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AskHQ: Conformational factors

Q: Which conformational factors are considered important to look for in a riding horse?

A: When looking at the conformation of the horse to assess his rideability, the following factors should be considered:

The back and ribs

A relatively short back is generally strongest for taking weight, as it has shorter, stronger coupling than a longer back. A riding horse must also be able to carry weight, and this depends in part on his ability to raise his back rather than having it ‘hollow’. The horse with strong loins and the ability to flex at both the neck and croup, to bring his hindquarters more underneath his body, has the best weight-carrying ability.

The ribs need to be ‘well sprung’, meaning that they come out of the spine at an almost perpendicular angle (rather than downwards) before they taper downwards, to give a good, strong foundation for the weight of the rider. A ‘slab-sided’ horse with little spring of the rib and a ‘peak-roof’ shape to the back cannot carry weight as well as the horse with round ribs, and is also harder to fit with a saddle.

Riding position

The natural position of the rider on a horse with well-shaped shoulders and withers set well back on the topline is over the centre of gravity, which is behind the withers and in front of the loin muscles. This position correctly places the rider over the ‘spring of the back’ where the back is at its most flexible. In this position the rider’s weight is close to the driving power from the hindquarters yet not so far back as to inhibit the action of the loin musculature. Furthermore, the rider is far enough back to be away from the direct concussive forces of the front legs and shoulders, and thus receives a smoother ride in this position than in any other place on the back. This position is easier on the rider and the horse; extra weight is not placed directly onto the shoulders, knees and fetlock-joints.

In a horse with upright shoulders and forwards-set withers, the rider usually sits further forwards on the back, with the weight over the front legs. This makes for a jarring ride, and is also harder on the horse’s joints. If a horse carries his rider in front of the centre of gravity, the ability of the horse to take weight on his hind legs is compromised because he is made front heavy.

On the other hand, if the rider is carried behind the centre of gravity, the back in this region tends to be weaker and damage can be caused to the spine. On top of this, the musculature of the loins can be inhibited by this positioning of the rider.

For the best athletic ability, balance and durability, choose a horse with sloping shoulders, well set-back withers and a strong, short back.

The withers

The conformation of the withers is key in determining whether you will have difficult in fitting saddles. A saddle that does not fit your horse correctly will cause him discomfort and also inhibit his ability to perform.

High, sharp withers are easily bruised by saddles, yet it saddles are made narrow to compensate, the muscles below the withers tend to get compressed. This can lead to restriction in a horse’s movement to allow him to avoid pain, and muscles can atrophy as a result of this.

A horse with low withers tends to experience different issues with saddle fit. In these cases it is often difficult to keep the saddle in place, meaning that the saddle slides forwards or sideways, causing discomfort and impeding movement.