Thursday, December 29, 2011

Posture and Conformation

I have been thinking about a horse's posture and how that can have an effect on their feet and vice versa.

If I meet a new client horse (or sometimes when I am revisiting for a maintenance trim) I like to have a look at the horse from afar, take in his general posture and demeanor. Of course, it all depends on how the horse is stood up, but if you watch for a while the horse will return to it's default stance. Better yet, watch the horse in turnout. Watch for trends, which hoof they favour for striking off first, which hind limb they rest more, if they graze with one leg consistently forward.

Shall we look at a few pictures? I am commenting on these pictures as if I had observed this to be the horse's default stance.
A horse with good overall posture. Relaxed top line, neck hanging like a pendulum. Front legs straight (not out in front or underneath). This horse does have a weak stifle and straight hocks, which would lead me to investigate the back end for soreness.
Same horse stood up with poor posture - front legs camped under (maybe getting pressure off the heels - caudal heel pain?). Shoulder and neck tight, tense. Back looks tight, loins look hard and as if they are holding up the horse's hind end. Hind feet camped under, taking pressure off toes?

Allie, looking at me while out grazing. Good overall posture, loins look a little long and weak - keep those hind toes short to avoid soreness in the loin! Left front leg is not weight bearing - compensating for something in the hoof? Or possibly soreness in the shoulder? Horse is tucked up, with sunken flanks and if I didn't know her I would look for a reason for it. BUT this is normal for her. She got it from her sire.
Horse camped WAY under with all four legs. Long toes in front, but he is getting weight off his heels - caudal heel pain? Horse most likely would NOT stride heel first. Shoulder looks tense, but the back does not - it looks fairly relaxed. Where the tension starts again is from the point of the croup back to the top of the dock - you can even see his tense muscles around his hip and flank area. He can't possibly be balanced in the hind end standing like that - partially conformational with his sickle hocks and short pasterns, but it would be very interesting to see what the bottom of his feet looked like!.

This is an extreme case of standing under with the fronts - if you were to drop a line from the fulcrum of his shoulder blade, it would not even contact any part of his limb except maybe the very top muscle, even with his super long toes! Extreme separation, I predict thee.

Gracie out grazing - a less obvious stance but similar to the chestnut above - standing under all but the left front leg. Back and shoulders fairly relaxed, but she has a longish loin - needs hind toes to be kept short. Nice strong short croup though may help give the weaker loin some stability. Right fore leg not weight bearing - probably because she is about to take a step but could also indicate a weakness there. Hind legs standing very awkwardly (see below!).
Ummm... yeah. Mass symmetry issues - I would look for imbalances in the hoof especially the inside left and outside right heels. LUCKY this is not her normal stance!! Looks like the hocks are both pointing to something to the right of the photo.

Again with the hind end tension and weaknesses - long loin, tight croup and weak stifles. He even has what looks to be deteriorated muscles over the hindquarter. Slightly sickle hocked - Keep hinds short to help with heel first landings (not normally a problem in hind hooves!).

This guy looks pretty good in the hind end posture wise (except for how wide apart his legs are) but what strikes me first about him is his foreleg stance - he looks like he is rocking back on his heels. Laminitic or separation issues are a possibility. His shoulders, neck and entire topline from wither to tail look nice and relaxed though.

Get up on a stool and look at the horse's back from this angle - you will be able to see if the muscling is symmetrical, if the spine is straight, if the hips are also symmetrical. This is Allie, and she is fairly symmetrical, with a lovely straight spine.

This is what you are looking at!
I recently went to see a pony to talk to her owner about how her trimming was going. After looking at her feet we stood there chatting and I found myself looking at the pony as a whole. The biggest thing I noticed was her spine alignment - being a pony, this was easy to see. Her spine bulged out to the left quite noticeably. A second look at her feet showed that the cause was possibly a much higher inside heel on her right front hoof. Her shoulder was also very tight and it was almost impossible to get even a finger under the scapula.

Now I have not undergone much training to do with equine conformation, posture or anything of that sort except my own research, an unfinished equine management diploma and my own findings in horses I have worked with. Above are the few things I feel confident noting but I think the most important thing is to listen to the WHOLE horse - not just his feet. Often, what is happening in the feet is just a mirror or echo of what is happening 'upstairs'.

I would love to start a discussion in the comments!


  1. Consider the discussion started...

    I used to know a horse whom many of us felt suffered from caudal hoof pain. He had high (uneven) heels and a long hoof. The farrier was employing remedial shoeing techniques, such as pads and wedges. (Don't ask me why he wasn't employing heel balance. I was baffled.)

    The horse had a tremendously difficult time picking up the right lead and looked very humped under behind (think jumper's bump, but without the jumping). He had really big, heavy shoulders (QH/Paint) and front legs which were set pretty far under his base of support. He would often park out behind, when he wasn't humped under. He also had a short, short loin, which looked very tight. Clearly the farrier was not meticulous (competent), but how much of his problem was conformational and bio mechanical? I found that if he was worked with special attention to lateral balance and stretching his frame, his movement improved despite his poor feet. If he was ridden recklessly (or pulled into a tight frame) he went lame and would remain unusable for many weeks. It was heart-breaking watching this, and was part of the reason that I left the barn. The good news is that he was eventually adopted out and now lives bare and sound. :)

  2. Firstly, it must make you happy to hear the poor horse has found a good home.

    I think we need to look at our horses honestly and recognise their limitations - a human with poor knee conformation (like me!) doesn't take up marathon running, does he? If a horse is not built to do a certain job, then find a new job for him that he can actually do, don't keep makin him sore. I think the horse you describe didn't have a biomechanical problem, he had ignorant owner syndrome.

    I also don't understand why farriers employ wedges in ANY situation, especially when there is such a simple and easy an answer as balancing the heels!

  3. You hit the nail on the head, Lisa. This poor fellow was at a lesson barn, but his brain and body were not lesson material. He had to start rebelling (bucking and such) before they finally adopted him out and the woman who took him loved him already and had barefoot clients. He was rescued, for sure!

    I think it is very important to look at the whole horse objectively and not force them into a mold.

    The more I read about wedges, the more I cringe at their use. Unfortunately, they gave the illusion of improvement, because the horse would actually land heel-first when we was first shod, even though the heel contraction was very obvious. This made it difficult to get management to listen, especially when taking his shoes off revealed how sore he was. Put the shoes back on was the general reaction.

  4. Very interesting post! And you're so right about looking at the whole horse. I should post a picture of our mare Rose to get your opinion. Her hinds look like maybe they have negative plantar angle or whatever it's called. And it's almost like her hind legs are too long, or that she's built too uphill. She has a lot of trouble shifting weight off her hind legs - as if there's too much that has to happen before the leg is freed up for movement. I looked at her hocks yesterday (for the first time?! What's wrong with me?!) and noticed this weird enlarged cord which the other horses don't have.

  5. June, feel free to either post a picture yourself for me to comment on or email me pictures and I will do a post about it!