The Long And Short Of It – Part 2b – Ribcage

There isn’t a lot of range of motion between the equine vertebrae, a lot less than people think. I mentioned in part 2a of this series that a long back isn’t necessarily more flexible than a shorter back; sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t. And here’s why:

The back is made up of thoracic vertebrae and lumbar vertebrae. The thoracic vertebrae have more range of motion between them than the lumbar vertebrae. Indeed, the lumbar vertebrae are all but fused in the adult horse to help add stability and strength to that section of the back, which is the weakest and most susceptible because it’s a freespan having no ribs to support it. Youngsters show more flexibility and ability to ‘twist’ than an adult because their vertebrae aren’t done growing and ‘setting’. Think of it like a baby’s skull that is soft and still in ‘pieces’ and then as the baby grows and matures the skull hardens and fuses. This is just one of the many reasons why riding young horses can be detrimental to future soundness and it’s also a main reason why so many racehorses hurt their backs, but that’s a topic for another day.

If a horse has a medium length of back, but a loin that is proportionately long, then that horse will have less lateral flexibility than a horse with the same medium length of back, but with a loin that is proportionately shorter. Let me phrase it another way: the longer the loin proportionately, the longer the freespan of relatively immobile vertebrae, therefore, the less  lateral back flexibility.

So now we want to take a closer look at our six horse’s backs and determine how much potential flexibility they possess. First we want to see how far the ribcage carries back. (I’m saving the loin for our final part of the series.) The further the ribcage carries back, the more strength it adds to the back (similar to withers that carry back well), AND the more potential for lateral flexibility because that means the more thoracic vertebrae length we have proportionately.

There are two methods for determining how well the ribcage carries back; one is a ‘quick and dirty’ method and one is our trusty measure and calculate method. We’ll start with the latter.

  • A horse with the maximum potential for lateral flexibility (which, btw, is the ability to perform a volte or 6m circle) will possess a ribcage that exceeds 100% of its back length.
  • A horse that possesses an average potential for lateral flexibility will possess a ribcage close to 100% of its back length.
  • A horse that possesses a below average potential for lateral flexibility will have a ribcage well below 100% of its back length.

Remember, though, that all other things would have to be equal. For instance, a horse with a medium back that had a ribcage of 95% would have less lateral flexibility potential than a horse with the same medium back length that had a ribcage of 110%. BUT, a horse with a medium back that had a ribcage of 110% would have more lateral flexibility potential than a horse with a short back and a ribcage of 110% because the medium back possesses more thoracic length to start with than the short back regardless of having the same ribcage length. Still with me?

To determine the ribcage length we start by measuring back length (highest point of wither to LS joint).  Then we draw a body length line (point of shoulder to point of buttock) and a second line from highest point of wither to the last rib.  Where that second line intersects the body length line is the end point of our ribcage.  We then divide the ribcage length by the back length to get our ribcage percentage.

Our skeleton with the points and lines marked:

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Horse #1 – 10yr old QH Stallion

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So, you’re staring at our first horse and maybe wondering where is that last rib?  This is another point on a horse that can sometimes be hard to identify in a photo.  It is always best to look at a horse in real life, make a guess, and then palpate to determine how close you were.  Over time your eye develops and you start to be able to pick up the nuances of muscle, skin, shading and lighting that can indicate, not just in real life, but also in a photo where such a point is.

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Without even measuring we can see that the ribcage line is almost as long as the back line.  My measurement is about 97%, so that’s a ribcage that carries back well, adding strength and flexibility to the back.  But remember, this horse had a short back, so even though the ribcage length is very good, that overall shortness does bite into potential lateral flexibility.

Horse #2 – QH Gelding

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This horse doesn’t have the same muscle definition as our first, so judging where the last rib resides is more difficult.

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Here’s another one where we can see the ribcage line is very close in length to the back line.  This horse measures almost 95.5%, so close to horse #1.  This horse also had a rather short back (just a touch longer than horse #1), so we can conclude that both horses are likely to have similar lateral flexibility potential.

Horse #3 – 4yr old QH

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The sun helps a little bit here to locate that last rib.

