Conformation of the racehorse (5) - Legs

Strong, well-shaped limbs are essential to the racehorse. Two elements of the limb work together to support the body: bone and muscle. When trainers talk about a horse having ‘good bone’, they’re referring principally to the cannon bone. In the foreleg the cannon is the bone between the knee and the fetlock joint; in the hind leg it’s between the hock and the fetlock.

The legs of a racehorse are subjected to tremendous forces at every stride, on the flat or when it lands over a fence or hurdle. Strong bone is clearly very important, but it’s not easy to judge how strong a horse’s bone is just by looking at it, and the forelegs of a two year old filly can look impossibly frail and spindly. Useful clues, though, are the length and angle of the cannon bone in relation to the rest of the limb. To provide strength, the front cannon bones should be short and straight. For propulsive power, the hind cannons should be a bit longer, but also straight and vertical to the ground.

Short, straight front cannon bones

It follows that if the cannon bone should be short, then the part of the leg above the cannon should be relatively long. In the foreleg this is the horse’s forearm, and that’s where to look for muscular strength. In the hind leg the region above the hock is the second thigh, or gaskin, and this too should be well muscled. There are no muscles in the horse’s leg below the knee or hock.

Strong forearms and second thighs

A fault in the foreleg that would put most buyers off at the sales is when a horse is ‘back at the knee’. Looking from side-on, the foreleg, instead of being perfectly straight, has a slightly concave appearance at the knee. This conformation, when a horse is galloping, puts extra stress through the tendons and ligaments, and may eventually cause the horse to break down.

Not considered such a handicap is when a horse is ‘over at the knee’. In this case the foreleg, when viewed from side-on, has a more convex shape to it at the knee, as though the forearm above is slightly forward in relation to the cannon below. This type of conformation, while perhaps not ideal, doesn’t put any undue strain on tendons and ligaments.

Over at the knee

While good limb conformation is much to be preferred, it’s true that horses can sometimes perform to a high standard despite having forelegs that wouldn’t look out of place on a Queen Anne chair. Sharpo, the champion sprinter of 1982, was cheaply bought because of his faulty conformation. Trainer Roger Charlton, who at the time was assistant to Sharpo’s trainer Jeremy Tree, compared the horse’s front feet to those of Charlie Chaplin. Mark Johnston’s wonderful filly Attraction won both the 1000 Guineas and the Irish 1000 Guineas despite having crooked forelegs. But Johnston, who has trained more winners than anyone else in the history of British racing, has never been put off by conformation faults that would deter other trainers and bloodstock agents.

More about legs next month.

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