Equine Conformation - What to look out for in a static assessment!

A static assessment is viewing the animal while standing still and ideally standing square. However, if your horse or dog consistently won’t stand square i.e. moving a specific limb/s forward or back or constantly shifting weight they are likely trying to tell you something!

When looking at the cranial (front) view of the horse and what to look out for during a static assessment:

When assessing a horse I find it easiest to work top to bottom so head to hooves!

Head carriage:

High head carriage – A high head carriage can lead to a lot of tension in the neck and back, often indicates a tense, anxious horse potentially due to pain. This will also shift weight off the forelimbs onto the hind if wanting to relieve pressure

Low head carriage – A low head carriage will shift the weight off the hindlimb to relive pressure if painful. Being in this position for a long period of time can over stretch the back, tilt the pelvis as well as effect hindlimb movement.

Muscle symmetry of the neck and chest:

Hypertrophic (over development) and atrophied (under development) muscles of the neck and chest help to indicate if a horse is favouring a particular side or not using themselves correctly

Upper forelimb placement and conformation:

Common conformational issues seen

Base wide – forelimbs placed wider (one the outerside) than the mid-line

Base narrow – forelimbs placed narrower (on the inside) than the mid-line

Bow legged – angle of the cannon bone (MC3) places the lower limb medially (inside the mid-line)

Knocked kneed – angle of the cannon bone (MC3) place the lower limb laterally (outside the mid-line)

Lower forelimb placement and conformation:

Toed in – the hoof is angled laterally (to the outside) from the mid-line

Toed out – the hoof is angled medially (to the inside) from the mid-line

When looking at the lateral (side on) view of the horse and common conformational and postural issues to look out for:

Same as the cranial view I find it easiest to work in an order from head to tail!

Shoulder conformation

Short, straight and upright conformation – limiting shoulder elevation this often leads to reduced extension of the shoulder, producing a short choppy stride, which tends to limit extension and lateral movements in higher level dressage horses. Common in cob types which is a factor in the high knee action.

Long, sloping conformation – normally couple with a deep set chest and high withers which allows for a larger surface area for muscles to attach, the sloping shoulder allows for better extension, absorption of impact (reducing risk of injury and stiffness) and a better ‘tuck’ over fences. However, this conformation can be difficult to fit the saddle too due to the shoulder sitting so far back.

An easy way to spot shoulder angle is an upright shoulders will have the withers set almost inline with the elbow whereas a sloped shouldered horses withers will be set behind the line of the elbow.

Upper forelimb conformation:

Camped under – forelimb place caudal (behind) to the mid-line. This put increased pressure onto the forelimbs, chest and neck and is often linked with upright pasterns. This has a direct effect on metacarpal ROM and over reach distance.

Camped out – forelimbs placed cranial (in front) to the mid-line. Often seen in horses with navicular disease and laminitis as it shifts the weight from the forelimbs to the hindlimbs relieving pressure but this then in turn increases strain through the carpals (knee) and fetlock.

Lower forelimb and hindlimb conformation

Broken back – also known as upright P1 and 2. This can lead to increased loading on to the deep digital flexor tendon, distal phalanx and distal interphalangeal joint. This conformation is often paired with a long toe and low heel.

Broken forward – creates a high hoof angle also known as a club foot. Tall over grown heels often contribute to this conformation with a high hoof angle causing coffin joint flexion, promotes heel-first landing and increases pressure in the heel.

Dorsal ventral balance:

Here you have to image drawing one line from the withers to the SIJ and one from the elbow to the stifle. This indicates how balance the top and under lines are, the top line (or dorsal) should be shorter than the underline (or ventral) to indicate good balance. In the example below the lines are of similar lengths which indicates a long weak back, that is under supported by weak back and abdominal muscles which effects hindlimb movement.

It is also interesting to note the amount of the trunk that lies below the dotted line and the amount of space between the top dotted line and the back, this is another good indication of weak epaxial (back) muscles and apaxial (abdominal) muscles.

Upper hindlimb conformation:

Standing under – hindlimbs placed cranial (in front) to the mid-line. This often indicates back pain and/or sore feet particularly if the forelimbs present the same and is commonly combined with a broken back conformation leading to increased strain on surrounding tendon and ligaments.

Camped out – hindlimbs place caudal (behind) to the mid-line. This often changes the angle of the pelvis leading to pressure on the SIJ and lumbar region. It also makes it difficult for the horse to bring its limbs underneath him resulting in difficulty in collecting and reduced power.

Now onto the caudal (hind end) view of the horse and common conformational and postural issues to look out for:

Same as the others I find it easiest to work in an order from top to bottom!

Muscle symmetry of the rump and hindlimbs:

Asymmetries in the hindlimbs help to indicate if a horse is favouring a particular side leading to increase in often tight muscles (hypertrophy and hypertonic) normally to alleviate pressure from the opposite side which then leads to reduce muscle mass (atrophy)

Tail carriage:

A tail held to one side in particular for long periods of time as a natural stance can be an indication of lameness. The tail is normally held up to the side of the sound limb (although like most things with horses some do the opposite!). This can be because high tension in the muscles of one side of the back and hindlimb can draw the tail to that side.

Hindlimb conformation:

Base wide – forelimbs placed wider (one the outerside) than the mid-line

Base narrow – forelimbs placed narrower (on the inside) than the mid-line. This is often coupled with a bow hocked conformation (tarsal varus) both these conformation increase the likelihood of the development of osteoarthritis due to uneven weight bearing.

Hindlimb hock conformation:

Bow hocked – also known as tarsal varus where the hocks are placed outside the mid-line.

Cow hocked – also known as tarsal valgus where the hocks are place inside the mid-line. Both these conformations increase the chances of the development of bone spavin due to uneven loading on the joint.