This short video has been circulating for a while, but if anyone is still regularly mounting their horse from the ground let it serve as a reminder why you shouldn’t be, unless absolutely necessary. In general I’ve seen English riders utilize a mounting block considerably more frequently than Western riders. And for those who like to make excuses, I’ve mounted horses from every fence, boulder, tree stump and the like known to man.
The trot is a two-beat, diagonal leg pair gait with a period of suspension. Its the most energy efficient gait for the horse to cover ground. The diagonal pair of feet should land at the same time and the horse’s legs should create two equal triangles between the front legs and the hind legs and a third triangle upside down under mid-body. Impurity in the trot can be caused by poor conformation, soreness, injury, muscle tension, bad training techniques, tack that doesn’t fit, rider imbalances etc…
This is a pretty good extended trot for this horse, showing the three trotting triangles. (I love that the person longeing the horse has her back turned.)
The stride length of the hind legs is identical to that of the front legs. The hind foot is going to land a fraction before the front foot. There is some tightness through the loin and shoulder; the loin should be full and round, the front leg straighter via the knee further back. The tightness causes the near miss between the two feet. If the horse engaged more (rather than swinging the legs a bit like a leg mover vs a back mover), the back would round, the haunch would lower (it’s a bit in the air here), weight would be transferred rearward, and the front end would lift (and loosen). All that would change the timing of the trot and give the horse more room for the deeper hind leg step that would result, without the close call.
This is a very nice extended trot for a draft (or draft cross). As discussed in the conformation series, typical first gear gearing (that one would expect this horse to have) creates a shorter stride behind, but this guy is working it. Unfortunately the photo is taken at an angle so we can’t get a clear picture of the haunch. The angle also distorts the measurements of the hind and front stride length. It appears as if the horse has taken a way bigger stride behind than in front. Some of this difference has to do with the tight extensors. The left forearm is in front of the vertical and there’s more bend in the knee than with the first horse. Less tightness would bring the knee back and straighten the leg creating a bigger front leg stride and triangle.
The draft horse has reached further forward with the right front than the first horse. Compare where the foot is in relationship to the horses’ noses. (Both horses have equally short necks, so this isn’t a case of the nose being further out on one horse. Both horses also are exhibiting equal shoulder slopes, so it also isn’t a case of a difference in potential stride swing from the shoulder. What differs are the shoulder angles, the draft is 105 degrees while the other grey is 98 degrees; undoubtedly the draft carries a more open resting shoulder angle. This connects back to previous discussions about the importance of the humerus bone and shoulder angle and its affect on stride.
Other distortion in the photo makes it look like the draft has stepped up under his wither, while the first horse only stepped to mid back. Note that some of this has to do with the draft horse being much shorter bodied.
There is a touch of impurity in the timing of the gait of the draft with the right hind toe still touching the ground while the front is long gone off the ground and the left hind foot about to land before the right front, but I’m just not going to fault this big horse for using his haunch this well. Some stretching and suppling work of the front end would help even out the gait.
And now let’s look at what Dressage rewards as an extended trot.
There is so much wrong here, that I’m not even sure where to start.
1) Clearly a much shorter step behind than in front.
2) The hock of the landed leg is pushing off from behind the horse’s point of buttocks rather than from under the horse’s hip.
3) Horse heavily on its forehand as indicated by the much deeper flexing of the fetlock on the right front than on the left hind.
4) Right hind leg is going to land barely in front of the point of hip, when it should be landing under the rider’s seat.
Complete gait impurity.
In this photo we have many of the same traits but with the added insult of a ‘toe flick’ via a hyper extended leg.
Under the circumstances, this horse is doing a decent job of a lower level working trot.
The horse is taking a smaller step behind than in front. Why? Notice the lovely tubular complexus muscle in his neck and that it extends right into his shoulder; he’s lifting his base of neck nicely here, lifting his wither. He’s also lifted his back some, but there is tightness and angularity to his loin, which is also a bit shallow, and some angularity to the haunch muscling. Looking at his hind leg conformation we see that he clearly has a femur shorter than his tibia. What’s happened is two fold; the short femur naturally limits the length of stride and the horse has stressed his loin at some point, which further blocks the leg from swinging forward. Release the loin and the horse could swing the hind leg more freely forward, creating more engagement, blah, blah, blah.
