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Horse anatomy - diagrams of horse body parts

Published: 2021-08-25 10:32:58 Categories: Guides Rss feed , Horse health Rss feed

From this article, you will learn how a horse is built. We describe both the particular horse body parts and the skeleton, as well as ailments that may afflict them.

While analyzing each part of the horse's body, we will also speak of the exterior – namely, the conformation, which depends on the horse's type and race. In this article, we will also speak about the horse's skeleton and muscles.

Horse Supplies

You should be able to draw a square on a proportionally built horse – however, as we prove later on while discussing each body part, in reality, horses differ from one another and usually stray from that ideal proportions. A faulty build does not mean the horse cannot have a successful sports career, however, it's good to know what your horse's build helps him with and what it hinders.

Ciało konia wpisane w kwadrat
You can draw a square on a proportional horse body

It is especially important when you consider buying your own horse – usually for a particular discipline. Having extensive knowledge about the horse anatomy and possible anomalies (illnesses, changes, ailments) should be the very basis of owning a horse. Knowing the horse anatomy will allow you for an educated and responsible decision.

You can read more about buying a horse here:

Horse body – diagram of horse build

A horse's body resembles a table, and while sitting in the saddle – you are right in his most vulnerable spot. The longer the table, the more fragile the middle point. This is why training should focus on building the horse's back muscles that hold your body's weight while riding, bending into a concave arch. This is why it's so crucial for the horse's back legs to be as under the barrel as possible – this is how the "table" shortens and your body weight is less of a burden for the horse. If your horse's back muscles are strong, they will not be strained.

Horse muscles
Horse muscles anatomy
Horse skeleton
Horse anatomy skeleton

Horse head

The horse's head is quite heavy – it can weigh approximately 16 kg if the horse is big. You should remember about this, especially when you allow the horse to "hang" on a bit and you "carry" his head's weight with your arms throughout the whole ride by holding the reins. After an hour of such exercise, you can really wear yourself out – which is why it is so important to train your horse to "carry" his own weight.

The horse's head – namely, its proportions in regards to the rest of the horse's body – differs depending on the animal's race and type. Cold-blooded horses have big heads, which allow them to additionally ballast the front of their bodies, which gives them exceptional pull strength. On the other side, saddle horses with small heads (in regards to the rest of their bodies), such as Arabs, are perfect for long or quick runs (rides, races). Relatively small heads lessen the burden on the front of their bodies. It is, however, good to keep in mind that a small head might mean that the horse has anatomical defects – overbreeding and a tiny skeleton.

Anatomy of horse head

The horse's head can be divided into two parts: top (neurocranium) and bottom (viscerocranium - the muzzle part).

The top part consists of:

  • Occiput – is right behind the ears, exactly where the bridle comes (namely, the occiput strap of the bridle), it is a part that joins the horse's head with his neck.
  • Crown – is between the ears and in front of them. It is a part, which lines are marked by the eye fovea, temples with the temporal fovea, forehead, eye sockets, and eyes.
  • Forehead – is under the ears on the front of the horse's head, usually covered with a forelock that grows out of the crown.

The bottom, muzzle, part consists of:

  • Nose.
  • Nostrils (along with the external part - nostril wings).
  • Upper and lower lip (with chin).
  • Cheeks with jaw below them (flat wide jawbones that stick out) and branches of the jaw (bottom edges of the jaw) and chin groove.
  • Muzzle groove and edges.

Horse head anatomy diagaram
Horse head diagram

Types of horse head builds

The type of horse's head always depends on his race. We differentiate 4 basic types:

  • Noble head, straight profile:

    It is the most perfectly balanced shape of the head, where the forehead-nose line remains straight. It is characteristic for breed and racing horses with a long top part of the head and short bottom part, with a broad forehead.

  • Dished (concave) face:

    Characteristic for Arab and half-Arabs with a broad forehead, big eyes, and nostrils, but most of all – concave line of the nose, and small falcate ears.

