One can develop an ‘eye for a horse’ only by looking at and studying as many different types as possible. Horses come in all shapes and sizes and it is this variety that makes the horse so eminently suitable for so many different types of work.
The various strengths and weaknesses that most horses possess make them more or less suitable for various tasks. Some weaknesses would not be tolerated in some disciplines. The heavy, short-legged horses would not be suitable to train for the Derby but may make an excellent hunter for an elderly, heavyweight gentleman.
Likewise, the horse that has all the attributes and physical requirements of a Derby winner would almost certainly not be suitable for the riding school. There are, however, certain physical features that apply to all types of horses. These will either add to or detract from their ability to be trained in any riding discipline.
The first, and most important, aspect is that the horse should appear to be all one animal. His head should not be too big or too small for his body. His neck should not be too long and thin or too short and thick. His legs should not appear to be too long or too short. Generally, he should give a well-balanced appearance, whatever his type or breed.
The head should be fine with a clear, large, bright eye. Small eyes are sometimes a sign of a bad temper. Good breadth between the eyes gives good peripheral vision. The nostrils should be large, giving plenty of room for inhaling air. The head should be well set onto the neck and neither too thick nor too thin through the gullet.
A horse that is too thick through the gullet may have some difficulty with the head carriage. The result of this may be some restriction in breathing when the neck is raised and arched and the horse flexes at the pole. If he is too thin through the gullet it may also create difficulties with the head carriage and restrict the passage of air to the lungs and food to the stomach. The ears should be correct for that particular horse, neither too big nor too small. ‘Lop’ cars are a matter of personal choice but do sometimes denote a quiet and generous horse.
The neck is a very important part of the horse. It carries his head, which is large and heavy and is used to help him keep his balance. The free nodding of the head in rhythm with the stride in the walk, canter, and gallop is vital if the horse is to use himself efficiently. A strong neck enables the horse to carry his head correctly.
The ‘ewe’ neck (the thin neck that appears to curve upwards) is a sign of weakness in the horse and like the short, thick, heavy neck may detract from his ability to be trained correctly. The neck should be well set into the body, neither too high nor too low. Some dressage trainers have a preference for a horse with a neck that comes fairly upright from the withers as this is the position that they would try to achieve in the advanced horse. Trainers in other disciplines may find that a horse with a similar conformation of the neck is difficult to train.
The shoulder should be long and with a good slope. The horse with upright shoulders may be an uncomfortable ride and may be prone to concussion problems in the forelegs and feet. An upright shoulder may also restrict the swing of the forelegs, making the lengthening of the steps difficult.
The width of the breast between the forelegs should be good to allow plenty of heart and lung room in the rib cage and also to allow unrestricted movement of the forelegs. The barrel should be full in the round with the ribs well sprung. This again gives plenty of room for the heart and lungs and helps with the horse’s respiration.
The back should be short, flat, and strong. It is a most important part of the riding horse and is subjected to a good deal of wear and tear. Whilst some mares have long backs to enable them to carry the foal, a long hack is often a sign of weakness. The loins should be round, strong, and well-muscled. The quarters, too, should be full, round, and well-muscled. They are the ‘powerhouse’ of the horse where most of his driving force is developed. In the foreleg, the forearm should be long and well-muscled.
The knee should be large, flat, and near the ground. It can be an advantage for the horse to be a little ‘over’ at the knee as this tends to take the strain off the back tendons when jumping or galloping. The horse should never be ‘back’ at the knee as this puts strain on the hack tendons and the knee joint, particularly when jumping. The cannon bone should be short and thick. It is measured in circumference just below the knee, including the tendons, which is the measurement referred to when a horse is described as having ‘eight and a half inches of bone’.
A long sloping pastern, parallel to the slope of the shoulder will give a comfortable ride and relieve some of the concussion to the feet and legs. A very long, sloping pastern will, however, put a strain on the back tendons. The short, upright pastern tends to accompany boxy feet and contracted heels. This conformation usually increases the adverse effects of concussion on the limbs. Either extreme is undesirable.
In the hind leg, the distance from the hip to the hock should belong with a good slope. The gaskin, or second thigh as it is sometimes called, should be round and well-developed. The hock joint, like the knee, should be big, flat, and near the ground. It is vital to join and any weakness here may well detract from the usefulness of the horse. Straight. sickle or ‘cow’ hocks are all weaknesses that should be avoided. The cannon (or Shannon bone in the hind leg) should be short, thick,, and strong. The back tendons in both the fore and hind legs should be hard, cold, and straight, with no signs of bowing or enlargement.
Both hind feet and forefeet should be the right size for the horse. The slope of the foot should be a continuation of the slope of the pastern bone. The sole should be hard and healthy, the frog well formed and springy. Upright or ‘boxy’ feet with contracted heels are prone to avuncular disease and other problems caused by a concussion in the foot.
The tail should be well set on, neither too high nor too low, but the set varies to some extent in different breeds of horse. The carriage of the tail is often an indication of the horse’s well-being and temperament.
See more: Sweet Itch on Horse