The Long And Short Of It – Part 2a – Back

The rider sits on the horse’s back and is carried forward. But the horse’s back is not designed to carry weight, and that is why so many horses travel with their backs hollow and tense. This is where I tell you to read a certain one hundred page book on skeletal, ligamental and muscular anatomy, center of gravity, the ‘ring of muscles’, how the horse must be ridden to counter this physical weakness, why it so often goes wrong, blah, blah, blah. The truth is if everyone knew that we wouldn’t be ‘here’ talking about something as simple as back length. Someday we’ll tackle that topic, but not today.

For now it’s good enough to know that a long back in a horse is a fault.   It lacks longitudinal strength and often sags under the weight of a rider, creating a ‘leg mover’ that certainly can give a smoother ride, but only at the expense of the horse.  Prime examples of leg movers are gaited horses that tense and hollow their backs to be able to move their legs in any number of timed sequences, as opposed to your ‘back mover’, the Dressage horse, that swings freely through the loin and back.  This latter requires a rider to have a supple lower back that follows and absorbs this movement to prevent being launched out of the saddle.

Additionally on the subject of longitudinal strength; without it the horse cannot easily maintain engagement.

A long backed horse often presents the rider with the additional challenge of trying to keep the horse straight from dock to poll.  Don’t, however, confuse that with lateral flexibility.  Indeed, a shorter backed horse is often more laterally flexible than its long-backed counterpart.  I will address that in an additional article (2b) in this series.

An excessively short back is also a fault in a horse.  Such a configuration doesn’t allow for enough room for a saddle to be placed, as well, sets the rider’s weight on the loin rather than on the ribcage.  It’s never a good idea to ride a horse from its loin; the weakest portion of an already weak structure.

  • A long back: >50%
  • A medium back: 45-49% (Note: 45% is considered ‘ideal’ for a riding horse; the ‘perfect’ length to provide lateral flexibility and longitudinal strength)
  • A short back: < 45%

To determine back length we measure the horse’s body length and divide that number into the back length number to arrive at a percentage. 

  • Body length is measured from point of shoulder to point of buttock. 
  • Back length is measured from highest point of wither to lumbo-sacral joint.

Here is our trusty skeleton horse with the points marked in red.  The highest point of wither is usually thoracic vertebrae four (T4) and the lumbo-sacral (LS) joint is located between lumbar vertebrae six (L6) and sacral vertebrae one (S1).  I’ve added an extra dot marking the highest point of croup (sacral tuber – top point of the pelvic bone) to help establish the location of the LS joint since it can’t actually be ‘seen’ in a photo; residing 2-4 inches below the surface of the skin. 

The best way to locate the LS joint on a horse is to palpate the horse’s back.  As you move along the length of the back you can feel the individual spines of the vertebrae, then you’ll hit a ‘mushy’ spot and finally vertebrae spines again.  Below that ‘mushy’ spot is the LS joint.  For article purposes, we’ll use the highest point of croup (which is located behind the LS joint) to help us find the LS joint in photographs.

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The LS joint is the most important trait to discuss in horses in terms of athletic potential and movement.  The entire hindquarter of the horse pivots on this joint and its location relative to the horse’s point of hip is instrumental to a horse’s ability to engage and collect.

I’ve added more dots to our six candidates and it’s time to measure back lengths.  The LS joint is marked in a different color and though I’ve placed that mark at the skin level of the horse for measuring sake, remember that it resides 2-4 inches below the skin surface.

Horse #1 – 10yr old QH Stallion

Take a look at him unmarked.  Where do you see the points and how does his back length look to your eye?  Imagining a saddle on the horse and seeing how much space between the back of it and the start of the hip is sometimes helpful.  If there’s a lot of room, chances are the back is long.  If no room, then the back is likely short.

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This horse has a back length of approximately 41.5%.  That falls clearly in the short back range, giving this horse a high degree of longitudinal strength.  Did you imagine a Western saddle on him and where the skirt might come to?

Horse #2 – QH Gelding

How does this horse’s back length compare?  Does it look longer or shorter?

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This one measures almost 42.5%, so a full percentile longer but still falling in the short range and possessing a high degree of longitudinal strength. 

Start to take notice of the relationship of the highest point of croup, point of hip and LS joint, and how they differ for every horse.

Horse #3 – 4yr old QH

Like the first time around, when it was difficult to spot his point of shoulder, it’s equally as difficult to spot this horse’s highest point of wither.  He has lower withers in general, which is not a fault and different than ‘mutton’ withers, which is a serious fault in the horse. 

