Sunday Conformation Series #4: Shoulders

Let's talk about my favorite thing: shoulders.  I'm a sucker for a nice shoulder.  Everyone one trait that catches her eye and sometimes blinds her to other bad conformation traits.  For me, it's totally shoulders.  Shoulders and neck tie-in are the first thing I look at - when I see a good one, I have to consciously take a deep breath and ask myself  "Okay, sure that's a nice shoulder, but where does this fellow fail otherwise?"

Totilas.  Nice shoulder.  My version of barn-blindness.

So, what are we looking at when we're looking at shoulders?  Three things.

1. The degree of the angle formed by the scapula and the humerus  (Discussed in terms of having an "open" or "closed" shoulder)
2. The length of the humerus
3. The slope of the shoulder when measured against the horizon (Discussed in terms of having a "vertical" or "laid back" shoulder.)



A straight and upright shoulder causes the horse to take more and shorter strides due to the shorter muscles attachments it has.  This increases concussion/risk of lameness, and can be pretty jarring to ride.  Upright shoulders are usually associated with a short, steep humerus bone, so it's that much harder for the horse to fold his front legs and get his shoulders up over a jump, although it does mean the horse is able to accelerate quickly.  There are degrees of straight/laid-back, so I would cull depending on the degree of straightness.  I've tried to put photos in this post of extremes, so that you can see and identify it more easily.


Straight shoulder.  Scroll back and forth between Totilas's photo at the top and this guy to get a good handle on seeing this trait.

A laid-back shoulder is where it's at if you're a performance person.  It's the opposite of a straight shoulder: longer muscle attachments mean longer strides, the shoulders are mobile enough to swing freely to minimize concussion, less concussion means a reduction in your horse's chances of things like DJD and arthritis occurring early.  These horses make for a more comfortable ride for a couple of reasons: first, it's a less jarring ride, and second on a horse with a straight shoulder, the spot where the rider sits on the horse's back is close to the front legs.  A sloping shoulder pushes the rider's seat back in an anatomically advantageous position.

Related fun fact: horses with laid-back shoulders are often the ones that need anatomic girths, because the saddle sits further back than it does on a horse with a straight shoulder, often behind the girth groove.

I don't have a conformation photo of this fellow, but I know he doesn't have a straight shoulder and short arm bone based on how high he's got his front end over this fence - the scapula is totally rotated back here.

Totilas's laid-back shoulder in action:


Scapula totally rotated back

One more laid-back shoulder, though this was taken at an annoying angle for a conformation post.  I think they are deliberately trying to make his shoulder look bigger in this photo, so keep that in mind:

Oldenburg

And one more straight shoulder:


20 comments:

  1. After someone commenting that my mare has a bit of an upright shoulder (head over to my blog if you want to partake in the confo critique!), I did a bit of research into it. Can you comment as to why you think a upright shoulder is a detriment to jumping horses? I'm finding sites that say the opposite. I, myself, am no good when it comes to conformation, so I'm interested in hearing more.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I should add that your opinion on an upright shoulder is not a stand alone; I'm finding different people, books, and articles saying different things. Both that it is good, and that it is bad.

      Delete
    2. Hey Julie! I have always heard that an upright shoulder creates two problems for jumpers: one is that the shorter muscle attachments to the scapula create more concussion, and the other is that an upright shoulder lends itself to a short and steep humerus, which makes it physiologically harder for the horse to rotate the scapula back and fold the front end up. I think this picture from the Photos of Horses Inside Out website might help you visualize it: http://www.horsesinsideout.com/images/DrawnHorse[1].jpeg

      I don't really have a good picture of it, but look at the position of the humerus in the above picture and imagine if it was longer and steeper - it would kind of push the upper foreleg into a dangling position over the fence instead of letting it snap up high.

      All that said, the most important part of looking at this stuff is to realize that for the most part, it's just something to keep in the back of your mind in case you see something like your horse having trouble getting her front end up, or getting sore, so don't stress about it!

      Delete
    3. Thanks for elaborating!

      You would think that with something like this, there would be pretty concrete ideals, given that we're basically working with physics. And yet, what you say makes sense... but other things I'm reading say that while a more upright shoulder can cause a jarring gait, it also allows more mobility of the knee [which aids in clearing obstacles], and that make sense too. I would not have thought conformation would have so many different opinions!

      I'm definitely not going to lose sleep over whether or not my mare's such and such is x degrees past what is optimal, but I would like to possess a working knowledge of conformation, particularly conformation that is applicable to my desired discipline. It may help understand strengths and weaknesses, and it's interesting, if nothing else.

      Delete
    4. I think there might be an absolute out there, but the horse industry is still governed so much by handed down lore and "my trainer said..." pseudo-science that it's hard to know. The "white feet are weaker" argument is a great example of that - so many people still believe that. The woman I learned conformation from, Dr. Marks, was a magnificent horseperson, international endurance rider and a dedicated student of science who gave me a real appreciation for getting to the scientific truth on things, which it seems like you have too!

