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Friday, 31 August 2012 10:06

DOC, GIVE ME SOME POINTERS ON THE FRONT LEG OF THE HORSE

Written by  A.J. Neumann, DVM
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“DOC, GIVE ME SOME POINTERS ON THE FRONT LEG OF THE HORSE.”
The above request may sound a bit odd to an experienced horse person, but in reality it is a very common request–especially at a horse sale or show. There are many people who are interested in the draft horse and they often seek help when they are engaged in purchasing an animal. I learned an awful lot by talking with and watching several old-time horse buyers as they examined horses they were interested in owning. 

These people were experts at giving a soundness exam to a horse. Often they were trying to “match” an animal which they owned. They were looking for details in their acquisition which normally would affect the sale of the animal.

In the Autumn 2011 DHJ, I wrote an article entitled “Doc, Why Spend So Much Time On The Head Of The Horse?” Let’s continue with our examination to include the neck and the forequarters of the horse. We will start with the neck and work back to the foreleg.

Always remember this fact: the horse’s body, like that of a human, is an extremely finely-built machine. Like any machine, its parts can wear out, or some of the parts are faulty from the start. The end result of either of these mishaps is the same. The affected animal will not be able to perform as originally intended.

The draft horse has been noted to have a rather short, heavily-muscled, thick neck. Today most breeders and people interested in drafts prefer the “thinner,” longer neck and with some good reasons. Horses with this type of neck will turn to the left or right faster than their heavier-necked adversaries. So when purchasing a lead horse or two, the appearance of the neck could be a factor. A short, thick-necked horse would not work as well as a leader if its teammate had a more slender neck with a tad-bit more length to it.

The throatlatch should also be considered when purchasing a horse. The horse with a meaty throatlatch almost always has a more thick and heavy neck. These animals will not take the heat as well as those with a clean, lean and neat throatlatch. The latter animals will breathe easier under stress and recover their breath more quickly during periods of severe exertion. This often was a factor taken into account by the “buyers” who purchased horses for the farm trade.

The neck of the horse merges with the wither on the top of the forequarters and ends in the shoulders on the side and the brisket on the bottom of the animal.

Believe it or not, the area where the neck is attached to the fore-quarters gives us a clue as to how the horse will carry its head! To do this test, one must stand broadside to the horse at one of its shoulders. The horse must have both front legs together and it must be standing evenly on both front feet. Place a straight edge or a line on the point of one shoulder across to the point of the opposite shoulder.

If the bottom of the neck is above the line, the horse will carry his head up in a stylish fashion. If the bottom of the neck falls below the line the animal cannot and will not carry its head up. In fact, if the lower edge of the neck is located well below the line, the animal will have very little upward carriage of the head. This feature is very important in matching a team.

The area where the neck meets the top of the shoulders is called the withers. There can be two types of withers. The withers can be tall, sharp and sloping, or it can be flat or rounded.

If a horse has clean, sharp withers with a nice slope to it and its forelegs are square and sound, it will reach out and throw its front feet in a 180° arc with a beautiful long stride. By the same token, if the withers are flat and rounded, such a horse is known as “mutton-withered.” A “mutton-withered” horse will be a “short stepper.” This means the animal has a short stride with limited action.

A horse should always be moved when you are examining it for purchase or judging the animal in the showring. Have the horse moved directly away from you and back again to you. Have it moved at the walk and trot in both directions. I have known some old-time horse dealers who would insist upon leading the horse they were interested in  themselves.

When moving a horse for an examination, the Cardinal Rule is always move the animal directly away from the main source of light. Never have the animal move into the lights, as you cannot see it plainly. If you have to squint to see your subject, move! If you don't, you are kidding yourself, because you really cannot see the animal well enough to pass judgment on it.

The front feet of the horse when it is standing at rest, in its normal posture, will assume one of three positions. The front hooves may each point out, or they may each point in, or they may each point straight forward.

If the front toes are turned in, the condition is known as “pigeon-toe.” Among old-time horsemen, this horse would have been called a “bear tracker.”