  • Roman nose:

    Characteristic for cold-blooded, and racehorses such as Lipizzaners, and Kladrubers; the head has a convex line of the nose, short top part (neurocranium) and elongated bottom part (viscerocranium), narrow forehead, small eyes, and nostrils in regards to the head's size, and long ears.

  • Pig head:

    Its main characteristics are disproportionately small nostrils and a very short muzzle.

Horse head - straight profile
Noble heads, straight profiles
Horse head - dished face
Dished face
Horse head - roman nose
Roman nose
Horse head - pig head
Pig head

Types of horse ears

Horse ears differ depending on the type of the steed:

  • cold-blooded horses have fleshy ears with "blunt" tips, namely, rounded ones, often covered with hairy fur, placed diagonally towards the horse's head,
  • warm-blooded horses have lighter, thinner ears, placed vertically, with pointy tips.

The description above is for normal ears. Among anomalies, we can distinguish:

  • hare ears - long and narrow,
  • donkey ears - thick, long, and rather broad,
  • lop ears - flopping to the sides,
  • pig ears - flopping to the front,
  • mouse ears - short and small with rounded tips.

The anomalies listed above – incorrect shapes of the horse's ears are only the so-called beauty faults, which do not translate into any health issues or physical abilities.

However, you should pay attention to the ears' "mobility" – if the horse moves his ears too much, it might speak for his temper (hyperactivity, nervousness), a complete lack of thereof might mean that the horse is deaf.

Horse eyes – how does a horse see

While speaking of the horse's head, it would be a misunderstanding to omit the eyes - namely, their placing that allows the horse to see a particular perspective. More about how a horse sees, you can read in a separate article.

Horse teeth and his age

The saying goes "never look a gifted horse in the teeth." Why shouldn't we, though? You can learn the horse's age by his teeth.

While assessing the horse's age, you should mostly pay attention to his incisors, especially the sockets into the cutting surface of the teeth – the deeper they go, the older the horse. Additionally, while looking at the horse's jaw's intersection, you can see that his teeth go to the front as he grows older and start "leaning."

Horse teeth depending on age
Horse's teeth and his age

Horse neck

The horse's neck is his lever. Its muscles, length, and proportions in regards to the rest of the horse's body parts say volumes about his condition and sports predispositions but also about the quality of your training. For example, a neck that's too short may be a hindrance in jumping, where the proper basculing is crucial. Basculing is maintaining the proper position of the horse while jumping – stretching the horse's body over an obstacle with neck low and back bent in an arch, which allows for jumping over really high obstacles while keeping balance. At the same time, a neck that is too long might make it impossible for the horse to keep balance while performing difficult dressage figures.

Relaxing the horse that affects the health of his back starts from the neck. The neck is always crucial for maintaining balance – both while performing complicated dressage figures and while jumping. During training, you should go interchangeably for its stretching (relaxing), then gradual shortening (proper training), and final extension (stretching at the end of a ride).

Anatomy of horse neck

The horse's neck consists of the following parts:

  • Left and right side,
  • back of the neck/forelock,
  • throat.

A horse that has been well trained should have well-developed muscles along the neck. A horse that is incorrectly ridden has usually very strong throat muscles because he has to keep his head and neck high, which results in a lack of relaxation.

Types of horse necks

We differentiate three types of horse's neck:

  • Ideal (straight) neck – correct and most desired because it means that the horse has a straight trachea, which allows him to take in more air in a shorter period of time, which is crucial during intense effort.
  • Swan neck – both the upper and bottom edge of the neck create an arch, which is often observed in Arab horses.
  • Close-coupled neck – the bottom part of the neck remains convex but the upper part is concave, which causes the horse to carry his head high and, as a result, trip often. The convex bottom part blocks the airflow through the trachea, which makes it difficult for the horse to breathe – this is why this type of horse neck is considered the least desired and most flawed one.