      Now that you say that about the knee, I have heard that a more upright shoulder allows for more knee action, but that that also contributes to unnecessary concussion. So, in the end, if your horse is happily able to do what you're asking, that's all that matters, right?

      Delete
    5. Unfortunately, that is incredibly true. And it's so deep into the industry that you see it not only reflected in casual conversations, but in published literature. C'est la vie.

      But yes, the article commenting around the knee action did say that it would contribute to more concussion. They also advised that a more sloping shoulder was desirable in dressage.

      At the end of the day, the proof is in the pudding. Conformation doesn't really matter if the horse is able to do the job at hand - whether that's aided by its conformation or in spite of it. It is a good way to pass the time in the winter, though!

      Delete
  2. Oh Redwine he is such a handsome devil. Definitely loved this post a lot, I could actually wrap my mind around it (and at 5:50am so that is a feat!)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Good! I don't get many comments on these and am not sure if people like them or are some combination of overwhelmed/insulted. Glad to hear you liked it!

      Delete
    2. Personally with me I just don't know how to comment because I have a hard time totally understand conformation :P I am slow.

      Delete
  3. This is a really great overview, thank you! I especially appreciated the illustration.

    Do you have any thoughts about relative size of shoulder? I've always thought that Tristan has a reasonable angle to his shoulder, but it's clearly large out of proportion to his hind end. You can tell this most obviously in person: it's not just the front-to-back size, it's the width and the overall bulk of them. I had a trainer tell me once that he reminded her of a draft's conformation because of that - which is very possible, as there were draft horses released into mustang herds!

    His confo pics are here: http://beljoeor.blogspot.com/2013/12/5-day-challenge-day-3.html

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hey! He's really cute, look at that bone! I like a big shoulder, personally, and I don't find the shoulder causing the proportion issue you're seeing - I think the hindquarter is. That's so interesting that the trainer made that comment, because I see draft too but not there. I see it in his hindquarters, how steep they are. His hind foot being back in that picture is making it harder to see it, but it's there. Check out this Shire's rump for an example: http://www.ansi.okstate.edu/breeds/horses/shire/shire2.jpg

      It's not a fault for a pulling breed. That and the roman nose are giveaways, there's some draft back there somewhere!

      Delete
    2. Also, you were spot on in your conformation analysis of him!

      Delete
    3. Interesting! I do see what you mean about his steep back end. I've always looked more closely at the hip angle rather than his rump but yes, I definitely see it. Huh.

      It's always fun having people guess his breed. His head and neck look very Spanish-y from certain angles, and he's tall and more inclined to gallop and jump for a mustang which usually indicates some Thoroughbred influence - then the nose and the back end which say draft. All-American mutt through and through. :)

      And thank you for evaluating my analysis - it's something I'm constantly trying to improve my knowledge of, good to hear I'm getting there.

      Delete
  4. Always fun to analyze conformation, I just feel like many that have perfect conformation actually end up lame, and the horses that are funkily put together turn out to be superstars. Pleasing to the eye - but does it actually improve the horse? Im not convinced.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think there may be a bit of a correlation problem there -- better-built (and thus potentially more-talented) horses aren't necessarily trained and handled the same way that our more average specimens are, so they may be at greater risk from other directions.

      But personally (and maybe this is just to cover up my own weak eye for conformation), I am less interested in how a horse is built than in how he moves and especially how he hits the ground; I think (totally anecdotally) that how hard a horse is on himself is the best predictor of soundness that I've found.

      Delete
    2. Good point and good response. I think some traits you can definitively say have a negative effect on soundness - upright pasterns lead to tennis ball ankles/arthritis/DJD, for example, while some traits will separate a '5' mover from a '10' mover. Good conformation really does improve the horse, you just have to know what good conformation looks like for your sport, and like Hannah alluded to, be able and willing to pay for it, or get lucky.

      Conformation and movement are related, but I've seen horses that look good standing end up moving terribly and horses that look like a train wreck conformationally move beautifully. In the end, you are evaluating conformation for suitability/lameness potential and movement for movement.

      Delete
  5. Thanks for this! Must admit that I've always had a hard time understanding exactly what people meant by "a good shoulder," but this is very clear and helpful.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Good! Let me know if anything else has been fuzzy in the past, I can use it for another Sunday!

      Delete
    2. I would love something on length of back, if you're taking requests! Feels like it should be so straightforward but there seems to be an awful lot of optical illusion involved sometimes...

      Delete
    3. Sure! I was just chatting with someone about this the other day. I have this week's done already but will do the back the week after.

      Delete

Post a Comment

  © Blogger template Shush by Ourblogtemplates.com 2009

Back to TOP