Q: What can posture tell us about our horses?
A: The Oxford dictionary defines the word ‘conformation’ as: “the way in which something is formed; the structure of something, especially an animal” while ‘posture’ is defined as: “the position in which you hold your body when standing or sitting”.
These definitions may sound similar, but when we relate them to our horses the difference is clear. ‘Conformation’ is the way that the horse is ‘put together’, and cannot be changed. Consider children – some of us are born with long legs and knock-knees, others are shorter with strong, muscular limbs. These are traits that we are born with and affect the way we move and navigate the world. In horses, conformation affects the way that they are able to move their body and may also affect their ability to perform. For example, in the case of a Friesian – they have impressive action, a broad chest and high head carriage. They were bred to pull a cart so their conformation is not well suited to jumping a course of large fences or playing high speed polo. As such, breed societies have ‘breed-standards’ or characteristics that the particular breed is expected to display often according to their function.
‘Posture’ can be described as the way a horse ‘carries themselves’. Back to the example of the long legged child – should that child hurt their right knee, their posture may change as they try to take the weight of the right leg and compensate with the left leg. In essence the way that they carry themselves and use their body can change. Should this change not be addressed, the muscles on either side of the body will develop asymmetrically, causing a vicious circle of postural changes and compensations.
‘Posture’ in a horse, just as in a child, can look like conformational faults yet can in fact change over time. For example, a horse may look like they have a ‘roach back’, when in fact they lack topline due to a restriction through the back and sacro-iliac joint – meaning that they find it difficult and possibly painful to engage the hindquarters and lighten the forequarters. By working with a qualified equine physio, body-worker or chiropractor, the restricted muscles are released and the body is able to work economically once again – you will quickly notice a change in muscle along the topline, and the diminishing of the ‘roach-back’.
The following postural observations can tell you a lot about your horse. Of course, some of them could be the result of conformational faults, but they are still worth examining to check that nothing can be done to improve the situation. Start at the head and work back to the tail looking for any asymmetries through the body:
- Starting at the head – are the nostrils level and even? Does the nose tilt to one side or the other? Are the ears and eyes level? Asymmetries in the head can indicate restriction through the TMJ (Temporomandibular Joint) – the joint connecting the upper and lower jaws, or through the poll (Atlas/Axis junction between the ears). This restriction could be from a badly fitting bridle, saddle or bit; previous injury; neglected teeth or rough hands on the part of the rider.
- Look at the point of shoulders, knees and coronary band – are they level? Is one foot more boxy and upright, while the other is more flat? Is one shoulder flatter or more developed than the other? This can indicate that there may have been an injury to one leg and that the horse has learnt to ease the discomfort by taking the weight off the affected leg, as the other side of the body compensates. An injury to a ligament, joint or tendon can cause the shift in weight and the muscles will be asymmetrical as they develop more on one side of the body than the other. This in turn could mean that the horse may struggle on one rein versus the other, or that they struggle to engage the hindquarter and perform lateral movements. Of course, some horses are just born with boxy feet, but it is worth looking into any asymmetries you find to see if they can’t be improved upon.
- Does your horse stand with their weight distributed evenly between the left and the right sides? Look at the underside of the hoof – is the inside (or outside) more developed, or more worn away? Does the angle of the hoof match the angle of the pastern? Although these issues may be conformational or be caused by incorrect trimming or shoeing, postural changes may also affect the way a horse moves and balances their weight throughout the body.
- Look at your horse from either side. Does the back drop or is it level on both sides? Are the hindquarters rounded or are there bony projections along the spine? By taking a careful look at your horse, you may be able to explain some of the problems you’re having under saddle. For example, if a horse is underdeveloped through the hindquarters, it may be the result of tension and restriction along the topline.
- Lastly, look at their tail. Is the tail carried high? Is it held close to the body, tense and immovable? Is the tail carried to one side? These observations can also indicate restriction throughout the hindquarter, or along the topline.
Horses are incredibly giving animals, and for the most part they will try their utmost to do what their riders ask of them. Take every opportunity to observe and learn from your horse. Watch them in the paddock and in the stable. By observing your horse this way, looking at both their posture and conformation, you can gain a greater understanding of the way that they move, as well as how to overcome their difficulties.
Note: Here we are distinguishing posture from body language. For the purposes of this question, a horse stood with his head in the air is considered tense and alert in terms of his body language not his posture.
Answered by Farryn Day