How does his back length look?

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If you thought this one looked longer than the first two, then you get a gold star.  This horse is approximately 48% falling in the medium back length category.

Horse #4 – Arabian Stallion

Here we see a set of prominent withers.  In this case they are also ‘camel withers’.  Though difficult to detect because of the mane and photo background, look closely.  Follow the top line of the mane and you’ll see a significant dip in front of the wither and then the wither drops off abruptly.   A dip in front of the withers can indicate a few different things, so not all horses with a dip there (and an abrupt ending) have camel withers.  Let’s compare horse #2, our roan QH.  The dip in front of his withers is easily gotten rid of with good riding and training, which would significantly change his neck musculature and fill in that dip.  Our Arabian stallion, though, already has way better neck musculature (mostly because it’s a stallion’s way to arch and telescope their neck to get the chicks) and still a big dip.  There is no amount of correct riding or training that will get rid of it.  Camel withers do not function as well as better constructed withers; that as a ‘fulcrum’.

Scroll back to the skeleton horse for a moment and look at the ‘spines of the wither vertebrae’ that make up the withers.  Those spines vary in length for every horse.  Thoroughbreds generally have very long spines compared to Quarter Horses.

Back to our Arabian stallion; how does his back look?

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He too falls into the short back category at almost 43.5%.

Horse #5 – TB Gelding

Now that you’ve seen three short backs and one medium, has your eye gotten good enough to guess where this horse’s back length falls?  The mane and the background of this photo make it hard to see that highest point of wither.

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If you guessed the longest back of all so far, but still falling in the medium range at 49%, then you were right.  What is most significant, though, is the placement of the LS joint.  Remember this horse had the shortest pelvic length of the group, representing the least power potential by falling in the poor category.  But I also said the horse had two ‘saving graces’, one of them being exceptional location of the LS joint, and earlier in this article I stated that the LS joint was the most important trait to discuss when talking about athletic potential and movement . 

Here we clearly see that the LS joint is located the furthest in front of the point of hip of any horse thus far.  That is most advantageous for ANY horse, ‘adding’ length to the hip and thus power potential.  In this case that poor length of hip is moved into the adequate/average category.  Is it then possible that the LS joint placed ‘behind’ the point of hip (such as seen with our roan QH) might ‘subtract’ length and thus power potential from the hip? (Rhetorical question)  Additionally and even more importantly, an LS joint placed in front of the point of hip makes engagement, as a whole, easier to achieve.

Horse #6 – Paint Mare

Last chance to test your eye on the horse with the hardest point of wither to identify.  I’m not entirely convinced I’ve got it right.

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As it’s marked this horse falls long with a back of 50%.  If I’m off at all, it’s a touch to the long side, but either way we’re looking at a back as long as we ever want to see on a horse, and we’d really prefer it to be shorter.

There is one more thing I’d like to point out concerning back strength.  The further withers carry into the back, and the gentler they taper off into the back, the more strength they add to a back.  Of this group, our TB has the nicest set of withers that gently taper off the greatest distance into the back, adding strength.

It’s time now to go out into your barn and palpate your horses’ backs and find the LS joint and its relationship to the point of hip.  Look at their backs and guess their lengths, then measure to see how close you were with your estimations.  Look at their withers, are they prominent and drop off abruptly, or are they lower and flow smoothly into the back, or some combination.

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44 thoughts on “The Long And Short Of It – Part 2a – Back

  1. Again I have no other comment because of course you are right, and another excellent post. I am intrigued by your “how the horse must be ridden” comment, and this is something that I have tried to do. When I see people saying that a certain rider is to heavy for a horse, I have often thought that what matters is how the person rides.

    • Well, I have a question for you; have you changed your order now? If I recall correctly you placed the horses as such:
      1 – Horse #4 – which now clearly has two significant faults; table top croup and camel withers
      2 – Horse #2 – which has the only poor LS joint placement of the lot
      3 – Tie between horses 3,6 – horse #6 now established as having a fairly significant fault with a long back

      Or will you stick with that order under the assumption that there are other plus traits that will over ride what we’ve established so far?

      • I stand by my selections, not because I am an arab person, I have the luxury of not preferring any breed. For fun, I just redid my order and will move the paint down a notch, so:
        4,2,3,6,5,1 Thanks!

          • Oh I don’t think you have anything to be ashamed of. At the end of the tutorial I will explain why I put this horse first. But I think every horse lover is a bit of an “arab person”. They are a very old type, the arab, barb, turk; the “light horse” that influences so many of our breeds today.

