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!