Read Your Horse's Body Language
Photo 1. Compare the suppleness, power and lightness of the black horse with the stiff, worried, painfully tense bay.
The body language' spoken by the shape and movement of a horse's body tells more than his breed. It shows us the story of his life: past and recent accidents, where and how he lives, even how he's ridden.
In this article, we'll begin looking at how to evaluate our horse's conformation, posture and movement. In a follow-up article we'll look at how to address some of the common physical issues we might find, before they become obstacles to enjoyment and performance.
Inherited or Acquired?
Body shape, or conformation', is both inherited and acquired. Bone length, thickness and shape are inherited, as well as the type of muscling a horse possesses: long and lean, or short and bulky. Inherited conformation and character affects the horse's potential speed, strength, endurance, and agility.
As he moves through life, changes happen to that horse's body, mind and heart. By tuning in to your horse's current conformation (posture) and movement, you can learn to read the signs of these changes. (See photo 1.)You might find possible reasons for slow training progress, refusals, bad attitude', or recurring accidents. You might notice small changes long before they show up as difficult behavior or poor performance.
"Always Been That Way"
Photo 2. Honey, before (upper) and after (lower). An abused and neglected horse like this 18-year-old mare can make a great recovery with the right help.
Much of the poor conformation and stiff, clumsy movement we see in horses is not caused by genetic mistakes or inherited diseases. Instead, it may be due to an untreated injury, chronic pain or fear, excess confinement, unbalanced feet, painful tack, dental imbalance, poor nutrition, an unbalanced rider, or riding techniques that force the horse into overwork or stiff, jarring movement. These horses might be labeled as crooked, lazy, stupid, getting old, accident-prone, or even "a moral reprobate" (as one clinician said of my mare who turned out to need expert dental work).
Poor conformation can often be corrected, or significantly improved, when the soft tissues that shape, support and move the body are restored to a healthy condition. (See photo 2.)
Reading Your Horse's Body Language
Our horse's body, like ours, is actually a system of interconnected, interactive components that work together to provide a safe, strong home while giving us the freedom to move and travel.
We often focus on the skeleton when we think of shape, but we'd be just a pile of sticks without the powerful but soft tissues like ligaments that connect bones and provide stability and basic shape, fascia that surrounds, supports and connects every body structure, and muscles that provide movement. These tissues are covered up by skin and hair, but we can learn to read how the outside of the body reflects what's going on inside.
Medical evaluations are often made by noting the body's response
to pain; lameness is tested by assessing the movement of the legs at
a trot. Our evaluation here doesn't focus on survival reflexes
and mechanical output. Instead, we look at the whole horse for signs
of health and well-being (or their absence).
It's best to do this type of evaluation in an area where your horse feels safe and relaxed, and to work in partnership with him.
Healthy bodies may have different overall shapes, but they share certain characteristics: curves instead of sharp angles; clear, flowing lines; balanced shapes rather than lumpy, run-together surfaces; and smooth moves instead of stiff or jerky ones. Healthy horses are free to respond and to move in a variety of ways, not trapped in a rigid body or a single way of going or stuck on one note: grumpy', resistant' or flighty'. Like people, horses reflect their environment and way of life in how they stand and move. (See Photo 3.) A healthy, rewarding life is mirrored in a relaxed, energetic body and confident outlook.
Note: If you suspect that your horse is experiencing pain, consider an evaluation by your veterinarian.
Listen to Your Horse
May we see not only
With our two eyes
But with the one eye
Which is our Heart.
- Black Elk
As you explore the details below, remember that you are observing not just an equine body but a fellow passenger on Earth, a being with a mind, emotions, and a spirit, who is observing you at the same time. He can give clear signals back to you with gestures, movements, or changes in energy.
Add depth and enjoyment to your evaluation by looking for ways in which your horse is communicating with you. You can even ask him to show you where he has a problem, which he may indicate by touching an area with his nose, or turning it toward you. By allowing the horse to (safely) express himself you'll gain insights about his health and soundness, about your relationship, and about his environment and the other people in his life.
Photo 3. Two 13-year-old Quarter Horses - the horse on the right is free to move with pride and grace; the horse on the left has a pained expression, a stiff jaw, and a sagging neck shortened and stiffened by tissue damage.
This sample checklist is one way to check on the status of your horse's body. It contrasts the ideal condition with a less desirable one. Remember, any problems you notice are signs not of a washed-up horse, but of opportunities for healing.
Another important tool is to stand back and watch your horse without analyzing or judging. By being present and open, we can gain an overall impression and may even notice something that isn't on the list.
