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Lynn Palm Form to Function:

How Your Horse’s Conformation Affects His Athletic Ability, Part 3

By Lynn Palm

In the last article we covered most of the horse’s body conformation as it pertains to performance. We will now look at the horse’s legs because, as the old saying goes, “no legs, no horse.”

Let’s Look at Legs

Correct conformation and structure of the horse’s legs will improve his longevity as a performance horse. This is the foundation for free-flowing movement and the joint strength needed to perform the most difficult maneuvers.

To get better acquainted with your horse’s foreleg conformation, stand at least 10 feet from your horse so you can see him in profile. First, find your horse’s “arm,” which is the humerus bone connecting the shoulder to the forearm. It lies under the muscles on the line connecting the point of the shoulder and the point of the elbow.

Now imagine a plumb line dropped from the middle of your horse’s arm to the ground. Ideally, this straight line should bisect the forearm (upper foreleg), knee, and fetlock joint, touching the ground just behind his heel. (If you have difficulty identifying these conformation points, consult a good equine reference book.)

If the leg bows forward from this line at the knee, it is a weakness called “over at the knee,” in which the knee looks as if it is constantly bent or buckling forward. This conformation flaw causes a horse to bear his weight abnormally too far forward at the knee. This is not as serious as if the middle of the leg bows or bends backward from this line at the knee. Known as “calf-kneed,” a horse with this weak front leg conformation will bear weight too far backward at the knee.

Either of these conformation flaws stresses the joints, tendons, and ligaments of the horse’s forelegs, and can limit the horse’s performance abilities and lead to unsoundness.

The conformation of a horse’s hind legs is the most important factor for athleticism, since the hind legs create the power and agility that drives a horse’s “motor.” The angle of a horse’s hock determines this joint’s ability to furnish impulsion and absorb shock.

Look at a profile of your horse’s hip and hind leg. Imagine a string dropped from his hip, starting at the point of the buttock to the ground. Ideally, the string should touch the back of the hock and the back of the fetlock joint before it touches the ground.

If both the hock and fetlock joint fall behind this line, the hind leg conformation is called “camped out.” The hind legs will look as if they were put on too far behind the horse. A horse with this conformation will be limited in his ability to swing his hind legs underneath his body to engage a deep stroke so necessary for strong balance and performance. If both the hock and fetlock are positioned in front of the straight line, a horse is “camped under,” an even weaker conformation fault.

If the hock joint touches this imaginary line, but the fetlock joint is positioned in front of it, the horse is “sickle hocked.” A sickle-hocked horse has too much angle to his hock, placing the lower hind leg too far underneath his body.

Looking at a horse from behind, you should be able to draw an imaginary straight line through his stifle, hock, and fetlock joints. If a horse’s lower leg from the hock down to the hoof turns outward from this line the horse is “cow hocked.” This horse’s hind legs will have a toed-out appearance, with the hocks set close together. Many horses display some degree of this trait, but extreme “cow hocked” conformation affects performance.

A more serious conformation flaw is where the hocks are turned outward and the leg below is rotated inward, giving the hind legs a bowlegged, pigeon-toed appearance. This conformation seriously deters collected action and predisposes a horse to unsoundness.

Examine your horse’s lower leg conformation. A 45-degree angle from the fetlock joint to the coronet band and pastern is the most desirable. The angle of the pasture should match the angle of the shoulder. Any degree of deviation from the ideal 45-degree angle signals a structural weakness that puts added stress on the horse’s hooves, tendons and ligaments. If the angle is greater than 45 degrees, the pastern is considered “straight.” Short, straight pasterns reduce the ability of the lower leg joints to absorb concussion, causing a rougher ride and greater impact stress on the horse’s hooves and legs. If the pastern angle is less than 45 degrees, the “sling” of tendons and ligaments supporting the fetlock will be overstressed to support this joint.

All four hooves should be in proportion to the size of the horse, with the most desirable hooves being round and wide, especially through the heels. The angle of the hoof wall should match the angle of the pastern. This helps prevent stress on the pastern and coffin bones.

Deviations from ideal conformation can lead to arthritic changes in the joints and stress on the tendons and ligaments, depending on the performance asked of the horse. Whenever you have questions about conformation issues, consult with your veterinarian. This can save you buying a horse that won’t be able to perform to your hopes, or help you set realistic goals for the horse you already own.

It is your responsibility to know your horse’s individual conformation traits and how they may affect his performance. One way to learn is to consult books that illustrate desirable and less desirable equine conformation traits, and then compare them to your horse. Your vet can help you analyze your horse’s conformation and explain how it will affect his soundness and performance. Your blacksmith can give you helpful recommendations on trimming, shoeing, and hoof care according to your horse’s foot and leg structure.

Although no horse is perfect, proper, patient training can improve a horse’s function, even if his conformation is not ideal.

For more information about Palm Partnership Training â„¢ training videos, books and equestrian schools, please visit or call 800-503-2824.

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