  2. I found it helpful to print off pictures of all six horses with the points marked so that I could see them all at the same time. I agree with your placement of the withers on the paint mare, who I continue to like the least of all the horses. I originally chose horse number one as my favorite, but now that I see how short his back is I must change that. I don’t even know how a western saddle could fit on him! I now choose the gray quarter horse, with the reservation to change again as we go along. 🙂 excellent article, as always! Now I have to go measure the old man. I suspect that he falls in the long category, as he was always a nice squishy ride. Just glad most of our more intensive riding days happened when I weighed 100lbs sop soaking wet. Ahhh, the good old days!

  3. I really like reading these articles, and I especially like that you are using the same horses for each. I hope at the end of your series (or at least, eventually) you’ll sum up each horse in terms of its strengths and faults. I only wish there were a greater variety of breeds for you to look at, such as Morgans and ASBs and maybe an Andalusian or somesuch. I’m going to go to the barn tomorrow, get a good side shot of my boy, and get out my tape measure.

    • For sure we’ll summarize as we go along and at the very end, and it’s quite possible I’ll do the whole thing all over again, but use different breeds like the ones you suggested. *wink*

  4. My favourite is still #2, he has a coarser head than #1 but I find him better balanced. I have a dislike for the shoulder of horse #3. It will be interesting to see how this all plays out.

  5. Ooo, I want to try!

    This is a 23 year-old Appendix Quarter Horse mare.

    I ended up getting about 45.5%. Ideal.

    This is a 12 year-old Morgan/Lipizzan gelding.

    I ended up getting about 47%. Medium.

    This is a 28 year-old Morgan mare. Mother to the above gelding.

    I ended up getting about 50%. Long.

    This is a 13 year-old Lipizzan mare.

    Ended up getting about 45%. Ideal.

    This is an 11 year-old Morgan gelding.

    Ended up getting about 50%. Long.

    How did I do? 😀 I’m probably way off, haha.

    • I do not get the same measurements, mostly because I want to move some of your dots a bit…not a lot mind you.
      1. 44.5% – so still very close to ‘ideal’
      2. 46% – still medium
      3. 48% – I believe the LS joint to be further ahead than you’ve marked and not sure that POS is quite right, hard to tell with the head down, but I think this one falls to medium
      4. 47.5ish% – medium
      5. 46% – POS isn’t quite right so body length is a bit shorter than marked, but I think you just put in the wrong numbers for your calculation

      This does make a good point how just changing the location of the points a bit can change the numbers. You can see, though, that for the most part our numbers fall within the same category, so it’s still a worthwhile exercise to train the eye.

      • Thanks, I had a feeling I’d be off on them, haha. I’m just proud to have even gotten most of them in the right category! I had a feeling I was definitely off on the Morgan mare at least. I’m curious how you’re measuring between the points, because I basically had to zoom in with Photoshop and hold a ruler to the screen.

        • I didn’t have to zoom at all, but I’ve had lots of practise measuring off my computer screen over the years. I have a special ruler and protractor that’s perfect.

    • I assume you meant this comment to be to 2arabs? Click the reply button directly to the right of a person’s name and you will then be replying to that comment, otherwise you’ll find you’re replying to the wrong comment level and/or to someone else entirely.

        • I own nothing of value, so if you think you’re going to sue me for some substantial compensation because you don’t know how to properly drink…think again. Consider this your official warning: I am bound to say ‘anything’ at ‘any time’, and it’s likely to be meant to illicit liquids from your nose.

          • If you, or someone you love has ever been amused to laughing out loud at a blog comment, you may be entitled to compensation for your injuries….. 🙂

  6. Great post M. it’s helpful that you use the same horses for comparison and how one strength can somewhat negate a fault. This is where I fail, I need to know why horses CAN do when to me their confo prohibits it in my eyes. I’m looking forward to how necks factor in! My long-backed gelding has great balance that he achieves (only) when he puts his neck down – almost like a counter weight. Guess I’ll have to keep reading til we get there!

    My order – 3 Gray/Grulla, 2 Roan, 3 TB, 4 Liver, 5 Arab, 6 Paint

    • The neck is a BIG factor for a horse. Part of what you’re experiencing with your gelding has to do with the withers and how they act as a fulcrum. That’ll become clear down the road. 🙂

      • I’ve felt that if a horse’s hip/shoulder have similar length (and adequate strength) as do the neck/back then the horse somewhat balances out. I think that’s how my gelding gets by so well as did his sire. Looking forward to the fulcrum discussion to test my theory.