- calm, attentive, alert, confident; not anxious and fidgety, or withdrawn and dull
- breathing evenly through rib cage; not shallow, uneven or invisible breathing
- spine is straight line from head to tail; not a zigzag
- legs square' or evenly placed, with weight evenly distributed
- looks supple and ready to respond; not stuck or unresponsive
- evenly developed on both sides of body and limbs; not bulkier or shrunken on one side
- relaxed, curved, with clear lines between muscles; not hard, straight, run together
- smooth, springy, pliable; not lumpy, ropey or weak
- smooth, even color, shiny; not dull, rough, or bearing white or discolored patches
- brands or scars can affect muscles beneath
- shape sculptured, symmetrical, with clean lines; not compressed, warped (e.g. eyes, ears out of alignment)
- straight on neck; not tilted or twisted to one side
- eyes open, clear, glowing; not squinting, worried, dull
- lips relaxed; not tight
- jaws about 4 fingers apart; not close together
Poll (connection between skull and neck)
- relaxed, slightly rounded; not tense, flattened
- space between jaw and first vertebra (atlas) same on both sides, and about 3 fingers wide; not less than 2 fingers
- muscles flow smoothly into neck; no bulging
- relaxed; not tense
- slightly arched; not straight or sagging
- smooth, sleek muscles; not bulky, lumpy, shortened
- mane all on one side (or all on both sides); not split in one or more places
- defined, gently rounded; not flattened or hunched
- smooth connection to neck and back; no dip at neck or sharp angle into back
- smooth, strong line; not low or sagging, no dips or peaks
- full muscle; no wasting (not scooped out) along spine
- rounded, filled out; not lumpy, bony
- even and straight; not tipped or twisted to one side
- smooth connection to back and tail; no dips
- straight; not crooked
- relaxed; not clamped or weak
- cannon bones vertical; not slanted toward front, or braced out beyond body
- stifle and hock aligned and aimed slightly outward; stifles not held inward beneath body
- hooves supporting limb, not under-slung or in front of leg column
- standing evenly; not with one leg resting, or slanted under body
- cannons vertical, not pushed forward or slanted rearward beneath body
- knees straight, not bent or trembling
- hooves supporting limb, similar size and shape; not under-slung or in front of legs
- straight line from top of shoulder to hoof; shoulders not slanted inward at top
- limbs evenly weighted; not leaning to one side
Photo 4. An 18-year-old gelding showing healthy movement: energetic and light, he is looking where he's going; his body is curved evenly from nose to tail; in the moving legs, joints are flexing; the angles of his diagonal legs match; muscles inside and outside the left hind are balanced.
Good posture translates into movement that is free, powerful and straight. (See Photo 4.) A horse with good posture is able to respond more easily to training and to perform well. Posture problems create crookedness and inattention, jolting uneven gaits, and poor performance such as refusals, slower speeds, and increased injuries.
Function, balance and straightness are best seen at the walk. Observe your horse as he walks straight, also in curves or circles, especially at liberty. A horse being ridden or led often reflects what the person is doing, rather than his own abilities.
A healthy horse moves with ease and confidence. He can adjust the core of his body to accommodate changes in speed, direction, and terrain. He has self-control and awareness of his surroundings.
Healthy movement flows through the spine in a wave from back to front. When the horse begins to move, the back and poll flex first, and a hind leg steps off first.
- carried straight (ears level) and centered; not tilted, looking outward or unmoving
- nods slightly down with each hind step; not thrown upward
- swivels independently of rest of body to observe surroundings or choose new direction
- arched slightly, springs up from chest; not stiff, sagging or stretched straight
- moves slightly up and down with each step; not held still
- gently flowing sideways movement in synchrony with back, torso and tail; not twitching from side to side, or held still
- move straight ahead; no winging out, or rope walking; no twisting of hooves or hocks
- swing freely forward and move back smoothly; front legs reach beyond shoulders, hind legs reach below middle of belly
- joints - shoulders, elbows and knees, hips, stifles and hocks - open and close easily; legs not stiff and stick-like
- hooves are lifted up and set down flat; they don't drag, stab, or stumble
- footfalls are even in rhythm and weight (hooves sound the same when put down)
- hind hooves land in same track as front hooves (on straight line, or outside line of circle) and step in or over the mark of the front hooves
- relaxed, slightly arched - "like a rainbow"; not held stiffly up, clamped or lax
- sways gently from side to side; not twitching, wringing or still Turns and circles
- curved through spine from nose to tail; not looking away, or carrying tail on opposite side
- outside legs step easily to side, inside legs step easily across
- movement smooth and rhythmic; not hurried or slower in part of turn or circle
- Stands evenly, calmly; not trailing a leg, resting a hoof, fidgeting
As you begin to understand your horse's body language and recognize his postural shortcomings, you can learn how to address them with simple changes in his routine. Bodywork will be an important part of reshaping the body and renewing health and vitality.
To be continued…