Supplement Article To: The Up And Down Of It – Shoulder Angle And Slope

Paint Mare wrote in the comments section:

After I read this post, I looked up the recent Equus articles on shoulders. The article on seeing a shoulder said that while usually you can measure the angle of the shoulder by tracing a line from the point of the shoulder to the middle of the withers, some horses have a shoulder blade that runs in front of that ideal line, further up the neck. The article said this isn’t the best conformation, though didn’t seem to really specify why. When I look at the Paint Mare, I think she is in fact built this way. And as she is the primary horse I get to examine and prod, that’s made me a bit confused over how to see the shoulder! Whether you follow the ideal line or the actual line changes how steep the angle of her shoulder is, and how open the arm joint.

I’m attaching a photobucket album that shows her in current fit mode, but also as a green broke 5 year old with less muscle. Any thoughts? We have always found her a bit restricted in the shoulder though she has some relatively snappy high knee action at the trot, and can lift her knees OK jumping if she gets the right distance.

Paint Mare sent me some photos of her – Paint mare – so let’s examine more closely.


I don’t see her scapula being ahead in position.  It’s not ‘middle of withers’, it’s ‘highest point of withers’.  That latter gives the impression of being forward with the rest of the withers tapering off gradually as you want to see.  When measured, her slope is about 52/53 degrees with a closed shoulder angle of 85ish degrees.  Her humerus has great length being about 67%, and is a bit more toward vertical than horizontal.

This is one of those contradictory type mixes of conformation, but in the end the humerus bone wins.  It’s not vertical enough in orientation and thus the creation of a closed shoulder angle rules the outcome: reduced range of motion causing an inability to get the knees up well for jumping (forearm below perpendicular to the ground) and be tight below.


Paint mare included a second picture.  Note that to get the knee up on the right front her horse had to badly twist the shoulder and leg.  The left front leg shows a much tighter lower leg, but to achieve that the horse had to lower its knee and also twist the shoulder and leg.


Additionally, some of the issue is from a muddy shoulder bed and tightness behind the wither and into the back.  This can be improved with stretching, massage and more engagement so that the horse lifts its base of neck, withers and back.

Paint Mare will know this has been achieved when the dip in front of the withers disappears, the lower neck thins, she can place her whole hand under the scapula along its entire length, the hollow behind the withers fills in and the horse develops a double back along its entire length.


Looking at other aspects of this horse’s conformation, I see no reason it can’t be achieved rather easily and in a relatively short period of time – 4-6 months – and when done the horse’s jumping form will have improved.  There’s a lot to like about this horse, despite that closed shoulder angle.


34 thoughts on “Supplement Article To: The Up And Down Of It – Shoulder Angle And Slope

  1. This is a very nice horse. It’s hard to tell, but I think I see a touch of roman nose, which I like. She’d make a great trail horse.

  2. You’ve often used the term ‘muddy’ to describe a shoulder. I take it you mean that the shoulder doesn’t have adequate definition? What, when riding, will cause this ‘thickening’ and does this also relate to the crease in front of the wither on this mare?

    • Muddy does refer to muscle definition. You don’t want to see ‘bunched’ muscling in front of the scapula as you see on this horse (though, it can be a lot worse than she shows).

      It can be caused by lots of things; tiedowns, side reins, draw reins, martingales, conformation, unbalanced feet, body unsoundness, heavy on the forehand…

  3. Paint Mare – I don’t want you to think I’m picking on your mare with my shoulder question. I ought to mention to you that I think she has a nice loin, hip, near level topline, good bone, feet and an adorable face! Also a definite for ‘bareback at the beach’ day!

  4. Paint Mare, I like your paint mare. What a calm, dignified expression on her face, and I get an overall sense of balance from her. And hello shiny coat and lovely weight, someone takes good care of her.

    To me, this is a “good usin’ horse”. I HATE when people use that phrase to describe some homely thing, as if it’s okay for a horse to be poorly built because they don’t show. This looks like an actual useful horse, as in capable of doing a variety of jobs decently.