Here’s another working trot, with the horse taking a bigger step behind than in front.
We have the same flat, tight loin and lack of fullness to the rump. The bigger step behind on this horse is (partly) the result of being over angulated behind, not from being super engaged. We have a shorter femur to tibia, but the femur is long. This is a case where the horse often likely over strides (steps beyond the front footfalls), but isn’t actually engaged. It’s why when someone says their horse ‘tracks up’ it doesn’t always mean the horse is moving well, or when people instruct that a horse should ‘track up’ and doesn’t, it’s not necessarily an indication the horse isn’t engaged. It’s all relative and dependent on conformation AND use of the body in the moment.
Most disturbing in this photo is the atrocious neck usage and muscling. This is a horse that has been trained and ridden ignorantly. At the very least this horse has a low neck set, but I suspect she’s? ewe-necked. She’s been ridden in some sort of restraining apparatus; martingale, probably draw reins, likely both. While I believe the previous horse could use with a touch more release of the hand, it’s no contest which one we should be aiming for. As a result of this heavy handed training and riding, this horse has been blocked from freely striding in front, locked onto its forehand (right front still on the ground while left hind off the ground, and right hind going to land before right front leaves the ground), and killed the suspension of the gait.
In this photo we have a horse whose trot has been severely manipulated by training and riding to meet a show class ‘look’. And not in a good way.
While it’s clear the front end is taking a bigger stride than the hind end, both ends have been severely shortened by bad training and riding, so much so that the horse doesn’t close the middle triangle of the trot (and would so naturally if allowed). We finally have a horse that has a femur at least as long as its tibia, what we want in the riding horse to create the potential for a deeper step behind. Problematic conformation for this horse is a natural downhill build (which has been encouraged and increased) and a low set neck. Despite those, there’s no reason for this horse to be moving this poorly (planted on its forehand – which its trying real hard to get off of – and lacking suspension – which it naturally has in spades) except that his people are ignorant. Note that the lowering of the head here is not the result of lifting the base of neck (again, the horse is trying real hard to do it right). This is a ‘putting my head down to graze’ posture.
Not to exclude our Western readers…
A bigger stride in front than back due to the horse being on its forehand (downhill build), but most of what’s going on in this photo is conformation related. This horse is post-legged and has a closed shoulder angle giving it a short-stride back and front with little joint articulation, and no suspension. I’m not disappointed in how it’s being ridden – probably the least offensive WP horse I’ve seen in a long time – but rather in the traits that have been perpetuated by breeders.
In this photo by Jennifer Buxton, we have a WP horse with more purity to its jog and almost a period of suspension. Still a bit on its forehand, it’s not bad given the downhill build and post-leggedness. This horse is using itself pretty well under the circumstances. Note the muscle contraction line of the abdominals. There’s a very faint outline of the tubular complexus muscle from lifting the base of neck. It would develop and be more prominent if the horse was more willing to seek contact and wasn’t so tense in the jaw and poll. I’m left with the impression that the horse was started half right and then rushed/forced (put your head HERE) to be finished for the show ring.
Our sample set of horses contained QH’s, a Paint, TB and Arabian, all breeds of horses used by many people as riding mounts. Indeed, according to this link they represent four of the five most popular breeds in the world.
It may then come as a surprise when I say that none of our sample horses possess true ‘riding’ conformation; that is conformation that allows the horse to easily engage so that it can protect against the weight of a rider and the stresses of various riding disciplines on its body.
Part of the problem is that QH’s, TB’s and Arabians are all used as racehorses, many Paints contain QH blood, and QH’s, Paints and Arabians have show halter classes, all of which take the horse away from riding type conformation. We then have breeders who make bad choices and buyers who don’t know any better. Added to the mix is the generosity of the horse that allows people to think the horse is fine because it plugs along day after day without loud complaint.
If our six sample horses were the last on Earth, which one should we pick as our riding horse? In reverse order:
6. Paint mare:
Classify this one as Fugly. It’s a committee result, each member with a different idea and direction in mind – none of them good choices. The scapula is just too long, putting the point of shoulder and elbow too low particularly in comparison to the hind end, which gives the impression of it being stuck up in the air. The amount of engagement required to get the weight off this front end is not something this horse is capable of doing. The hip is too short, the loin too weak, and the gaskin too long for this horse to overcome. The bull neck and hammer-headedness just add insult. Put a kiddie saddle on this one and walk it around in circles, anything more is asking for trouble.