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This horse’s ribcage measures pretty much right on 100%, so carries back well and with a good amount of lateral flexibility potential.  This horse also measured at the longer end of the medium spectrum, so there’s even more potential for flexibility.

Horse #4 – Arabian Stallion

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Another horse with a ribcage that carries back well at 95%, but with a back length that falls on the short side.

Horse #5 – TB Gelding

How does this horse’s ribcage measure up to the previous ones?

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If you guessed that this horse’s ribcage carried back the furthest, then good eye!  Finally, we have a horse with an exceptional ribcage at 104%.  Our TB and our grey QH had similar back lengths, being at the higher end of medium in range, but our TB has a ribcage that carries back further, so should possess a bit more lateral flexibility potential.  Indeed, this horse should have the most potential of any of the other horses in that area.  And lastly, remember that the further the ribcage carries back, the more strength it adds as well.

Horse #6 – Paint Mare

How far back does this horse’s ribcage carry?

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Our poor Paint mare takes another hit with a ribcage that carries the least distance back at just under 91%.  She also possessed our longest back of the group right at 50%.  So here is a situation where longer is NOT more flexible.

Now that you’ve got the hang on the measuring method, I’ll tell you about the ‘quick and dirty’ method.  Place your hand between your horse’s last rib and point of hip.  More than a ‘spread’ hand’s width (8”) is a ribcage that doesn’t carry back very far.  A ‘spread’ hand’s width is a ribcage that carries back well, and less than a ‘spread’ hand’s width is a ribcage that carries back very well.  You cannot have a ribcage carry too far back.  The further back it goes, the better.

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37 thoughts on “The Long And Short Of It – Part 2b – Ribcage

  1. Once again, easy to understand and put into everyday practice.

    A bit of topic, and I know that you are presenting a specific type of horse here, but have you seen “the most beautiful horse in the world”. I think this is a great example of different conformation for different types of horses.

    • I’m not sure what you’re referencing in terms of ‘I’m presenting a specific type of horse’ other than I said that this conformation series is based on ‘riding’ type conformation as opposed to ‘racing’ or ‘draft’ type conformation, simply to keep things easy. I randomly chose the six horses based on the quality of photo and that they’d give some variety in traits so people could see differences. We haven’t yet gotten to the discussion of which one of the six makes the ‘best’ mount and why.

      I haven’t seen, nor do I know about ‘the most beautiful horse in the world’, other than I’ve already owned it. 🙂

      Obviously, different conformation for different ‘disciplines’…form to function always. So yes, horses look different within the species. There are, however, faults that are universal regardless of the breed of horse or the intended discipline.

      When you start talking about ‘beauty’, you get people beginning to view horses based on personal, superficial preferences rather than what’s important to a horse to be healthy and sound. There are plenty of people who think a post-legged, muscle bound, halter bred QH standing on sticks and dime-sized feet is beautiful. There are plenty of people who think the big-lick moving TWH are beautiful. So yeah, I don’t view horses in terms of which one is more beautiful because it means nothing to the horse. I view horses in terms of which one is more horse-like, which one can stay sound and health, which one can survive the average person’s inadequacies.

      • I meant a “riding” type of horse is what we are discussing here. The most beautiful horse in the world is one specific horse that has been commented on in other forums. I have been interested in these horses all my life.

    • It’s entirely telling that the opening is about ‘delicate features’ and a ‘silvery-golden metallic coat’….because those are definitely two traits in my top 3 list of wanted criteria for a horse I’m looking to perform for me. *wink*

    • Whoops sorry I posted my response before I realised the link to the horse was put up.

      Of course I meant Akhal-Teke – I seem to have got my a’s and e’s confused…. don’t know my Arse from my Elbow 😉

  2. So is “a ribcage that carries back well” the same thing as what the old horsemen used to call “well ribbed up”? I was told to measure with my hand as you describe, and the less space the better.

    • I’m not of that age, so not familiar with that term. ‘Well ribbed up’ may represent that which we’re discussing, but it might also stand for ribs that are well-sprung.