  5. Thank you for all your comments! This is extremely interesting, because we’ve experienced her as “blocked” in the shoulders from the start, more than you’d expect from a horse that gives an overall impression of being athletic. She’s never had side reins, draw reins, martingales or rolkur, so this seems to be about conformation.

    She came in off pasture three and half years ago with a very high headset, sensitive to the bit and preferring to be behind it. She also had a tendency to do a kind of disunited pony trot where her front knees bounced up much faster while her back legs trailed behind. It may in fact border on being a foxtrot; people think she looks gaited at times. She was effectively upside down, though her thick build hid that, because she didn’t look ewe-necked.
    We’ve spent a long time getting her to stretch down and into the bit, and step under with her back legs, using a classical dressage technique called “action-reaction” (can explain if you all want, trying to stay on topic here  ), and over time it has filled in her neck and her back quite a bit, as well as getting a proper diagonal trot and a bigger swinging walk. We’ve also done a lot of lateral work, such as spiral circles and shoulder in. It took her a while to get her balance in the arena trotting 20 metre circles. She is still ambivalent about cantering in the arena with a rider, though she is just fine blasting around full speed in turnout.
    Now that she’s stretching over and down into the bit, since spring 2013 we’ve started asking her to raise her head up on light contact and do a more cadenced collected walk. She’s got a bit more muscle now along the top of her neck (the confo shot is from summer 2012) but still “muddy” in the shoulder. Her withers have also come up a little. I don’t know if the difference would show in a photo yet.
    We had a chiropractor out, over a year ago, and she did zero in on the Paint Mare’s shoulders. She dug into the edge of the shoulderblade, and also worked on a ball of muscle in the neck above the shoulder.
    She *is* good on trails, alert and pretty much unflappable, and loves getting up on circus boxes, teeter-totters and tarps. She really likes jumping, though she doesn’t know much about distances or stride length yet, and will sometimes pop over low jumps in turnout. When my coach took her on the beginners-level cross country trials in the photos here, the horse clearly really enjoyed it. She does tend to over-jump, though, and perhaps this is because she is actually hanging her knees a bit?

    • Over-jumping is really common in horses that are keen but green. They just don’t know how to judge the jump properly so they give it lots of extra room. The jump is small enough that even with the hanging knees she wouldn’t need to jump that big to clear it, but it does give you an extra safety margin, as hanging knees are a potential hazard.

      My chestnut mare has a more correct shoulder and doesn’t hang her knees as a rule, but I have some photos from earlier in her show career showing a similar kind of posture, overjumping and with some twisting to get the legs up. Really the result of her inexperience. With more miles she’s learning to set herself up better for correct take-off spots and she judges her jumps more accurately, so she rarely over-jumps anymore. Plus I jump her bigger now so it’s in her interest to have learned to jump more efficiently.

      Jumping this horse in grids would help, you can set them so she’ll automatically get the correct distances and stride, and that will give her practice and experience in jumping from the correct take off spot.

    • Here’s one of the pictures as I was thinking of. The expression on my face indicates that I wasn’t happy with how this jump worked out, LOL. This was at the beginning of a year that we jumped and showed a lot. As she gained experience her form improved and both the over-jumping and the twisting went away.

    • My coach is herself in training with the three-year teacher training program with Philippe Karl’s “School of Legerte” (Lightness) which is a distillation of classical dressage training techniques thought through in relation to modern ideas of bio-mechanics. So I’ve been learning the early-stage moves along with the paint mare. Action-reaction is his name for a move that you start on the ground, then continue in the saddle at walk and trot. You train the horse to respond to a slight upwards motion of the hands to reach for the bit and stretch out and down, rounding the back — but not to grab the bit and plow down! You then follow the mouth forward and down.
      At the start it requires quite big, definite movements and you end up riding around with your hands in the air a lot, but as the horse gets the hang of things, you need to make the movement more subtle and eventually you end up with a horse that will just follow the bit down with soft contact when you allow it.
      You would use action-reaction on a horse that started out by going around with a high head or a ewe neck, or trying to get behind the bit. If you had a horse that started out by plowing around hanging on your hands, I think you’d use instead demi-arets (little upwards halt halts) to get the horse up off the forehand.
      I think action-reaction is conceptually related to the old 19th century dressage idea of “combing the reins” with your fingers, so that the reins vibrated and the horse took up the bit. I read about this as a teen, and tried it, but didn’ t know how you then maintained contact after the horse responded.
      When action-reaction is working you get a horse moving with a low neck, but actively stretched over the back, stepping under with the hind feet, and maintaining soft contact voluntarily. It develops the back and neck muscles. Then of course you start raising the neck again, but with balance and contact, rather than just being upside down.