5. Arabian stallion:
This should be a gelding. Some are going to be fooled by this individual and think he’s a good riding prospect. He’s not. While he does possess some outstanding riding features; well-structured neck set high on a laidback shoulder, well-placed LS joint and what appears a great head for carrying a bit, there’s no chance this horse can engage and carry himself on his haunch. The table top croup, overly straight hind legs, too long gaskin and high hock see to that. And since he won’t be able to shift much weight rearward it means he’ll be living on that right front leg with its obvious crookedeness and clubbed foot.
Here is this stallion’s pedigree chocked full of big name horses.
In this ad you’ll find a video link. Notice twisting hocks at the walk, wide and short striding behind, the pogoing hocks that trail, toe stubbing, and constant clamped, hollow back.
4. Roan QH gelding:
Terrible farrier work aside, there’s just no way around the post-leggedness. It’s too serious a fault (that there’s no reason to discuss anything else) and it shows already in his hocks.
3. Grey QH gelding:
This horse isn’t any more suitable than the others. He gains his position by having some potential to engage, but the longer loin, downhill build and low set neck is going to seriously impede his ability to shift weight rearward. His current owner/trainer/rider hasn’t succeeded in getting him off his forehand.
2. QH stallion:
I like this horse. But not as a ‘riding’ mount. Getting him off his forehand remains a hard task. He’s strong enough behind to do it with exceptional training and riding. And brute strength. He’s very consistantly built for power and speed.
No surprise that this horse has done well as a roping horse. Here’s his website.
And a video of him in competition. (2nd go around)
1. TB gelding:
Wins by default? Pretty much. Not fast, not powerful, but level enough with a really good loin coupling that should allow a bit of engagement. While he lacks substance, his joints are clean. His feet look better than many of his breed. With some solid training he’d do okay as a low level horse for local or fair circuit. The straighter hind leg will help with jumping, but he’s only going to have average jumping form; humerus not vertical enough and knee too high. One thing that will have to be addressed right off is the digestive upset. When easily seen ribs are paired with a bloated or distended belly, there’s a problem.
In Part 1 I discussed how the hind leg works via the ‘stay system’, as well began to discuss angulation within the leg. In Part 2 I’m going to talk about ‘gearing’, and hock and stifle placement.
Gearing – A horse has but one gear, so it’s important to pick the right horse for the task. How a horse is geared is determined by the proportions of the bones in the hind limb, their ratio to each other individual and as a whole. Those bones are the iliac part of the pelvis, femur, tibia (gaskin), cannon bone, pastern and hoof. Adding those bone lengths together will give you Total Hind Limb length (THL). THL is then compared to the horse’s height at the croup. Adjustments in the croup height have to be made if the horse is croup high or croup low (such as standing parked out). Even though it’s important to understand THL, I’m going to avoid going too in depth. To do so would put dozens and dozens of numbers in front of your face, and after a while you’d want to shove those numbers right up my you-know-what. I’ll pick a few strategic places to talk about it to give you an idea.
The hind leg acts much like a chain pendulum. If the upper link of such is short, it will swing rapidly back and forth in a relatively short arc – think cuckoo clock. Any links attached below, even long ones, will also swing rapidly in a relatively short arc. If the upper link is long, then the pendulum will swing slowly in a long arc – think Grandfather clock. Any links attached below, even short ones, will also swing in a long, slow arc.
The bone with the biggest determining factor in this chain pendulum type of gearing in the hind leg is the femur. Therefore a short femur will give short, quick strides as you’d want in a racehorse or a draft (first gear), and a long femur will give longer, slower strides as you’d want in all other equine disciplines (third gear).
A short versus long femur is determined by looking at THL, but also by comparing it directly to the tibia. A horse geared in first will have a femur that is clearly shorter than the tibia, while a horse geared in third will have a femur that is at least as long as the tibia or longer.
A disadvantage of a long tibia is that it tends to create the conformation faults bow-legged or cow hocked. It will also cause destabilization in the hind leg and when moving these horses tend to twist their hocks. Strengthening the abductors and adductors through lateral work can help reduce the twisting.