        • I think we define ‘balance’ differently. Balance to the horse is being able to shift body weight to the haunch through engagement/collection and bringing weight distribution to a 50/50 ratio. The ability to do ‘that’ has little to do with body segment balance, as we’ll discover as we look at these horses more closely. That’s why I cringe every time someone says, ‘The horse is balanced because I can break the horse into three equal segments.’ I can show you such a horse that couldn’t get out of its own way.

          • My gelding has a long back, long neck which to me make the hip and shoulder appear short, comparably. (definitely no 3 segments on this guy!) Yet he can drive deep underneath himself and has a nice, slow “roll” to his canter keeping his neck low and head just in front of vertical and pol at or just above withers. He lunges this way in just a rope halter and it only falls apart if he lifts his head (gets lazy). A cluck and he ‘frames’ back up. Caveat is that this is a western horse and he needs to travel without rein contact. So my theory is that he has natural balance that allows him to carry himself without a lot of aids by the rider. FTR, he does NOT and will never be a Breed Show mover, there is no spur stop or 4 beat lope in my barn! 😉

  7. Silly question: so if a horse has a slightly swayed back, do you still measure from point to point in a straight line or do you lay the measuring tape along the spine?

  8. I am absolutely obsessed with these broken-down conformation lessons! I am slowly dissecting my mare’s conformation along with the articles and am pleased to say that she seems to fall in the “good” or “average” category for both hip length and back.

    I was a little terrified to dig into her conformation since she wasn’t the most responsibly bred horse. “Hey, teenage girl. You have a mare? We have a stallion! Let’s make a baby!” But hindsight is 20/20 and I am lucky to have not made a complete “Fugly!”

      • Hence the “complete!” 😉 She’s a good packer nonetheless and I doubt we will ever compete with her slight sickle hocked-ness. I’m just nerdy enough to want to know! So far we have more than adequate hip length-check, acceptable back length-check, and super cute cookie-begging face-check!

  9. I’m really enjoying your blog Mercedes. Excellent writing (and easy to follow for those of us that are “conformation stupid” 😉

  10. Okay, palpated and measured my horse. So far following these lessons, I think that she has an excellent hip (I got 37-38%) and a medium-long back (around 48%), but I think her LS joint placement isn’t that great – only a touch ahead of point of hip. This mare feels under saddle like she’s got a powerful hind end, she’s a good jumper (as in “power to spare for an adult amateur” not as in Grand Prix prospect, I’m not delusional). If I’m understanding these lessons correctly, the LS placement isn’t doing her any favours but the long hip would nonetheless give her enough hind-end pushing power to get her job done. In fact, her LS placement might be one of the things, conformationally, that makes the difference between a good adult amateur show horse and a real upper-level performance horse.

    • No, an LS joint in front of the point of hip is advantageous and VERY good and you say hers is slighty in front. Behind the point of hip is a poor placement an exponentially takes away athletic potential the further back it is placed because it affects the horse’s ability to coil the loin and engage.

      If a horse has an excellent length of pelvis with an LS joint behind the point of hip then that is a better set of traits than a horse with an average length of hip and an LS joint behind the point of hip, but is still not desirable.

      There are a number of factors that distinguish a good performing horse from an excellent performing horse, not all of them conformation related. What we’re trying to do here by examining each trait on the horse is to establish athletic potential, strengths, weaknesses, form to function, understand tradeoffs in traits and where on the scale that each trait falls in overall importance (since not all traits are created equally).

      Does that make sense?

      • Absolutely makes sense. I thought that I was looking for the LS joint to be as far in front of the hip as possible, so I thought that hers being only a tiny little bit in front wasn’t that good. Now what I’m taking away is that the important thing is that it’s not behind the hip.

        I have a general sense that my horse is reasonably well-built, I am quite confident that she’s not in fugly territory, but I’m appreciating learning more about the details of the analysis. I can readily pick out obvious flaws on the classic fugly-horse-of-the-day types, but the differences between a good horse and a great horse seem much more subtle.

        • When evaluating you want to see the LS joint in line with, or in front of the point of hip. The further it is ahead of the point of hip, the more excellent that is, but it’s not necessary for it to be way in front for a horse to be athletic.

          An LS joint behind the point of hip automatically decreases athletic potential. You lose hip length and leverage, and therefore a certain portion of the ability to engage, right off the top. If you were looking for a top athlete, that configuration is pretty much automatically a deal breaker.

          Fortunately for horses, not every one has to be a top athlete. By the same token, people often attempt to get more out of a horse then it can physically give and/or they don’t understand why a horse is giving them problems. A lot of the time you can point to conformation as the culprit.