    • I think making a comment about “the most beautiful horse in the world” is kinda stupid – people go on about Arabs being the most beautiful breed in the world as well, but it depends on who’s asking. Like Mercedes said, most people probably think the most beautiful horse in the world is the one living in their paddock. I sure have a fondness for paints now I own one, I think they’re one of the best breeds in the world. But that’s just my opinion. I’ve never measured him, but he’s sure bendy lol. At least his neck is, though I suppose that’s a different issue?

      • When we talk about ‘bend’ it’s typically in reference to bending through the entire body, equally from poll to dock, rather than having the majority of the bend occur in a single area like the neck. To properly navigate a circle (or bending line) the horse must bend through the entire length of its body so that that bend matches the ‘arc’ of the circle….from above we’d be able to draw a line right down the middle of the horse…between its nostrils, ears, shoulders, hips….and we’d find that the horse’s body exactly copied the arc. When the horse’s body doesn’t match the arc, then it’s either leaning on the inside shoulder, counter bent, has its haunches displaced etc, etc, etc… and is otherwise unbalanced and not carrying its weight equally over its four legs and feet….thusly crooked.

  3. I may be wrong but I’m pretty sure my mare has a pretty darn good rib cage. I can evaluate her in person tomorrow, but from memory she’s at least 100%. she’s really flexible too!

  4. Great post. I’m going to hang tough with the gray and TB in my top two.

    The ribcage is something I’ve never looked at (consciously) for length. This post gives me another way to see balance, a way to prove it with science. One question though, how does the width of the ribcage factor in? Personally, I like to ride a horse with a well-sprung barrel. I have a long femur and narrow horses feel awkward to me. Bending is my top priority in training, separating body parts where the hips and shoulders can work separately. I have 2 QH’s for tuneups, the horse I started 11 years ago is super bendy, the other, a retired reiner, struggles to bend. When I shape him I can feel that it ends at the shoulders and neck. Yet he has a lead change which he gives me when I attempt to put him deep in corners to the right. So I ask myself each ride, is this conformation or training? I trudge on.

    • Ah Hah! You have backed into one of my positions on conformation. Follow-up when I present my case for conformation. (just for fun, of course)

    • That’s a great question about the ribcage. A well-sprung ribcage is a better ribcage for a number of reasons. It provides more room for the organs. It provides more support surface for a saddle and rider. It provides more stability….in this regard you’ll find that ‘wider’ horses negotiate bending lines and turns with a higher degree of stability and balance…where the ‘narrower’ horse can more readily lose their balance…there are other factors that play into that than just being slab-sided. And a well-sprung ribcage allows for a ‘double back’ of muscling.

      If he doesn’t possess the physical ‘potential’ to bend that deeply into a corner, then no amount of training can fix it. As well, it’s your job to know there’s no physical way for him to bend that deeply into a corner and therefore you shouldn’t be asking him to do that which he is not capable of. But, there is a way to negotiate that corner more deeply and not get the change…more engagement. So, it’s entirely possible it is both a conformation and a training issue. Try this: ride shoulder-in into the corner. You’re welcome. 🙂

      • Ha! I was using shoulder in on my approach to corners with this horse just the other night! There is no need to get him super bendy, he’s a ring/trail horse that will not be seeing any shows. That said, a horse shouldering in to corners is not something I can sit back and ride. He shapes quite well to the left, the right is a disaster. When I attempt to correct at a lope, he goes INTO my inside leg and changes leads with a not so happy demeanor. (I know who trained him…and it isn’t a pretty thought). His right to left change, when asked, is sweet. Left to right, not so much. Something is ‘stuck’.

        I believe a horse should bend regardless of its purpose. I’ll never get his hip all the way under my seat where I want it but I want bend, no motorcycle corners. It’s also physically appropriate for a horse to use its entire body when ridden and not feel like a 2 x 4 and frankly, I can’t help myself.

        Agree 100% on the wider barreled horses feeling more stable. Riding primarily stock-type horses feels like driving a Hummer, it’s not going down or over without a fight. Now a Smart Car, eh, won’t be seeing me in one of those anytime soon. Keep teaching, we’re listening! 😉

        • OMG! Seriously! I’ve written my comment out twice now and both times it got foohbarred!

          Okay, so on the right rein just do shoulder-fore and don’t ask him to go so deep into the corner…work your way up to it instead of asking for it all at once.

