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Conformation and Posture

Updated: May 23, 2022

I started a blog series over on the Chimacum Tack blog called Conformation Investigation. This is has spurred some interesting conversations. I also shared this graphic on Facebook:

This shows how the development of certain muscles can completely change what appears to be the conformation of this horse. However in this case it's entirely about changing the posture and helping the horse develop the muscles in the correct way.

I had a curly horse named Billy Blaze. He was given to me by his breeder because he was deemed to ugly to live. Granted he wasn't the most attractive weanling, yearling or two year old but with careful training his posture improved. He did have some conformation issues that persisted but I helped him overcome them through ground work.

We did tons of Hill Therapy as well as point-to-point exercises. We did a little bit of backing, encouraging him to keep his head down as he engaged his hind end. But I caution people about doing too much backing. You can easily cause injury to their stifles by over doing that.

Here is a before and after of Zorro. The photo on the left was taken last April and the photo on the right was taken last week:

Let's go over Zorro's before photo point-by-point:

Because of the way Zorro was using his body, it appeared that he was always shrugging his shoulders. He was foreshortening his neck which also caused him to seem to have a thick throat latch.

His heels were not comfortable, therefor he would stand more on his toes. This caused his pasterns to appear steep and upright which also changed the angle of his shoulder. The angle of his shoulder also effected his core muscles. Because of his posture he would pull himself along by his front end and his hind end would scramble to keep up. There was little drive from behind.

He is a bit goose rumped. That means that his croup is a bit short and steep making the top of his loin higher than is ideal. But with some long lining work in which I encourage him to step under his body with his hind legs and drive from behind I've helped him re-shape his hind end.

We'll take a closer look at his after photo:

You can see that his throat latch seems cleaner and tighter. It always was but was shortened when his shoulders and neck were tight. Once I taught him to lengthen his neck as he moved his throat latch also 'lengthened'.

I have been working hard on his feet to make his heels more comfortable so he can weight the back of his foot, as horses are made to do. A heel first landing is every barefoot trimmers ultimate goal! Once he was able to stand on the back of his foot and learned to properly use his hind end, his shoulder actually moved back towards his spine. It's possible to move a horse's withers as much as 6" (that would be a big horse) and as much as 3" on a pony!

Learning to engage his hind end has helped him flatten the croup a bit and develop a better rear end over all. He is better muscled in this photo than in the before photo. He has lost unnecessary weight and learned to engage his core muscles, something we all need to learn! LOL

So how did I go about this? It is a culmination of many hours of long lining and working on transitions, walk to whoa to back up. Trot to walk to whoa to back up. Trotting on a circle and learning to keep his body upright and straight. Cantering on a circle, on the correct lead. I vary the size of the circles from large to smaller. He has to work hard to balance on a smaller circle. Then we go straight and stretch and relax his head down, stretching his top line, lengthening those muscles. I have mowed a 'track' in my field and we walk around that, going into the mowed 'arena' area to work on the circles. I don't drill him but keep these session super short and sweet. I was long lining him 2-3 times a week and then peppering in driving and taking long walks the other days.

We are blessed with a long steep hill straight out of the driveway. The first 1/4 of a mile is a slight incline and then it dramatically starts to climb the hill. We gain as much as 500 feet altitude on this first hill. If we are feeling very ambitious there are 3 more long steep climbs we can do which takes us up another 500 feet or so. He has had to engage his hind end going up and well as coming back down. Especially when he is pulling the bike. On the way down he has to sit into his breeching to keep the bike off him. All great ways to build muscle tone.

We go off roading as well and climb over large rocks and huge sage bushes. We climb mountain trails and cross creeks. I pepper in LOTS of different things to keep his training well rounded.

We also do point-to-point when walking down the road. I call these are grazing walks. This is when the entire walk is about finding the yummiest grass that grows along the road. I take him to a yummy looking patch of grass, let him graze and then ask him to raise his head and immediately start looking ahead for the next yummy patch of grass. He is also looking but he is keeping his head down low so he doesn't miss a thing! So in this way he is stretching his top line and engaging his hind end. He has become a walking machine!!

Of course posture and muscle development also depends on how we feed. I keep things VERY simple:

  1. The ponies get 2.5#'s of tested low sugar low starch hay in the morning and in the evenings, in slow feed nets. (This is 1.5% of their body weight.)

  2. They get 1/2 a cup of timothy hay pellets, topped with 1 ounce of soybean meal, for protein. Protein is key to building muscle and their hay is lacking in protein. Also the SBM has all the important amino acids and that are readily available. Alfalfa hay is not as bioavailable, so you have to feed A LOT each day for them to get the amino acids and protein they need.

  3. They have fresh, clean water available 24/7.

  4. They have two kinds of salt available at all times.

  5. I give them some loose hay mixed with Chamomile flowers and Raspberry leaves before we go out for our walks and drives. I don't like to work them on an empty stomach. And I think it's nice for them to have a little 'salad' every day. I don't weigh this but it's not very much. It takes them about 10 minutes to polish it off.

That's it! Super simple. They have NEVER looked better. Their hair shines from the skin out. Their eyes are bright, their feet look amazing, they have lots of energy. Truly they are looking fantastic! I wish I could capture the shine in their hair coats in the photos...

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