Part 1 Anatomy and Conformation

1 The whole horse


Training the performance horse

Points of the horse

The skeleton

Skeletal muscles

2 The head and neck


The skull

The neck

Nuchal ligament

Superficial and deep musculature

3 The forelimb


Design and function

The skeleton



The lower limb

Stay apparatus of the forelimb

Care of the horse’s legs

4 The hind limb


The hindquarters


The skeleton

Joints of the hind limb


Stay apparatus of the hind limb

5 The chest


The skeleton




6 The back



The skeleton





Back injuries and their prevention

Part 2 The Horse in Action

7 Movement and action


Anatomical points affecting movement and action


8 Walking

Footfall sequence of the walk

Walking on the right rein

Moving the forelimb forwards

Moving the hind limb forwards

Qualities of a good walk

The benefits of walking

The walk in dressage

Over tracking

Over reaching

The walk with rider

9 Trotting

Characteristics of the trot

Qualities of a good trot

Footfall sequence of the trot

The trot in dressage

The ridden trot


10 Cantering

Characteristics of the canter

Qualities of a good canter

Changing the lead

Footfall sequence of the canter

The canter in dressage

Cantering with rider

11 Galloping

Characteristics of the gallop

Dynamic equilibrium

Changing the lead

Footfall sequence of the gallop

Role of the hind limbs

Stride length

Angulation of the hock

Warming the horse up and down

Tips for the rider about safe galloping surfaces

12 Jumping

Sequence of the jump

The ideal jumper

Evaluating jumping technique

13 Rolling and shaking

Rolling behaviour

The rolling sequence





We all want our horses to be able to perform to the best of their ability and we know that an effective training regime has many facets. The horse must be worked correctly, fed a balanced ration, mentally and physically healthy and well looked after. This book examines a further aspect of the horse’s performance: it is designed to help all horse owners and riders to understand how a horse moves and how its anatomy helps, or hinders, the horse’s athletic ability.

No horse has perfect conformation, but no matter what their physical characteristics all horses have the same biomechanical function. The better the horse’s conformation and physique the more efficient it will be in bio-mechanical terms. In simple terms the horse will find it easier to do the job and, as a result, will put less stress and strain on the muscles, bones, tendons, ligaments and joints so will be likely to stay sounder for longer. As the demands of competition increase, it is inevitable that success will depend upon attention to the finest detail; for example, individualised work and exercise programmes, development of the horses’ physical capacity for work, prevention and treatment of injury and speedy and effective recovery from exertion. Having more knowledge about how their horse moves and the things that it finds easy or difficult to do allows the rider to develop a work regime involving specific exercises that will enhance the horse’s performance and prolong its working life. It will also help riders recognise the limitations imposed on performance by the horse’s own physical make-up.

This book examines horse anatomy, and then considers the phases of the horse’s gaits, using sequences of photographs and detailed anatomical drawings to show the systems of support and movement at each phase. The walk, trot, canter, gallop and jump are all examined, and the effect of the rider on the horse evaluated so that the rider can take appropriate action to avoid hindering the horse. Tips are provided throughout on ways in which the horse’s life can be made easier, such as saddle fitting, warming up and cooling down procedures.

Ultimately, it is up to the rider to be sensitive to the individual requirements of his or her horse and to devise a programme of exercise and training that best suits the individual animal, taking into account its conformation, movement and action and its mental and physical ability to cope with the work.

Part 1

Anatomy and Conformation

Chapter 1

The whole horse

Introduction (Fig. 1.1)

This book is designed to help all horse owners and riders understand how a horse moves and how its anatomy helps it to perform. It will also help riders recognise the limitations imposed on performance by the horse’s own physical make-up.

Contrary to popular belief the horse, although a natural athlete, is not a natural jumper. A loose horse, given enough excitement, will naturally perform movements that equate to passage, piaffe, courbette and capriole; however, the horse’s heavy gut and relatively inflexible spine combine to make jumping more difficult. Figure 1.1 shows the template of the whole horse used for illustrative purposes throughout this book.

Fig. 1.1 The whole horse


Training the performance horse

Observation of the following points when exercising and training the performance horse will help to protect bones, tendons, ligaments and muscles from injury:

Points of the horse (Fig. 1.2)

Familiarity with the surface anatomy of the horse is important so that underlying structures can be identified. The horse has evolved over many thousands of years from a small fox-like creature with four toes on each foot to the animal it is today with a single hoof at the end of each limb. Figure 1.2 shows the points of the horse in detail.

The skeleton (Fig. 1.3)

The skeleton is the framework that supports and protects the soft tissues of the horse’s body. In Fig. 1.2 many bony areas lying below the skin are identified. Figure 1.3 shows the positions of the bones that give rise to some of the points of the horse.