For horsemen who worked their stock in the timber and fields, a slightly pigeon-toed horse was a “sought after” commodity. It was claimed that those animals could pull more of a load due to the position of the front feet.

When the front feet of the horse point out, the animal is called “splay-footed.” Old timers called them “Charley Chaplin” feet in the dubious honor of the famous comedian of the day, who sported such a set. Now every dog has his day and this applies to the “Charley Chaplin” footed horse. If the condition was not too bad, many people claimed those “splay-footed” horses made stronger and faster runners than other horses with dissimilar forefoot placement.

I have noticed that quite a number of coach-type and buggy horses have a slight turn out on their front feet. An interesting observation I've made is that in the mule and ass families, the splay foot is fairly common. The condition is also very commonly seen among human runners.

To pass the time while my wife was shopping in the mall, I would find a place to sit and watch the world go by. I enjoyed watching people as they walked by. I always noted the “pigeon-toed” individuals walked with a short stride which was usually a bit “faster” than normal. Their body is bent a little forward and they are prone to occasionally trip as they do not lift their feet very high as they walk.

Now the splay-footed person is different. This individual tends to throw his weight back and walk with his shoulders up and his stomach forward. The “Charley Chaplin” walker seems to be more confident in his stride and seems to take a longer one than the “bear tracker.”

The same is true with the horse. Each horse has a center of gravity which is located just behind the shoulder. The “pigeon-toed” horse will tend to trip more often than the “straight-footed” horse and his center of gravity is slightly more forward than his normal counterpart.

The splay-footed horse will have a center of gravity slightly to the rear of that of his normal brother. I have heard that the old-time mountain man would not like to ride a pigeon-toed horse in the mountains. They loved to use mules. Perhaps one of the reasons is that the mule is known to be very sure-footed. This sure footedness of mules could possibly be due to the fact that many of them are “splay-footed.”

Draft horses are moved at the walk and trot when shown in the ring before a judge. The judge is observing the animal for any sign of lameness and he or she is checking the movement of the legs and joints. When the horse is moved, especially at the trot, the toed-in or pigeon-toed animal will raise its forefoot, move it up, forward, in and then down. The splay-footed horse will do the exact opposite by moving the forefoot up, forward and out before bringing it down.

“Winging” is the name given to the gait of the toed-out horse and “paddling” is the term used to describe the gait of a toed-in animal. A horse will either wing, paddle or go straight with its forefeet, depending on their position.

The collar bed of the draft horse is very important for the use of the animal. It should be smooth and free of any wounds, scars or blemishes of any kind.

We view the collar bed by standing on the side of the horse several feet away from the shoulder. The bed has its origin in front of the withers and goes down the shoulder to the point of the shoulder. While observing the collar bed, in your mind’s eye, draw a line down it from the withers to the point of the shoulder. With this line in mind, draw another imaginary one from the point of the shoulder to the rear of the horse. This second line must be horizontal or parallel to the ground the animal is standing on. The two lines will intercept at the point of the shoulder. The degree of angle there should be 45°.

If the angle is “smaller” than 45°, the collar bed is too “flat.” The horse will be subject to soreing his shoulders. In addition it will be a “short-stepper” and lack the ability to work or travel really well.

If the angle is larger than 45° the collar bed is called as being too straight. This animal will also be a “short-stepper” and will not be able to do its maximum work load or travel well. In addition, horses with a straight collar bed are very prone to develop a collar sore on the wither area. 

The horse with the perfect collar bed, high sharp withers, good sound legs and feet is equipped on the front, at least, to move like a dream and do its work with much less effort than some of its teammates who may be less well-equipped.

Now you can understand that with some knowledge and a good examination of the front legs of a horse, one can predict how it will work and perform if everything else is O.K.

There are many things to look for and areas to examine by hand on the foreleg of the horse. When a judge is examining a horse in the show ring, and he or she fails to go over the front legs by hand, they may be fooling you and even themselves, but I know their placement of the animal is a farce! The sharpest trained eyes cannot discover all of the secrets contained in the foreleg of the horse. It takes a hands-on approach to find and decipher them all.

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