Fortunately, swan and close-coupled necks happen rather rarely - most horses have straight profiles of the neck. However, they differ in setting:

  • Highly set neck – it is not an imperfection in dressage or combined driving.
  • Properly set neck.
  • Low set neck – it is not seen as a flaw in Welsh ponies and horses used for long and difficult routes, as well as carriage horses, as it helps them overcome the resistance while pulling.
Horse neck setting
Types and settings of horse neck

Horse barrel, or the trunk

The horse's torso along with the back is the part of the horse's body that protects all his most important organs.

Horse withers - the highest point

The point where the neck ends and the torso begins is called the withers. The withers is a place of origin for crucial muscles, so it is very important for the horse to have it properly shaped – it should be visible, properly high, and broad, stretching to the back. An indefinite, flat, or too pointy withers might be caused by faulty training, malnutrition, adiposis, or simply flawed anatomy.

Withers that's sticking out too much will be susceptible to abrasions by the saddle and other injuries. Withers too flat will cause the saddle to shift to the sides.

The withers is a spot that defines the horse's height – we always measure the horse from the ground to the top of the withers.

How should the proper horse chest look

The chest must be broad, long, and deep enough to store all crucial organs: heart and lungs. Horses with broad chests will be heavier and slower. Those with narrow chests might not be fit for riding as it is more difficult for them to move with the rider on their backs, having less space for heart and lungs (smaller organs and worse exertional abilities).

Types of horse chests:

  • Correct – averagely broad breast, nicely arched ribs.
  • Narrow – too narrow breast, too little space for organs – heart, lungs.
  • Broad – broader breast, inclinations for swaying gaits.

Horse flank – a sensitive point

A filled, not much concave flank (the space between the horse's trunk and croup on both sides) says a lot about his nutrition and condition. The flank is a very sensitive point of the horse's body, below it you can find his kidneys. You should omit this place while bathing your horse (especially on cold days) with cold water and treat it much more delicately while cleaning.

Horse spine – or horse back

The horse's back is a kind of "linking" between the rear and the front of the horse. It should be properly shaped and muscled to shift the rider's weight to his back and front limbs.

Horse spine divided into sections
Horse's spine divided into sections

Types of horse back:

  • Correct back.
  • Roached-back (convex) – a short and arched upwards back, strong but also stiff and hard – the horse would tend to walk uncomfortably, roughly.
  • Swayback (concave) – is caused by insufficient cohesiveness of the vertebrae, which makes the spine weak – you can often observe that type of back in cold-blooded horses, and old steeds, and mares that have given birth to several foals – it then might be an acquired characteristic, not an innate one.
  • Long backed – improperly muscled.
Horse back types
Types of horse backs

Front and back limbs

Horse's limbs – tendons, joints, and hooves are most prone to injuries and ailments, which is why we will try to say the most about them. What is important, is that a lot of anomalies stem from the owner's negligence or wrong use (e.g. too much load when the horse is too young – bone splits, wrong diet – unfit for the horse's needs, too much protein leads to laminitis, etc).

You should really pay attention to the state of the horse's limbs – their condition often says whether it's possible to use the horse. The build of the horse's legs depends on the race – their muscles, proportions, length, flexibility, strength.

Hot-blooded horses have dry, compact limbs, while cold-blooded horses have rather thick but weak limbs. The joints should have clear edges – if they are oval, it can suggest issues with the horse's lymph.

A slightly bad posture of the limbs is pretty common. If they impact the horse's riding value, you can often say only while actually riding on his back. The case is very different when it comes to serious faults, which can lead to premature exhaustion of the joints and tendons of the limbs.

Front limbs – function and build

Their basic function is to keep up the horse's body and buffer shocks during movement. They are closer to the horse's center of gravity than the back legs – which is why they are more ballasted (e.g. during landing from a jump). This is why they more often get injured.

