There are many who still think the way to determine the levelness of a horse’s build is to compare wither to croup. If both are the same distance from the ground, then the horse is level built. If the withers are lower than the croup, the horse is downhill built, and if the withers are higher than the croup, the horse is uphill built.
Simply put, that is wrong.
Have a look at our skeleton horse and notice that the withers are created by vertebrae spines.
Those spines vary in length from individual to individual as evidenced by comparing a Thoroughbred, with their typical prominent withers, to that of a QH, with their general lower withers. So how then should levelness of build be measured?
Simply put, by looking at the spine, itself.
First we locate the lower cervical curve and the LS joint, and then we draw a line from point to point. If that line is parallel to the ground, the horse is level built. If the line slopes upwards (left to right), the horse is downhill built, and if the line slopes downwards, the horse is uphill built.
Let’s have a look at our guinea pig horses and see how they measure up.
Horse #1 – 10yr old QH Stallion
Take a look at him unmarked. What is your first impression? You’ll probably have noticed that with all that flesh you can’t see the lower cervical curve. So how do we know where it is? The best way is of course to palpate. The lower cervical curve creates the widest part of the neck just before it passes between the scapulae. Stand in front of your horse and place a hand on either side of the neck below the poll. Now run your hands down the neck. You’ll feel it begin to get wider and then as you hit the widest part of the neck, you’ll also feel the cervical vertebrae very close to the surface. That’s the lower cervical curve. In some photos we’ll be able to easily spot that point due to lighting differences. In other photos we’ll best guess it.
We can see that this horse is a bit downhill built via the ‘old’ measuring way (wither height vs croup height) but also via the ‘new’ measuring way by looking at his spine.
Horse #2 – QH Gelding
What about this one?
He’s very similar to our first horse.
Horse #3 – 4yr old QH
Does our third QH also look downhill?
This QH has almost identical wither and croup heights, but is more downhill in body balance than our first two. Your first thought might be, ‘That’s because he’s got his head lower than the other two.’ But the lower cervical curve doesn’t change its orientation within the neck. Its ‘posture’ can be changed, as in the lower curve can be ‘deepened’ by the horse hollowing its back and ‘dropping its base of neck’, at which point the horse’s head would be higher and we’d see a bulge at the base, or the lower cervical curve can become ‘shallower’ by the horse engaging, rounding its back, and ‘lifting its base of neck’, at which point the horse would lower its head (relative) and hang it freely from the poll. Our grey QH actually shows some neck telescoping going on suggesting that his base of neck is, in fact, ‘raised’. If he was under saddle, we could be reasonably happy with his ‘long and low’ frame.
Horse #4 – Arabian Stallion
Aha! Our first horse with withers higher than croup, but look how much more prominent they are than our previous grey QH. In the end, our Arabian is level built.
Horse #5 – TB Gelding
What about this one?
Yes, this one is downhill too as expected. Most QH’s and TB’s are going to be downhill built. It’s the nature of breeding for speed/racehorses, which undermines riding these horses in other disciplines.
Horse #6 – Paint Mare
Here’s your last chance to test your eye.
Yes, Paint horses often fall into the downhill category as well, since they are essentially QH’s with color. Note that this horse has a similar downhill build to our grey QH, but has her head up. Putting her head up didn’t suddenly make her more level built.
What amount of importance should be placed on levelness of build?
A level built horse carries more than 50% of its body weight on its forehand, making him heavy on the forehand. Even an uphill built horse carries more than 50% of its body weight on its forehand. That weight percentage increases the more downhill built a horse is structured. Forehand weight is all well and good – for a racehorse – but not for a riding horse. (See Hooves Blog article – Speed Kills – for an explanation of the biomechanical difference between a racehorse and a dressage horse.)
Since we know that we must ‘lighten’ a horse in front, get them ‘off their forehand by transferring weight onto a lowered haunch’, to improve its ability to carry a rider in balance and with the least amount of stress to its body, it only stands to reason (logically) that horses of level or uphill build will find that task easier.
Consider as well some of the things we ask a horse to do, such as jumping fences. A downhill built horse is not only going to struggle to carry its rider in balance, but it will also find it difficult to get that heavily weighted front end up and out of the way in time to navigate a jump of any significant height.
You might ask; what about horses in speed events (other than flat racing)? Well, let’s consider barrel racing. It is an event that requires a horse to navigate three barrels, with the fast time winning. I contend that the best horse for this event is one of level build and here’s why;
To be truly fast around the barrels a horse has to be able to engage to a high degree significantly lowering its haunch to ‘slide’ around the barrel tightly on that haunch, then once around the other side with its haunch still lowered it can then thrust off the haunch and powerfully launch itself forward ‘onto’ its forehand (as if coming out of a starting gate or roping chute) and ‘race’ hollow and on its forehand to the next barrel, where it should then reengage to a high degree, lighten its forehand, and sit on its haunch to once again slide around the next barrel…rinse and repeat.
This is the fastest and most efficient way around the barrels. It’s not, however, what we typically see. Most of the time we see horses coming into the barrel heavy on their forehands and then the rider pulling on the brakes (er…mouth) and yanking the horse’s nose and head around the barrel (with the tiedown/martingale taut as the horse struggles to keep its balance during this contortion), the horse stalls and loses all momentum, gets either too close to the barrel with the shoulder or too far from it losing valuable ground, before pulling itself back into gear with its front legs, instead of propelling itself forward from the powerful haunch, which has been left in China. Yes, barrel racers would do well to spend at least half their training time and focus (of themselves and their horse) in dressage.
Levelness of build is pretty darn important because it can’t ever be changed; only temporarily manipulated by strength of conditioning and work. The horse lives with it its entire life and either struggles against it or is helped by it in daily under saddle work.