Fig. 1.2 Points of the horse


Functions of the skeleton

Fig. 1.3 Skeleton


Skeletal muscles

The horse’s skeleton is incapable of movement on its own. All movements, from a flick of the tail to the most difficult dressage manoeuvre, are brought about by a complicated system of skeletal muscles. All horses, regardless of breed, size or age, have the same arrangement of skeletal muscles, but some muscles may be better developed in certain horses depending upon their type of training. For example, the Thoroughbred dressage horse will have a more highly developed topline than a racing-fit Thoroughbred. In addition, centuries of selective breeding have led to enhanced muscular development in some breeds and types of horses. The Quarter horse, bred to sprint over a quarter of a mile, has highly muscular forelimbs and hindquarters. The sprinting Thoroughbred naturally has a more muscular physique than its steeplechasing counterpart.

The skeletal muscles are under the horse’s conscious control and enable it to adjust to the surrounding environment and to make necessary movements such as running or grazing. Muscles are attached to and hence move, various parts of the skeleton and body.

Skeletal muscles create movement by acting across joints. They are usually arranged in opposing groups which perform opposite actions to give smooth and even movements. Flexors are placed behind the bone and pull it backwards, i.e. bend the joint, whereas extensors are placed in front of the bone and pull it forwards, i.e. straighten the joint from the bent position. Usually one of the pair of muscles is much stronger than the other.

Each end of the muscle tapers from a larger muscle belly into a tendon, which attaches the muscle to the bone. Muscle bellies vary in size and shape: some are large flat sheets, such as the latissimus dorsi, and others are long and strap-like, such as the brachiocephalicus.

The horse has no muscles below the knee, and all movement in this area is carried out via tendons attached to the muscles higher up the limb. This results in the lower limbs of performance horses being prone to tendon and ligament injury. Tired muscles are more likely to result in injury.

For muscles to produce movement, they must be attached to bone at both ends. These ends are sometimes classified as the ‘origin’ and ‘insertion’, the origin being the less movable of the two ends. In most cases, when the muscle contracts (shortens) the insertion end is brought closer to the origin.

Muscles use energy to contract but do not have a way of stretching themselves again: instead the contraction of the opposing muscle is used to lengthen the shortened muscle. For example, if the splenius at the top of the neck contracts, the head is lifted and the sternocephalicus on the underside of the neck is lengthened correspondingly.

There are approximately 700 separate skeletal muscles in the horse’s body. The name of the muscle may tell us what the main action of that muscle is; for example, the digital extensor extends the toe. Others, however, are named after their places of attachment; for example, the brachiocephalicus extends from the arm (brachium) to the head (cephalicus). Names of some muscles and their actions are listed in Table 1.1.

The muscles can be considered as belonging to two systems:

The superficial muscles are shown in Fig. 1.4 and the deep musculature is shown in Fig. 1.5.

Fig. 1.4 Superficial musculature


Table 1.1 Muscle actions


Fig. 1.5 Deep musculature


Chapter 2

The head and neck


The horse’s head acts as a heavy weight that is suspended at the end of a long neck (Fig. 2.1). This arrangement allows the horse to alter its centre of gravity with ease. The position of the horse’s head and neck has a significant effect on balance and weight distribution; this is discussed in more detail in Chapter 8. When the horse’s head and neck are lowered, more weight is carried on the forelimbs and the centre of gravity moves forward. When the head and neck are raised, more weight is carried on the hind limbs and the centre of gravity moves back. Muscles originating in the forelimb and trunk that have a critical role in forelimb movement are attached to the neck bones.

The skull (Fig. 2.2)

The skull is made up of many flat bones fitted together like a jigsaw puzzle. These are connected together by fibrous joints known as sutures, which ossify (become bone) with age. The junctions between the bones of the skull become indistinct with age. The function of the skull is to protect very delicate organs such as the brain and eyes, and other vital sensory organs such as the nose and ears.

Fig. 2.1 The head and neck


The eyes are situated deep within the orbits, offering them some degree of protection. They each sit in a pad of fat which provides a cushioning effect. When horses are ill or starving this fat disappears and the eyes appear more sunken.

The skin which covers the horse’s face and neck is thinner than the skin anywhere else on the body.


The horse’s head evolved to be relatively large in relation to the overall size of the animal. This was due to changes in dietary habits, which developed with time from shrub browsing to a trickle-feeding herbivore. The horse needed large teeth for grinding herbage and consequently a large jawbone to accommodate them. All the lower teeth are situated in the mandible. The upper teeth are situated in sockets in the incisive (premaxillary) and maxillary bones.

Fig. 2.2 Skeleton of the head and neck


The horse’s teeth are designed to cope with a diet mainly consisting of grass, grinding away at tough stems and leaves. To compensate for the continual wear that occurs at their grinding (occlusal) surfaces, the horse’s teeth possess a very long crown, most of which is embedded in a socket. As the tooth is worn away the crown gradually emerges from the socket, compensating for the wear. The horse’s jaws need to be long to house this battery of grinding teeth; they also need to be deep to encase the long, embedded crowns. This gives rise to the characteristic shape of the horse’s head.

Tooth care