Types of build of the front limbs - as seen from the front:

  • Correct.
  • Base narrow – when the limbs are not parallel but come closer together at the bottom, this often causes strickling in horses (stepping on the back legs with the front ones).
  • Base wide – the limbs from knees down go to the outside, which causes stiffness of gaits.
  • Pigeon-toed – the fetlock-hoof axes go inwards, which causes the horse to make outward arches while walking.
  • Toes-out - the fetlock-hoof axes go outwards and the limb goes on an inward arch, which causes strickling.
  • Bowlegged – the front limbs resemble the walls of a barrel in shape. This puts too much load on the inner side of the horse's limbs and outside tendons.
  • Knock-kneed – the axes of the limbs are broken in the knee joint to the inside, which makes the horse's legs look like a big X. This does not guarantee good support and balance, causing the horse to walk in inwards arches and strickle.
Types of horse front legs
Front horse legs anatomy

Back limbs posture - as seen from the side:

  • Correct.
  • Camped-under – shifted too far under the belly.
  • Camped-out – shifted too much in front of the chest, it causes exhaustion of tendons and joints, this type of posture should not be mistaken with laminitis!
  • Knee sprung – the leg's axis is broken to the front in the knee joint. This type of birth defect does not have to be an issue if it doesn't cause stumbling and problems with balance or affects the swiftness of gaits.
  • Calf-kneed – with carpus shifted to the back.
Horse fron limb postures
Horse's front limbs posture

The horse's shoulder blades are the top part of the front limbs, which decide the horse's physical capabilities. They should be long enough, diagonally positioned, which provides the horse freedom of movement.

Long, wide, and diagonal shoulder blades allow a sport horse to reach higher speed. In a carriage horse, you would want a more steep shoulder blade – which increases the horse's strength.

Back limbs – function and build

In the back limbs, there are the gaskin and hock. The other parts are pretty much the same as in the front limbs. The function of the back legs is to carry the horse's croup, power the gaits, increase dynamics and strength while jumping, they also help break the resistance of a pulled weight on a race track.

The hock should be thoroughly looked at while buying a horse as if it is burdened with faults, they can disqualify the horse from being used when they get worse.

Among the most common issues with the hock, you can find:

  • Spavin – or bone spavin, the most serious and incurable fault – it is a bone growth, which often deforms the joint and causes knitting of small bones, which makes the horse unable to move. Spavin is induced by injuries caused by excessive effort. At first, it manifests itself through inflammation and lameness, which continues after the inflammation is cured – during more intense movement.
  • Bursitis – an egg-shaped swelling of the top part of the bulb of the heel. Acquired bursitis – a skin protrusion. True bursitis – an inflammation of the heel bursa that does not cause lameness, being a so-called beauty defect.
  • Popped splint – a bone growth caused by growth of the capitulum of a splint bone. In most cases, it does not cause lameness but when it's placed on a short and narrow joint, it might spread to neighboring tendons, irritating or even damaging them.
  • Bog spavin – a convex protrusion that may be caused by overgrowth of the fascia that is responsible for keeping tendons around the hock, inflammation of said tendons, or position of the heel bone. Bog spavin might be birth or acquired defect. It does not have to cause lameness.
  • Windgalls – they can happen both around the fetlock and the hock joints – it is a soft swelling, often as big as a (hen) egg. It is caused by a growing joint pouch full of synovia and exudative fluid – it might be the effect of inflammation after excessive training effort or wrong diet (too much protein). Articular windgalls – while pressing against a joint, the windgalls move onto its other side – this is the worst kind of windgalls.
  • The hock may also be too short and too narrow, which will cause it to get damaged more quickly and more often.

