Conformation Of The Racehorse (2)

Neck and shoulders

A strong, correctly muscled neck is necessary to support the weight of the horse’s head. Its neck allows the horse to move its head up and down in order to shift its centre of gravity and to keep its balance. The neck muscles help to bring the shoulders and forelegs forward at each stride. A horse that works at home in a rounded outline, with its head carried relatively low and back nicely arched (as opposed to head held high and back hollowed) will build up its neck muscles correctly, along the top line rather than underneath it.

The neck, measured from the poll (between the ears) to the highest point of the withers, should be about one third of the horse’s total length. There should be a slight arch along the top line of the neck, and the underside should be reasonably straight. If the neck is short it usually means that the horse has an upright shoulder, which will prevent it from striding out properly. Also, a short-necked horse is more likely to have breathing problems. That’s because the angle between its head and neck is often too acute, being a right angle instead of a curve. This may restrict the flow of air into the horse’s lungs, affecting its ability to breathe freely when galloping.

Strong, well-shaped neck

To a large extent the conformation of the shoulder will determine a horse’s ‘action’, that is, the way it gallops. If you’ve ever wondered why racehorses often have a distinct preference for firm or soft ground, it’s usually due to the angle of the shoulder If the scapula, or shoulder blade, is laid back at a long, sloping angle, the horse will have a low, ‘daisy-cutting’ action. The forelegs will ‘flick’ over the ground with a minimum of knee bend, reducing the concussion on knees and tendons. When galloping, the horse will be able to stretch its forelegs well past its nose.

The speed potential of a racehorse depends partly upon the slope of the shoulder. A laid-back shoulder allows for maximum range of motion in the foreleg, which can then flex and extend freely. A sloping shoulder benefits not only the flat horse but also the hurdler or steeplechaser, as it makes it easier to jump cleanly. As the horse approaches a jump the shoulder muscles act to pull the shoulder blades into an almost horizontal position, so that it can lift its front legs and tuck them up tightly. A sloping shoulder facilitates this change in shoulder angle.

Sloping shoulder

By contrast, horses with a straighter, more upright shoulder will not have such a smooth, flowing action. There will be more bend through the knees, their action will be more round and choppy, and their feet will hit the ground with more concussive force. This type of action will be more suited to soft or yielding ground, because it lessens the impact on vulnerable joints and tendons.

As well as the angulation of the shoulder, take note of the surrounding muscles. Ideally they should be strong and evenly developed on each side of the horse. However, it isn’t such a good sign if the horse looks heavy through the shoulder in comparison with its muscular development through the rest of its frame. A heavy shoulder will need a strong forearm to carry it. Horses with heavy shoulders are sometimes described as ‘heavy-topped’ and often need give in the ground to be seen at their best.

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