What is conformation and how does good hoof care promote good posture?
What is conformation? Well, it’s outline, correctness of the body's bone structure and the balance of the muscles on that structure. Also, it’s the body's proportions in relation to each other for that breed and use. Although, I quite like it described as the relationship between form and function.
Why is it important? The better the conformation the better a horse will move and the worse a horse’s conformation the more prone to injuries it will be. Good conformation also depends on a horse’s use. For example, a thoroughbred racehorse mostly have good conformation for racing or competing, but if that racehorse just hacks out and does not race then its conformation may not be good for that use. To stretch the point a little a sprinter needs a different aspect to their conformation than a steeplechaser, where a steeplechaser needs to have the scope to jump fences. So what is considered good conformation for a sprinter, it’s not considered good conformation for a steeplechaser? Sprinters are usually best small compact with a slightly sloping croup and powerful hindquarters. Where steeplechaser is usually bigger, have longer backs, a level longer croup with a long neck to match. Same breed, but different sizes and uses.
These horses conformational assets would not be best for a riding horse where it’s main purpose is not speed or endurance but to carry weight over a distance from A to B and should be a shorter more durable horse. A mustang would be a good example in my opinion. We can not talk about the conformation of a riding horse without talking about straightness and posture. Straightness is easy for a horse to achieve without a human on its back and an important facet of a horse. Achieving straightness, roundness and collection are about engaging the hind quarters with a balanced rider, saddle and trim, and as little interference as possible. We should not underestimate the importance of posture and often conformational issues are really postural. According to Dr Deb Bennett all horses have the same physical structure for collection and she talks about collection and posture in the same breath. I find myself agreeing with Dr Bennett by thinking that some horse structures are better than others for collection. A bad example of this, would be our cob Pipa who has an extremely light front end, rears often and even kung-fu kicked my horse in the neck on their first meeting. It’s because she has a massive bum and a short back! What I’m saying, is this horse has a naturally light frontend and would find it easy to perform dressage manoeuvres, carry a rider and would achieve collection a lot easier than a thoroughbred for example. Where a thoroughbred would find collection more difficult because of their deep chest and heavier forehand.
Anyway back to posture, posture is how a horse carries and uses itself and is governed by its spine. Posture relates to the alignment of a horse’s vertebrae and a horse’s back controls its range of movement and its limb dynamics. Therefore, saddle and saddle fit is extremely important, If the saddle type, fit or rider are causing problems it will have a knock-on effect on a horse’s body and show as a wear pattern in the horse’s feet. Dr Deb Bennett points out that it’s important to see the difference between posture and conformational issues, but I think this is easier said than done and personally I don’t think many people know the difference, me included. I’m not sure because I would have thought that pigeon toes were a conformational issue, but they can be fixed in a lot of cases. Is that because they were not pigeon toed really?
As discussed in my last blog bones are restructured continually by living cells and therefore, a bone maybe a non-living structure secreted by the body, but it is controlled and modelled by its environment.
So conformational issue can be fixed?
Well yes, in my opinion. What a lot of experts say now, is many problems which look like conformational issues are actually muscles changing to compensate for defects (Posture issues). A horse will go to great lengths to appear to be sound because this is within its basic instincts to survive and not appear vulnerable. Muscles will adapt because when the musculoskeletal is injured or diseased the muscle balance will adjust to compensate. For example, to relieve pain muscles will tighten to protect the area affected and with dull pain, muscles will constantly compensate. Muscles and tendons build and erode very easily slowly adjusting to a horse’s workloads, use and injuries. Ligaments can be affected by any muscle changes or lack of structure, for example, a well developed digital cushion act as a stop and prevents the suspensory ligament from over stretching. Therefore, an underdeveloped digital cushion will not stop the descent of the fetlock and cause the suspensory ligament to overstretch. Bones can be affected as well, just like dripping water encodes a stone. Riding on the forehand will eventually cause issues to the lower neck vertebra and middle back. Issues like a poor saddle fit, poor riding, inappropriate equipment, underdeveloped back of the foot, an injury, or poor hoof care will cause tightness and soreness of muscles and will affect posture. Therefore, these so-called conformation faults can be changed. For example, Pete Ramey says he has cured many a leg conformational issue such as pigeon toes by just trimming to the sole plain and using a hoof’s internal structures has his guide. In other words, he trims the hoof to its internal structures putting the coffin bone in its correct position and the so-called conformational issue takes care of itself.
An important point to make here is that development of the digital cushion changes the hoof to pastern angle for the better and has a direct effect on a horse’s leg conformation. So we can develop a horse’s foot structures and have a direct bearing on conformation. This development is the correct way of affecting this angle, unlike the practice which many farriers undertake where they wrongly change the hoof to pastern angle by artificially altering heel height. See how in this picture the hoof on the right has a well developed digital cushion and a perfect hoof to pastern angle. To fix the hoof to pastern on the left hoof we must develop the digital cushion, addressing the cause of the problem. Not artificially altering heel height and treating the symptoms.