Types of horses' back legs - as seen from the back:

  • Correct.
  • Narrow – limbs are placed too close to each other.
  • Knock-kneed – analogous to the front legs posture.
  • Stands close – analogous to base narrow in the front legs.
  • Stands wise – analogous to bow-legged in the front limbs but the legs go to the outside, it's pretty rare (when happens, it is with starved horses, raised in a very harsh environment).
  • Bow-legged – back legs resemble a barrel's walls in shape. The hocks are far away from each other, the legs go inwards, during movement, the horse makes arches with his legs and turns his hooves while taking steps, which becomes a serious functional defect.
  • Cow-hocked – when the limbs' axes are broken in hocks to the inside (as in cows), with an advanced fault of posture, this causes excessive overload of the back limbs (tendons and ligaments).
Types of horse back legsTypes of build of horse's back legs

Posture of back legs - as seen from the side:

  • Correct.
  • Camped under – causes excessive use of tendons and ligaments, straining of periosteum, shortening of the gait, and furthers stepping or hitting of the back legs against the heels of the front ones.
  • Camped out – with the limb far to the back, which shifts the body weight strongly onto the back (spine), which can, in turn, become roached-back. It causes slower, less effective gaits.
  • Sickle hocked – when the cannon bone's bottom end is shifted to the front, which causes the hock to be placed at too wide of an angle. This can cause an overload of the joint (tendons and ligaments).
  • Leg too straight – when the whole back leg is almost perfectly straight, which decreases the amortization in gallop and while jumping over obstacles.
  • With weak hock (short and narrow one).
  • Tied cannon bone.
  • With bursitis.
  • With bog spavin.
Types of posture of horse's back legsTypes of posture of horse's back legs

Horse pastern – faults, anomalies, ailments

Another important part of a horse's leg is the cannon bone. Its faults cause weakening of the limb.

Forms of faults in the pastern of a horse:

  • Pastern is too straight.
  • Calf-kneed (short, straight pastern).
  • Buck-kneed.
  • Pastern with thin hock.
  • Coon-footed – when the outer edges of the pastern are not parallel and they come closer together at the top of the carpus.
  • Pastern too long – disproportionate to the length of the cannon bone.
  • Tied-in – too narrow and thin.
Faulty pastern in horse
Faults in horse's pastern

Defects of the pastern may cause various types of anomalies and ailments:

  • The pastern might have a bony growth at 1/3 of the bone's length on the inner side. This is caused by inflammation resulting from excessive physical effort or mechanical injury.
  • You may observe oblong convex protrusions that are a result of periosteum inflammation. This usually occurs in young horses that were used too harshly (in racing). While these changes form, they are painful and cause lameness.
  • Windgalls – mentioned above.
  • Tendon strain.

Faults of the fetlock in horses:

  • Normal, correct fetlock.
  • Badly angled, too long fetlock.
  • Steep fetlock – causes the horse's gaits to be unpleasant, harsh.
  • Coon-footed – causes the joints and tendons to wear out quickly.
  • Fetlock with ringbone.
Faulty fetlock in horse
Faults of horse fetlock

Horse hooves - types and build

You could say that there's no horse without hooves and you would be 100% right. Thus, you should also pay attention to uneven detrition of the hooves' walls and any damages. Also, to oversensitivity while cleaning the hooves – apart from the characteristic smell, sensitivity is the first symptom of a rotting hoof.

Among the most common hooves' issues, we can find:

  • Hoof too small or too big.
  • Narrow hoof – causing vanishing of the frog.
  • Flat hoof – which often leads to mechanical damage of the hoof when moving on hard or rocky ground.
  • Diagonal hoof – one of the walls is either perpendicular or concave as a result of a faulty posture.
  • Valgus hoof – caused by birth or acquired shortening of the flexor tendons – the back wall of the hoof does not touch the ground, the horse leans mostly on the front part of the hoof.
  • Hoof with sharp edges – occurs in camped-under and camped-out posture of the front or back legs as a result of wrong cleaning and shoeing.
  • Hoof with blunt edges – occurs in camped-under posture of the front legs or camped-out posture of the back ones.
  • Steep – the front wall of the hoof is very steep, while the side walls are almost vertical. This is either a birth defect or a result of ailments and contracture of the tendons.
  • Crooked – one of the hoof's walls is convex while the other one is concave – caused by an uneven distribution of the horse's weight, which is usually a result of a faulty posture of the limbs.
  • Post-laminitis – with deformed hoof walls with transverse rings, caused by acute inflammation of the hoof material.