          How often do you transition within the lope? And why not try it at canter. The lope/jog require more muscle strength than the canter/trot. Send him down the long side in an extended canter, forward (not faster, but with intent and purpose), in front of your leg, and up in front of you (ty Zettl), then sit up and half halt, half halt, half halt…corner….send him off again.

          In the meantime start the deductive process until you find the cause;

          a) stand him up square, put a treat in your hand and put your hand on his point of hip…can he reach around for the treat on both side WITHOUT moving his feet? If not, then fix it so that he can stretch equally through the ribcage both ways.
          b) is his left hind weak, the strike off leg for the right lead lope
          c) is the right hind weak, the leg that must bare additional weight for the shoulder-in, as well as for negotiating the corner and thusly he avoids weighting it by leaning on the right shoulder
          d) does he carry his haunch to one side…again, weak hind vs stronger hind…fix it so he carries himself straight on the straight line, first
          e) are you sitting with weight properly distributed or have you gotten yourself discombobulated in your attempt to help/correct him…get a set of eyes on the ground behind you to determine that you haven’t dropped an ear, a shoulder, a hip etc…that you’re sitting in the center of the saddle…

          • Hmmm, get him in front of my leg and extend the canter? Giggling….he’s a spur ride or legs of steel which I do not have. He’s the horse for Aunt Bee. He does have a history of arthritis in his right hind though he’s only 10 and passed a vet exam for the current owner. My gut tells me that it’s slightly physical and much learned behavior. Even down the rail he’ll try to drift right – at a walk and jog. Tends to be much worse going away from the gate….so behavior is part of the problem. I can flex him either side from the saddle, it’s part of my warmup with new horses to gauge softness/flexibility. Walk is good, jog is good, lope is when it falls apart. I found out today that I need my right leg a LOT more forward riding right circle. Like on the front of the girth nearly on his shoulder. His trainer (et hum, snort, excuse me) was a long legged cowboy with some mighty flashy rowels…..his button is about in line with a 36″ inseam.

            I don’t do a lot of transitions, I typically get him in jog, trot or lope and leave him there as he needs to slim down. Truth is, he knows lope/whoa – seriously, there is no in between and you had better well have your seat back and tummy tucking when you say or think whoa or slow. I like your idea of canter to half halt to lope in the corner. Going to give that a whirl tomorrow.

            I’d like to think I’m riding in balance but I’ll bet something is out of whack. My right leg is longer than left, my left seat bone wants to wander out. I’m a chiropractic nightmare. I mostly ride alone and ya know that if nobody sees it, it can’t be bad, right? 😉 I have plans to ride under Sharon McCusker when she comes to our area again this season. I could use a good critique and she said I could bring my cow pony and western saddle! Unless you happen to be in the area….. 🙂

            I LOVE these confo posts….the older I get the more I want to learn. Glad you took the reins with this blog.

          • Okay, so you’ve got a number of things you can investigate, work on, try etc… It comes down to how badly you want to fix him. 🙂

            What ‘area’ is it that I’d need to be near?

  5. I’m confused on the measuring. The rib measurement is from the point of shoulder to last rib, right? Or is it from wither to last rib? My percentages aren’t coming out right at all…

    • No, ribcage is measured from highest point of wither to the last rib. It’s the ‘diagonal’ line on the diagrams that is compared to the back length line.

  6. Ran out of reply room…cut me off at 5 and I’m still flapping my lips! I really got a lot out of Sharon’s clinic. This was the first dressage clinic I’ve ever been to and I soaked it up like a sponge. I like how she presented corrections in very black/white language until all those dressagey words make my forehead crinkle. Renvers and travers…um, what? Oh wait, I do that…it’s hip in traveling into bend or counterbend. I use counter to tune shoulders and into bend to tune hips.

    What I wanted to fix while watching the riders/horses were the same things she went after. The clinic enforced in me that body control for any discipline is important. I also learned that having the right breed, bridle and saddle don’t mean diddly. The star of the clinic as of the time I left was a previous western pleasure Appy champion ridden by a H/J instructor who rode the horse THREE times before the clinic.

    Home for me is southern New England 90 min east of NYC. Let me guess…..Florida? 🙂

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