Hock And Stifle Set – The simplest way to say this: the higher the hock and stifle (that is away from the ground) the more the horse must work and engage to shift weight rearward and lower the haunch.
The hock can never be lower than the knee, but the closer to knee height the better for your riding horse. High hocks via a long cannon bone tend to cause the hocks to pogo up and down rather than to come forward and under the horse. If you were to combine that with a short femur, that signifies the short, quick stroke of first gear, you can readily imagine how much harder it just got for the horse to bring those hocks forward and underneath the body.
The stifle can be lower than the elbow, though rare; we do want to see the stifle at least close to elbow height for riding horses.
Our skeleton horse has a low hock set with the hock ever so slightly higher than the knee, and a low stifle set with the stifle lower than the elbow. It is, however, a post-legged skeleton. Post-legged means that the angles created at the joints (particularly the stifle and hock) are too open. Post-legged also means the leg is too short. Longer bones would create a more ‘Z’ shape, therefore more angulation.
Let’s look at our sample horses more closely.
Horse #1 – 10yr old QH Stallion
This horse has a desired low hock. The stifle is set high. While the tibia is long when considering THL (it’s the highest ratio bone), it’s just as much that he’s generally short-legged in front that puts that stifle where it is.
He has a tibia that is clearly longer than the femur, which is what we’d expect from his sprinter-type build. The femur is short (indeed the same length as the cannon bone) representing only about 21% of THL, so this is a first gear horse. In fact, he’s a little short overall in the THL department and thus is a bit post-legged. Still, here’s an individual who is going to be powerful and quick.
Horse #2 – QH Gelding
This horse also has a low set hock, but with a lower stifle than the first.
This horse’s tibia is also clearly longer than his femur, while the femur represents a slightly higher ratio (22.5%) of THL than in our first horse; this guy is still geared for first.
Compare the hock angles of the two horses. They are identical at 151 degrees. The stifle angles differ by a few degrees – 125 for the roan, 122 for the stallion. The thigh angles differ the most with the roan at 98 degrees and the stallion at 103 degrees. Summarized: the stallion is more open in his top most joint, the roan more open in the stifle, both are the same in the hock. Now note the difference in stance of the two horses.
The roan horse is standing too far underneath himself, artificially closing the joints of his hind leg; see that his cannon bone is not perpendicular to the ground and that the cannon bone falls quite a distance in front of the plumb line, the latter often an indicator of post-leggedness.
At this point you have to use a little imagination and move the roan’s hind leg back a bit so as to create a perpendicular cannon bone. That will open all the joints in his hind limb including that hock angle, per the rules of the hind leg stay system. (Refer to Hind Limb – Part 1 concerning stay system as well as maximum angle created at the hock during full extension.) By doing so, that will make the hock too open, and the horse too straight, and therefore post-legged. This at first might seem a contradiction when we also discover that this horse has a 3% higher percentage THL to croup height than our stallion. In other words, compared to his croup height, this horse’s hind leg is 3% longer than the stallion. And yet…this horse is more post legged than the stallion.
One other thing that happens when we move that cannon bone perpendicular and open all the joints of the leg, the horse’s croup rises and the horse becomes croup high. That then affects his overall body levelness and increases the difficulty of engagement.
Undoubtedly part of this horse’s stance problem behind is the horrid trim job on his feet. Not only are the angles way too low, the toes proportionately too long to the too short heels, but he’s also got to be walking on his soles. Imagine having those hind feet balanced properly. What will that do to the angles in his leg and the height of his croup?
The same foot problem exists on the front and we see the horse standing over his shoulder with his front legs too far underneath himself. This horse stands over several less inches of ground than he should due to unbalanced feet, conformation and pain.
In terms of athleticism, this horse too will be powerful and quick but not as much as our stallion, and there’s going to an additional problem. Right before landing and right after pushing off, he won’t be able to fully extend the upper portion of his leg because of the post-leggedness in the lower portion of the leg. He’ll be prone to hyper extending through the hock if pushed to engage. Indeed, his hocks show wear and tear. Thusly, as a means to protect himself he will take shorter strides.
Here is a horse with a similar hind leg construction and as post-legged as the day is long. Look at how open the hock angle is on landed leg; 150 degrees and yet the horse hasn’t taken any kind of a deep step.