More about hooves, you can find here: injuries and affliction of hooves - disturbing symptoms, causes, and treatment, including laminitis, puncturing, sore feet, and others.

Horse hoof parts
Horizontal profile of equine hoof anatomy

Croup and tail

The croup is evaluated based on its length, width, muscles, and angulation. Lack of proper proportions of the croup e.g. a croup that is too short might not allow you to use him with a saddle.

We differentiate three types of croups as seen from the side:

  • Normal croup – the pelvis' slope is at 15-25 degrees to the ground.
  • Flat croup (horizontal, straight) – the pelvis' slope is at less than 15 degrees, usually in noble horses, especially Arabs, which allows for an elongated, quicker gait. However, a horse with such a gait loses the strength of movements, which is not great for jumping, carrying weight, or quick starts (racing), but is perfect for combined driving, and dressage.
  • Sloping croup (truncated) – at 30-40 degrees slope, which gives the horse more strength, making this type of croup good for carriage. A slightly sloping croup would also be good for jumping (great strength of takeoff), however, such a croup would not allow the horse to reach high speed.
Types of horse croups - as seen from side
Types of horse croups - as seen from the side

And three types of croups as seen from the back:

  • Normal croup – well-muscled and wide enough, of rounded oval shape.
  • Lines of the quarter as seen from the back shape sort of a "roof," which top is at the end of the spine – sacrum. With proper muscles, this type of a croup can be only a beauty defect.
  • Typical for cold-blooded horses croup that has top of the hips almost at the same level as sacrum. You can clearly see an indentation into the sacrum.
Types of horse croups - as seen from back
Types of horse croups – as seen from the back

While speaking of the horse's croup, we should also mention the horse's tail, which:

  • Protects the horse from insects.
  • Helps him keep balance and steer while moving.

The horse's tail can be positioned normally, high (often in Arab horses) or low (in cold-blooded horses). The hairs of the mane and tail differ depending on the type of the horse – cold-blooded ones have thick, coarse hair, while hot-blooded horses have the opposite hair – silky and thin.

Horse skin and its products

The horse's skin is covered with hairs, which color depends on the horse's skin color. Gray horses have pink skin, while other colored horses have either dark gray or black skin.

The most important product of the horse's skin is the hoof with the bulb of the heels in the back part.

Other products contain:

  • Chestnuts – elliptic in shape, placed on the inner side of the legs – above knees on the front legs, and above hocks on the back legs. They often grow, sticking out of the horse's silhouette more and more, to fall out with time, leaving a flat, callused skin lesion.
  • Ergots – tumor masses that appear on the backside of fetlock joints, which are surrounded by long hairs.

Both chestnuts and ergots are believed to be atavistic – a remaining part of the primogenitor, from the no longer existing horse's toes that evolved into hooves.

Summary

Equine anatomy – along with the awareness of anomalies and certain deviation from desired norms – should be common knowledge among horse lovers. Everyone, from riders, through traders, coaches, smiths, veterinarians, judges, and trainers base their everyday work on this knowledge.

Familiarity with the anatomy of a horse from a foal allows you to notice both his predispositions and possible issues (such as diseases or ailments). The latter one could be leveled with proper treatment, shoeing, or good training.

On the basis of:

  1. Martin Haller, Rasy koni, Józef Kulisiewicz, Jacek Łojek (tłum.), Multico Oficyna Wydawnicza, Warszawa 2002
  2. Wacław Próchniewicz, Akademia jeździecka cz. 1, Akademia Jeździecka s.c., Warszawa 2007

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