Form to Function, Part 2:
“How Your Horse’s Conformation Affects His Athletic Ability”
By Lynn Palm
In the previous article, I discussed various conformation aspects of the horse’s head, and I talked a little about skin texture. In this article, I will detail how conformation affects performance.
Performance & Conformation
If you are interested in competing in a specific performance event, you will want to closely investigate specific conformation traits that affect a horse’s function for that event. The following information is an overview of how form affects performance.
A horse’s topline conformation may affect his performance capabilities. The more prominent a horse’s withers, the greater the chance he will carry himself with a desirable uphill balance. From the withers, evaluate the horse’s back, between the end of the withers and the beginning of the loin. The shorter a horse’s back, the stronger and more athletic he will be. The length from the middle of the horse’s withers to the point of his shoulder ideally should be the same length as his back.
The horse’s loin area is where the limbs of his hind legs attach to his spine. This is a critical area that influences a horse’s athleticism. When viewed from the top, the loin should be broad and round. The loin muscles should be placed forward towards the withers, shortening the span of the back. This conformation is strong and athletic. The straighter all of the topline elements line up, the stronger a horse’s back will be.
Before continuing on to other parts of the horse, I think it would be helpful to discuss some undesirable conformation traits in a horse to be used for performance. A horse with very low withers is called “mutton withered,” a trait that will negatively affect his balance by causing him to carry too much weight on his front end. The longer the horse’s back, the less ability he will have to do more difficult performance tasks such as reining, collected canter pirouettes, and jumping. A horse that is narrow across the loin or whose loins are “peaked” at the topline will lack the strength and ability to engage his powerful hindquarters.
Angles count when it comes to how conformation affects performance. A 45-degree angle is the most desirable for a horse’s shoulder angle. Also, consider the placement of the horse’s shoulder in relationship to his withers. A horse with the ability to freely move his shoulders and front legs always has the middle of his withers positioned in a vertical line to his heart girth.
The length of the hip should match the length of the shoulder and the length of the back. Again, a 45-degree angle, when measured from the point of the hip to the middle of the buttocks, is best for performance.
A horse’s neck influences his balance and flexibility. I often say I have never seen a horse with too long of a neck! However, neck length needs to be in proportion to his body. The neck should be neither too long nor too short. A good rule of thumb is that the length of the neck should not exceed the length of the body.
The base of the neck should “tie in” (be attached) into the shoulder approximately three-quarters of the way up the chest. The top of the neck should tie in high up on the withers. The point of attachment between the neck and withers should be smooth, without a dip or depression between them. The neck should look like it flows from the middle of the back in a nice arch that supports the head.
Horses with necks tied in too high or attached to the upper one-quarter of the chest and too high at the wither will have a steep neck angle. This makes it difficult for the horst to round his spine for collection. If the neck is tied in too low, the horse will carry more weight on his forehand and also have difficulty achieving collection.
One of the least desirable neck conformations is a “ewe neck,” which makes it appear as if the topline of the horse’s neck is inverted and the neck put on upside down. It is just the opposite of a desirable arched neck conformation. Ewe necks are typically found on horses whose necks are set on too low. Often there is a telltale depression where the neck and withers meet. Ewe-necked horses have more difficulty achieving balance and collection.
In the next article, I will discuss the horse’s legs and how form to function relates to them. For more information about Palm Partnership Trainingâ„¢ videos, books and equestrian schools, please visit www.lynnpalm.com.