travel in an unbalanced manner.

This bay mare has a low angle humerus of about 33 degrees. It is fairly long. Her scapula is moderately steep with an angle of about 55 degrees. She does not have a lot of forward extension because of the straight shoulder, and she does not pick her feet up very high because of the low humerus. She would not respond to wearing heavier shoes by showing much increased front leg action. She is moderately low headed. Her hind quarters do not make up a full third of body length. Her femur is of moderate length, but her gaskin is too long in relatinship to her femur and her hocks are too high because of a long cannon bone. Her femur angles more straight down than forward toward her belly. She lacks power from her pelvic area to coil or round her back, and her total hind lemb length is too long. These two factors make it physically difficult for her to bring her hing legs underneat herself and she travels with her hind legs strung out behind. She can do a four beat flat wark, but at a faster speed, she wants to foxtrot. 

This stallion has the shoulder conformation to have natural lift to his front legs. The humerus is long (75% of the lenght of the scapula) and moderately upright with an angle of 40 degrees. His shoulder or scapula is moderately sloping with an angle of 50 degrees. This will enable him to have good natural elevation and heavier shoeing can enhance his elevation. His body divides into thirds. He has a strong and powerful pelvis. His femur is long and properly angulated forward, not down as in the above bay mare. His gaskin is only slightly longer than his long femur and his cannon bones are the shortest of all the horses shown, setting his hocks the closest to the ground. With his powerful pelvis and properly angulated femur, he can thrust his moderately long hind limb under with ease. He can carry his head in an elevated position because his humerus angulation allows his neck to come out of his shoulders fairly high and his powerful hind quarters allow him to balance his body weight back and elevate the front. He has a true rocking chair canter that is easy and natural for him to perform. It would be possible to teach him flying lead changes and canter pirouettes. His conformation shows no extremes. He can win at horse shows yet has the balance and strenght to jump or do ranch work. 

The original inspiration for writing these conformation articles came from owing a horse that had awesome talent, and wondering why he was so superb in in his gaits when many other Tennessee Walking Horses I had owned and saw were not as good. Also, for several years I had the local 4-H judging teams come to our farm to teach them how to judge the Tennessee Walkers they would find in their competitions. I showed them different walking horses in our barn, explained their conformation and how they gaited. One of my goals was to impress upon them that walkers had different conformation than  trotting horses. One cannot judge a walking horse as a quarter horse!

Sources include information from “Principles of Conformation Analysis” by Deb Bennett, PhD, Charles Sherman, Three Day Event and Dressage instructor and competitor,Loren Weaver DVM, specializing in lameness problems, Harley Yoder, Standardbred trainer and my very, very special horse, Praise Hallelujah.

This series of conformation articles would not be complete without adding the caveat that there are no definites in nature. One can see a horse with postitively perfect conformation that does not seem able to be able to “get it together.” On the flip side, one can see a horse that appears that it couldn’t do anything right, be a star. Training and conditioning can make or break any horse/rider team.

Above all, love and appreciate your horse and he will do his utmost for you!


Inspriation for the day

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Half the failures of this world arise from pulling in one’s horse as he is leaping.”
— Augustus W. Hare (1792-1834)


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The front half of a walking horse has the same problems, faults and good points as our trotting friends. Here again, the use we have planned for our horses makes a difference in what we look for in conformation. A horse has two bones in his shoulder.  The scapula runs from the point of the withers to point of the shoulders. The humerus or arm bone goes from the point of the shoulders to point of the elbow. How these bones relate to each other determines how a horse moves in front. In talking about how a walker “moves out of the shoulder” we are most familiar with the scapula, or shoulder blade. However, the humerus is very important and seldom talked about. It is capable of side to side movement, and also swings from back to front, raising or lowering the elbow. It determines the way a horse will fold or unfold the elbow, knee and fetlock joints. It determines the style or way of going of the front end of the horse. The longer the humerus the more scope the horse will have. Scope is defined as the ability to move the elbow away from the body, either toward the front or to the side. Scope is a very desirable characteristic. To be considered long, the humerus must be at least 50% of the length of the scaupla. Better motion is seen with the length closer to 75%. The shorter the humerus, the more short gaited the horse will be, moving with short, stiff, choppy strides. In our walkers we must have this length to allow the forearm to extend forward. No matter what the length or angle of the shoulder, without a long humerus the horse can’t roll out of the shoulders.

The steeper the resting angle of the humerus, the higher the horse can raise his knees. This is of obvious importance to those of us who want to show our horses. The most spectacular natural action is shown by horses with a moderately upright shoulder, around 55 degrees, and a long steep humerus. Hackneys and park horses are good examples. Since we like our walkers to have reach forward as well as natural upward action, the walker’s shoulders should be more sloping, between a 45 and 50 degree angle. A very sloping angle of around 45 degrees is found in racing thoroughbreds and dressage stars who need great forward extension, but little knee action. A long upright humerus with a moderately sloping shoulder is what we need if we want natural elevation with as little fuss as possible.
A horse with a more horizontal humerus will have less natural ability for high action or tight folding. He will move with little elevation of his front legs and will have difficulty in raising his forearms to level and may hang his knees.

In order to have a rolling shoulder, the angle between the scapula and the humerus must be at least 90 degrees. Less shortens the forward movement of the whole shoulder. A shoulder slope of 45 degrees needs a humerus angle of 45 degrees to keep a 90 degree angle between. A shoulder angle of 50 degrees needs a 40 degree angle of the humerus.

Many walkers seem to fall into the category of medium angle of the humerus. They may not make high stepping show horses; but their movement will be pleasant. They would probably show well in western, trail pleasure classes and be wonderful riding horses. Their shoulder angles are probably between 51 to 55 degrees with a humerus angle of between 39 to 35 degrees. Heavier shoes and other training methods will have less of an elevating effect on these horses.

 The gray gelding shows an extremely low angle of the humerus and consequently also is low headed. He also has a very straight shoulder and “travels downhill.” He is hard to collect and it is structurally impossible for him to elevate his front end. Heavier shoes would have no effect on his gait. He is moderately straight legged behind with high cannon bones. His gaskin and femur are nearly equal in lenght. He does a proper flat walk, but cannot “go on.” He breaks into a trot when pushed too fast. He has a marvelous canter.

The black mare has a wonderful shoulder. It is open a full 90 degrees. Her long uprigh humerus is a full 75% of the scapula in length and her shoulder is long and sloping with an angle of 45 degrees. This combination gives her great extension of the forelegs. She is high headed. She has less natural elevation than a horse with a slightly more upright shoulder, but she would respond to heavier shoes and training with more elevation. She has a powerful pelvis with a good sloping angle. Her loin area where the back joins the pelvis is smooth and strong. Her femur is long and she has a moderately long gaskin. ( If I could improve her, I would like to see her hind cannon bones just a little shorter to lower her hocks.) She has the power of her hindquarters to coil or round her back and push her legs under her body at the flat and running walk. Her gaskin length is more in proportion to the femur length, being only moderately longer. She has a wonderful flatwalk and a running wark with speed. She has good extension in front and a big overstride behind. The hardest gait for her is the canter. Her longer hind limbs with cannons longer than perfect make it difficult for her to extend her hind legs under her and instead they push her rump up at the canter. It will take more work to teach her to round or coil her back at this gait. She makes a good show mare and trail horse, but she would not be as good at ranch work.

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