In this second picture the hocks of both the leg leaving the ground and the leg landing are as open as is physically possible (160 degrees). This is as big a step as this horse can take, regardless of more joint range higher up. You can’t tell from the photo, but the horse is travelling on a bit of an upgrade and that’s what’s helped him take the step behind.
Moral of the story, avoid obvious post-legged horses regardless of pretty much every other strength the horse may possess because it’s next to impossible to engage them, and that is what’s needed to protect the horse’s long term health and soundness.
Horse #3 – 4yr old QH
This horse possesses the lowest placement of hocks to knees as a horse can get. Because he has low knees, thanks to those short cannon bones, he also has low set hocks. His stifle is set a bit higher than the roan gelding, but lower than the stallion.
This QH has a proportionately longer femur than the previous two (25% of THL), as well the femur is at least as long as the tibia. The horse also has more THL than the previous two horses, making him the longest legged of the three. (Indeed, he’s got the longest femur proportionately and the highest THL of all our sample horses.) There’s still plenty of power here, but this horse’s hind leg stroke is going to naturally be longer and slower than the first two. Western Pleasure anyone?
Even though the horse is standing with the cannon bone not quite perpendicular to the ground (and a little in front of the plumb line, notice that the angles at the joints are more similar to each other (concordant), creating a more even ‘Z’ shape.
I’m disappointed in this horse’s front end muscling. While he’s downhill, longer through the body, and doesn’t possess the highest set neck (all things that increase the difficulty of engagement), there’s really no excuse for the excessive lumpiness and over development. Someone has been peanut rolling this horse, allowing him to pull himself with his front end and trail his hocks.
Horse #4 – Arabian Stallion
While the hocks are placed just ever so slightly above the knees on this horse, this is not a low hock set, but rather a high one. This is because the horse has high knees. Still, it’s a better high hock set to have than one via hocks significantly higher than knees.
The elbow is also high on this horse (leggy horse – stands over a lot of air), the stifle just ever so slightly higher than the elbow, but still it’s considered a low stifle set.
I’ve got nothing good to say. The tibia is clearly quite a bit longer than the femur, and the femur itself is short with approximately the same ratio to THL as the roan QH. Add to that stifle and hock angles that are wide open, a merely adequate pelvic length and a table top croup. Imagine a pogo stick that’s been broken in half and then duct taped together; that’s how I’d expect this horse to move behind. At least his head is pretty.
Horse #5 – TB Gelding
I drew the line from knee to opposite hind leg since this horse is standing with the near leg forward. This is a high hock set both because of its relationship to the knee and its relationship to the ground; another horse with a high knee. The stifle is also set a bit high, typical of the breed and what you’d expect from a distance runner.
The tibia is longer than the femur and both hock and stifle angles are open. This is a typical hind leg of many TB racehorses, except a bigger hip would be wanted. This horse is not nearly as powerful or quick as the bigger-hipped, sprinter-type QH stallion, but still falls in the first gear category. This is another one where the high hock and long tibia can result in hock twisting.
Here I attempted to mark the off leg to give you a better idea of what it looks like when the horse is standing properly.
Horse #6 – Paint mare
The hock set on this horse is okay, but unfortunately she possesses the highest stifle set of the group, due in significant part to the super long scapula and short forearm which puts her elbow low, but also because of her long tibia and short femur which raises the stifle.
This mare also falls into the first gear category with a short femur and long tibia. She’ll have quick, short strides behind, but will lack the speed and power of the QH stallion. She’s not standing with the cannon bone perpendicular to the ground, so her angles are going to open a touch more.
Below I’ve added a horse that is very specifically built for riding in almost every way. As it relates specifically to this article, though; third gearing, long femur, short tibia, low hock and stifle set, along with a big hip and superior loin coupling.
By request here is a riding conformed individual with an over-angulated hind leg. This is a leg that is too long for the body. In this case THL represents 120.5%. You can see the closed angles of the stifle and hock. Over-angulated is less severe of a fault (provided it’s not excessive – this is as much as I’d ever want to see on a horse) than post-leggedness. Invariably the ability to engage is more difficult and these horses find it easier to trail their hocks than try and fit all that leg underneath themselves. These horses can forge, step on their front heels bulbs, or pull shoes more easily. Sometimes they’ll develop a hop to their gait as they try to hold the hind foot from landing a fraction longer so that the landed front foot can get out of the way. They can also step wide behind (place hind foot outside of the front foot). Hock twisting is prevalent and they can develop conditions such as curbs, as well the usual stress to the sacrum, loin and back from wanting to travel hollow.