          I just spent a few months working with a TB that the owner complained didn’t have any power and didn’t seem to get under himself well. When looking at him, he had an average length of hip, a poorly placed LS joint, a long loin, a long back and was over-angulated behind. On top of that he had an injury to the pelvis that had gone unnoticed. I was able to improve him significantly, partly in due to addressing the injury, but the fact of the matter his conformation was never going to allow him to be a powerful mover, ever, and he’d forever be susceptible to injury without constant attentive riding and training, therefore was not suited for what the owner wanted or what she could offer him from a riding and training standpoint. She didn’t have the knowledge or skills to keep him sound.

  11. In defense of my number one pick, the tb gelding, and his hip structure, I will point out that his left hind is stepped towards the photographer and rotated, note the amount ofinside of the hock we see. It is my belief that this has caused the length of hip to appear foreshortened in the photograph and that he has a perfectly normal length of hip and a wonderful ls joint placement, and my issue with his rear end conformation has not yet been reached, but I assume it will be in a future installment. But I agree on the strength of his spinal conformation, good withers laying well back, well place SI and a good length allowing strength and sufficient lateral flexibility. The shorter qh backs are great in cutting and cow work where lateral flexibility is less important in a rollback, and combined with those huge butts, let’s them sit down and turn within their body length and take off quickly again.

    That hundred page book is out of print and tough to find, but I’ve heard a new and improved ebook with neat modern technology is coming. May I also say, that as well as informative, I find this blog amusing coming from the person who once said if I mentioned one more muscle name, they were going to barf.

  12. Fisrtly I would like to say I’m so glad to have found your blog! Conformation is such a fascinating topic and while I can’t change what strenght/weaknesses my horse was born with, I find it gives me usefull insight into training issues that have developed over time. I have gone over my copy of Conformation Anaylysis many times in an effort to improve my eye but unfortunately I have the reprint version and the poor reproduction quality of many of the photos is very frustrating – so your clear photo examples along with your descriptions are great, and not to mention the opportunity to ask questions!
    So my question relates to ChestnutMare’s post above…I too struggle with the whole LS placement, but I now I realize this confusion stems from whenever I look at skeleton diagrams the LS gap in the vertebra always appears behind the point of the hip. I just can’t seem to visualize how a horse can have the LS placement in front of the hip when looking at the skeleton – does their pelvis shape play a role? I noticed in the horses above, all of the ones who have acceptable and good LS placements also appear to have higher hip points. Can you shed some light on this?
    Thanks for sharing your knowledge!

    • I’m glad you found us here as well. Tell your friends! 🙂

      That’s a great question and something I’ve noticed as well in pictures of skeletons. (It is unfortunate that many of the pictures in that book series are so poor.) Now, I’m not the paleontologist so I could be wrong, but a ‘skeleton’ can’t represent ‘all’ individuals. We know for a fact that bones vary in lengths and that they can be orientated differently to one another creating various joint angles. Since the individual bones that make up loin and sacrum, and pelvic bone itself can all be of varying ‘lengths’ the orientation of each to each other can vary. You can have a long loin, a short sacrum, a long pelvis, or a short loin, long sacrum and long pelvis, or a medium loin, short sacrum and short pelvis and so on.

      Here, I found a quote from one of those books: “An ideally placed lumbosacral joint lies as far forward as is anatomically possible – on a line connecting the left and right points of hip. This makes the croup bone (the sacrum) as long as possible which confers a great lever advantage to the horse when he is asked to shorten his underline and flex the LS joint during any movement or exercise requiring collection. At the same time placing the LS joint far forward shortens the lumbar span of the back. This is good because while the lumbar span is necessary for coiling the loins during collection, it is also the weakest part of the of the horse’s back. Only a minimum length of loin is necessary for loin coiling.”

      This suggests that the LS joint can’t ever fall in front of the point of hip, but I’m quite positive I’ve heard her say otherwise at times and seen pictures of such that she’s marked. The TB in this article has a quite long sacrum and quite short loin and that puts that LS joint way far forward.

      Hope that helped.

  13. Thanks it did help… the leverage relating to length of sacrum makes total sense. I was erroneously thinking that the vertebrae would dictate the LS placement but now when I look at photos of horse’s pelvic bones (rather than looking at schematic drawings) I can now see there is lots of variation, especially the shape and orientation of the hip bone, which would affect LS placement. Time to go re-examine my horse now that I think I know what I’m looking for…

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