  6. Mercedes I’m quite interested in having a conformation critique done on my guy. Can you tell me what all I need and where to send it into? 🙂

  7. Are you referring to the nuchal notch distal to the withers, or the muscling there? I do see a nuchal notch that often indicates a horse in, ahem, good flesh 😉 or a horse that has lost a bit of crest from being, ahem, in *very* good flesh previously.

    • It’s short, deep, broad and strong. Virtually indestructible. But there can still be an issue, specifically the loin can become ‘muscle bound’…think body builder. Special attention has to be paid to suppleness.

  8. I’m e-mailing a couple of loin pictures of the paint mare plus a new side view to Mercedes (photobucket won’t co-operate). The conformation shot I sent that started this post was from June 2012, and the paint mare was looking particularly ripped and cut and buff because she had just done the cross country course. She’s not looking quite as muscled up right now (Sept 2013), plus she’s starting to get winter fuzz, which softens the look a bit. But I think she has lost some of the bad bunchy neck muscling, and you can see the definition in her windpipe, which was all one solid lump in the June 2012 photo.

    Loin photos are hard! I didn’t get any that were really square on. Last weekend the saddle fitter found a slight asymmetry between the curves of the left and right side of the topline, but she said it was hard to see, and did her measurements over three times to be sure.

  9. Point about the saddle fitter being that you might find an asymmetry in the photos or it could just be my shaky camera angle 🙂

  10. Apologies for jumping ahead (yet being late while doing so), but a question re:
    “This can be improved with stretching, massage and more engagement…”

    Exercises for improving engagement were quite nicely covered in the comments awhile back, and while I don’t recall specifically if stretching was, a lot of us are probably familiar with carrot stretches/belly lifts/butt tucks that might help here (not that I wouldn’t be happy to learn about others).

    But does anyone have suggestions for DIY massage tactics that can help with a tight back? Or a book recommendation if any of the ones out there are particularly helpful. Unfortunately I don’t have access to equine massage or chiro in my current area. Thanks!

    • You want to do belly lifts and butt tucks every day, before and after work, on days off etc… even if the back is otherwise healthy, those stretches will keep it healthy and maintain the abs. If you do these even when a horse is having time off from injury or just getting a break, those stretches will go a long way in maintaining the condition of the back and abs.

      In addition for tight backs you want to do finger and knuckle raking and you can find out how to do that from a equine massage book. Check Amazon for some used copies of the massage book by Jean-Pierre. You may also do concentrated finger circles for knots and effleurage after stirring up all the toxins. I’ve also found it can be very effective to engage the abs with a belly lift and then hold that lift with one hand while knuckle raking with the other.

      Since knuckle raking will trigger the back muscles and cause them to contract and the abs to stretch, by holding the abs in contraction and then applying the knuckle raking you get deeper into those back muscles. Be sure to do adjust your pressure accordingly. If you apply too much pressure with the abs engaged, a horse with a sore back will not be a happy camper.

  11. Thank you! Very helpful, just the kind of info I was hoping for, and book rec is much appreciated.

    I know a couple that respond very well to butt tucks, but to get much of a belly lift you have to go kind of diagonal from their midline. Even though one of them engages abs and lifts back during work (the other hasn’t done work for at least 10 years, with lack of muscle to show for it). Will be interesting to see if massage improves the belly lifts.

    • If a horse already has good musculature and posture, then a belly lift won’t be as dramatic because the abs are already engaged all the time and the back lifted.

      On other horses the back muscles can be locked down so much and the abs so weak that again you don’t get much from the belly lift.

      In both cases…keep doing them anyway.

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