Shoulder slope and shoulder angle are two entirely different things when discussing equine conformation, yet many times the terms are used incorrectly or interchangeably. Shoulder slope references the slope at which the scapula sits in direct relation to the horizon, while shoulder angle is the angle created at the joining of the scapula and humerus bones.
Shoulder slope: is marked from highest point of wither to point of shoulder and then measured against the horizon. The slope of the horse’s shoulder ranges between 40-60 degrees. A slope of 45 degrees is considered ‘laid back’ and is ideal for Dressage horses. A slope of 55 degrees is considered ‘straight or upright’ and is more useful in jumping or gaited horses for lifting the knee. A shoulder slope of 50 degrees is what I call ‘utility or all-around’.
At the outer limits of range we have 40 and 60. A horse possessing a shoulder excessively laid back is still quite functional and not necessarily prone to lameness, but a horse designed like this will give their owner a headache when it comes to saddle fit. The scapula will lay back so much that it’s next to impossible for a saddle to be done up when it’s sitting in the correct position on the horse’s back. Placing it so it can be done up with the girth not around the horse’s belly puts it over the scapula. As we know, a saddle in this position would block the ability of the scapula to move freely thusly also blocking movement of the horse’s entire front leg. Even a cutback saddle won’t always fit this conformation. The only horses I’ve ever seen carry this kind of conformation are some Friesians and some Drafts. Note that for carriage or Draft horses, that a laid back shoulder is desired to more readily fit a collar.
At the other end of the range, the very upright 60 degree shoulder also does not create unsoundness, in and of itself. Nor does it create a short, choppy stride as is often thought, though, a feeling of less elasticity can certainly be an outcome. What it does do is create added concussive stress through the entire forelimb, which in turn can cause unsoundness. Neither ends of the spectrum are desirable in a horse and should be avoided on principle alone, that principle being what’s best for horses and allowing them to perform their jobs without undue risk to longevity.
Shoulder angle: is marked by adding a second line to the shoulder slope line from point of shoulder to point of elbow. The subsequent angle created between the two lines is then measured. The angle created at the joint can range from 80-115 degrees. 90 degrees is the magic number here; anything less and the horse will be short-strided in the forelimb. No other combination of traits can make up for that short-stridedness, or nullify an angle below 90 degrees. In many cases it should be a deal breaker. Anything over and above 90 degrees is a bonus. Many of the GP jumpers who are able to bring their knees to their ears possess an angle at the higher limit of the range.
Let’s look at our random sampling of horses and see how they measure up.
Horse #1 – QH Stallion
Our stallion carries a typical lovely shoulder slope of 50 degrees. It’s the kind of trait that fits a versatile breed. Not surprisingly, though, he also carries a shoulder angle of less than 90 degrees – about 85. This latter is unfortunately a trait that is quite prevalent in the QH breed.
Horse #2 – QH Gelding
This horse’s shoulder slope is approximately 48 degrees, unfortunately he too has a closed shoulder angle and more so than our first horse. It measures about 78 degrees. However, this is not really his actually shoulder angle, which is closer to the same 85 as our first horse. Note that this horse stands with his shoulder angle artificially closed by standing ‘over’ his point of shoulder with his forelimbs too far under his body – leaning forward. If he stood how he should, his shoulder angle would open a bit, but still be less than 90 degrees.
Horse #3 – 4yr old QH
Here we have our first upright shoulder at 55 degrees. What surprised me was that it’s combined with an open 95 degree shoulder angle. This combination is unusual in QH’s, more often seen in TB’s. I wonder if this guy isn’t expressing some TB influence in his pedigree.
Horse #4 – Arabian Stallion
Another lovely all-around shoulder slope of 50 degrees, but to my surprise his shoulder angle is also closed at 85 degrees. This is highly unusual for an Arabian, such that I actually went back a few times to recheck the points and numbers. The lighting in the photo, which perfectly highlights his bones, confirms the results. If we account for the right front leg being, perhaps, a bit too far underneath then we can add a degree or two, but it still puts the angle short of adequate. But then I had to consider the clubbed foot, which with its too high heel is going to artificially close the shoulder angle by lifting the elbow (note it also slightly buckles the horse’s knee putting him over at the knee on that leg). I would bet some of my own money that if we had a photo from this horse’s other side, that the shoulder angle would measure the desired 90 degrees.
Horse #5 – TB Gelding
As expected, our TB has a more upright shoulder at approximately 54 degrees. The angle is ever so slightly closed at 89 degrees, but note the left front leg is a bit too far underneath the body and so our TB actually possesses an adequate shoulder angle of 90 degrees (and possibly even a touch more).
Horse #6 – Paint Mare
Our paint mare has the most upright shoulder of the lot at approximately 57 degrees and an adequate angle of 90 degrees.
In part two I’ll discuss the signficant importance of the humerus bone and its direct relation to the scapula.