BASIC EQUINE SKELETAL ANATOMY
If you learn the basic bony anatomy of your horse or pony then this will help you decide if your saddle fits.
Or even before you buy a saddle just trying it on your horse using these landmarks you can tell if the saddle is going to fit before you buy. Learning these basics can save you money and also reduce the injuries your horse might sustain.
Do you wonder why your horse has a dip in front of their withers?
Worry about the bump that’s developing on their rump?
What are those white marks on their shoulders that don’t go away when they shed their coat?
1. THE NECK – CERVICAL SPINE
I know it’s very obvious that this is the horse’s neck. I want to help you learn some more technical terms that relate to your horse or ponies anatomy. I also want to explain that when you know a little you can see a lot!
The cervical spine is made up of 7 vertebrae and is connected by very strong ligaments the nuchal ligament is one. The nuchal ligament runs from the horse’s ears to their tail. In between each vertebra is a disc just like a human spine. The neck also carries nerves which run the entire length of the spine just like us as well. Of particular interest is the nerve called the “Cranial Nerve 11 or Accessory Nerve”. This nerve controls the major muscles of the neck, in particular, the trapezius muscle.
Why is this important to know?
Riders who want their horse to develop a lovely arched, muscular neck must pay close attention to saddle fit. If your saddle doesn’t fit your horse then building muscle may not happen and your horse may develop a dip in front of their withers.
2. THE BARREL – THORACIC SPINE
The thoracic spine is made up of 18 vertebrae and 18 pairs of ribs. Of the 18 ribs, 8 of them are attached to the breastbone or sternum and the remaining 10 ribs are connected by a strong web of cartilage and allow for expansion of the chest cavity to allow the lungs to expand.
This is the area as a rider we want to sit on. Like a suspension bridge, the thoracic spine is the strongest part of the horses back. It is important that the saddle doesn’t sit or put pressure on the shoulders as this restricts the horse’s shoulder movement.
Your saddle should sit evenly on your horses back behind the shoulder. It is important to know that if your saddle fits your horse or pony correctly then you shouldn’t need to do your girth up super tight. A balanced well fitting saddle just needs a snug girth.
Why is this important?
If you need to over-tighten your girth then you could also be restricting your horse’s ability to breathe! If your girth is so tight that it doesn’t allow the ribs to expand then your horse physically can’t fill its lungs! Do a lot of galloping, fitness or cross country work with your horse? Hmm might want to check your girth isn’t reducing their performance. It’s like wearing a tight belt.
The need for a really tight girth also signals a saddle that doesn’t fit correctly.
3. THE RUMP – LUMBAR SPINE
The lumbar spine is made up of 6 vertebrae and is located just in front of the pelvis of the horse. The lumbar spine or rump area is not as strong as the barrel or thoracic spine. The remaining bones of the spine are the sacral spine which is made up of 5 fused vertebrae and the tail vertebrae of which there are approximately 20.
The lumbar region is the least strong but the most mobile part of the horse’s spine. There is also an area of the lumbar spine that has a reflex point.
Why is this significant?
It means that your horse or pony may buck if they experience pressure on their lumbar spine area. If you have ever ridden your horse and had someone ride behind you your horse or pony may buck or hump to try and get the additional weight off the weakest part of their back.
Horses that have poorly fitting saddles may develop a bump on their rump commonly called a “Hunters Bump”.
4. THE SHOULDER – SCAPULA
Unlike humans, horses don’t have a collar bone their shoulders are suspended by ligaments and muscles. The shoulder or scapula of the horse moves forward and backwards. The scapula is the top building block for your horses front legs so if the shoulder is restricted this will be amplified down the horse’s legs.
Often, horses who have sore shoulders will have a shorter stride, may rush into transitions and resist the rider when they ask for extension. Over time they may develop white hair in odd places. White hair is a sign of damage.
Finding the scapula is important and helps you make sure you are putting your saddle on your horses back in the correct place.
Sometimes riders put their saddle on the horse’s shoulders by accident but this places a large amount of pressure on the joint that is only supported by soft tissue. The saddle is placed on the shoulder to put the girth points in the correct position but this is a sure sign the saddle doesn’t fit.
5. THE SHOULDER – SCAPULA CARTILAGE
The shoulder cartilage or scapula cartilage is made up of a flexible type material just like our ears or the tip of our nose. Cartilage is flexible and resilient but it’s also extremely delicate. The cartilage in the horse’s shoulder is like a cap at the top of the scapula.
The scapular cartilage can be damaged by a saddle tree that is too tight. If the saddle tree digs into the cartilage it causes pain and can cause muscle tears.
Damaged scapula cartilage doesn’t regenerate and so horses can suffer irreparable damage without anyone really knowing.
The design and fit of your saddle tree are so important no matter what type of saddle it is. Western, english or hybrid saddles need to fit the horse’s shoulders.
6. THE LAST RIB – HOW TO FIND EASILY
In really fat horses it’s hard to even feel the last rib so this hairline makes it slightly easier.
In horses that are leaner, it’s quite a bit easier to feel the last rib.
Follow this rib or line up to your horse’s spine. Draw a little line. This is the location of your horse’s last rib. It’s the junction between the thoracic and lumbar spine. See I told you it was easy!
NOW YOU KNOW THE ANATOMY WHAT NEXT?
Well now you understand the anatomy it’s time to take a good look at your horse.
Are they showing any signs your saddle doesn’t fit?
Can you see the dreaded dip in front of the withers? If you do see this don’t despair. Muscles can be helped to develop even if they are significantly smaller than they should be. The recipe for recovery is a correctly fitting saddle, the right exercise, a good diet and time.
Do you see white hairs around your horse’s withers? Are they both sides or only one? Have they stayed there even after your horse has lost it’s summer or winter coat? If you see white hairs they are caused by pressure on the skin which causes the hair follicle to lose its pigment. They are a sign of a poorly fitting saddle. If you see white spots developing or your horse already has them you need to read on and work out what’s going on. White spots are a sign your horse has or is in pain.