And so ends this conformation series. (Finally!) Now is the time to place our sample horses into order of worst to best *riding* conformation. This is a lot more difficult than it might first seem. To pick the best you will have to consider many aspects and grade them according to what can be outright ignored, what can easily be overcome, what’s going to be hard to overcome, and what’s impossible to overcome. I will post my ratings with explanation in the next week or so.
I have no words, but lots of visual thoughts of what I’d like to do to this woman.
Be sure to at least fast forward to the 4:30+ part of the video, you won’t believe what she does.
Established in the late 16th century by the Habsburg Monarchy, the Spanish Riding School has been the epitome of Classical Dressage and horsemanship. As long as they existed, I held hope for the return of horsemanship for the good of the horse, above all else. Threatened throughout history by wars, politics and finances, it had always remained true to the tradition of excellence.
The above picture was taken by Ulrike Thiel in 2008 – along with a whole bunch more. Follow this link to the specific SRS discussion on her FB page that contains the history of the photos, some video and additional information.
How shocked I was to learn that the SRS had aligned itself with The Queen of Rolkur, herself, Anky Van Grunsven. Over 400 years of passing the horsemanship torch, flushed down the toilet in a handful of years, sparked by one woman. I’m sick to my stomach. If the SRS isn’t immune to Competitive Dressage’s abusive, destructive training techniques, the rest of world doesn’t stand a chance and neither does the horse. Shame on those responsible for the direction change of the SRS, like CEO Elisabeth Gürtler.
Please take the time to read the following blog article: NRHA Trainers Propose Change To Drug Policy
Now I’d like to discuss a few points.
He (Rod Miller) went on to say, “The caliber of horse needed to make the finals at the Futurity these days has gotten very high. The trainers do not have time to take it slow and train these horses at a pace each can handle without getting sore. Yes the event is demanding, but no more so than many other events that all have drug policies. The only difference is time and the ability of our trainers to get more out of the horses. The brutal truth is trainers have to push these young horses more and more each year just to stay competitive enough to make the finals.
Are you effing kidding me?! Who thinks like that? Who thinks it’s okay to lame and break down horses when they know full well it’s going to happen? Yes, let’s throw a little brutal truth out there, shall we? Anyone who thinks it’s okay to knowingly push a horse beyond health and soundness is not a trainer and should be removed from all things equine related.
“Drugs and abuse are not the biggest issue the NRHA has, their biggest issue is the trainers have gotten too good. The top trainers of today are able to get these horses to do so much more than in past years, yet the time they are allowed to do these things in has not changed. They do not have enough time to develop the horses to the level they need to be without pushing them. Pushing them means they need drugs to keep them sound enough to ride and show and keep pushing the limits. That is why trainers have no issue with a drug test for the older horses being shown at the FEI level; they are already trained and do not need to be pushed anymore.
Let me correct Mr. Miller. The issue isn’t that trainers have gotten too good, it’s that trainers are no longer horsemen, therefore, do not have the best interest of the horse in mind. Getting to the Futurity for fame, glory and money is most important to them. Million-Dollar *cough* Trainers, indeed!
“Now the one thing that the NRHA will never do is make a change that will negatively effect the Futurity. The Futurity is why the NRHA was created and it is still the main focus of trainers and breeders. Having a restrictive drug policy will negatively affect the Futurity, by lowering the caliber of the horses in the finals. Trainers won’t be able to push horses as hard, if they need to show up at the show with a totally sound horse. Without pushing or more time, something has to give and it will be the caliber of horses in the finals.
Again, are you kidding me? How narrow-minded and short-sighted does one have to be to think like this? The one thing the NRHA should do is restructure the Futurity. And if these so called ‘trainers’ stopped pushing their young horses beyond what’s good for the horse, and stopped paying the nomination fees, and stopped entering horses in the futurity, and stopped initiating rule changes to propagate the cycle of equine destruction, then the NRHA would be forced to change the Futurity for the betterment of the horse and therefore the sport as well.
*$@# ^%! I continue to be disappointed at what humans will do and how they’ll justify it for a buck, at the expense of such a generous creature as the horse.