Conformation 101‎ > ‎

1. Uphill or downhill?

Building on "Conformation 101" think about what you want to do with your horse. Do you need a horse that can execute fast starts (e.g. barrel, racing, eventing), or one that can carry most of his weight on his hind end (e.g. dressage)? You can choose a horse that is predisposed to certain talent by looking at the levelness of the horse's spine relative to the ground. The terms "uphill", "level" and "downhill" are used frequently, but not often fully understood. What surprises most people is that most horses are built downhill because of the avid interest in crossing thoroughbreds and quarterhorses with many other breeds. Both thoroughbreds and quarterhorses need fast takeoff speed, and to be successful at that, they are built downhill.

Question: When is a horse built "downhill"?

Usual Answer: When the croup is higher than the withers
Response: Correct. When the croup is higher than the withers a horse is ALWAYS built downhill.

Question: When is a horse built "uphill"?
Usual Answer: When the withers are higher than the croup.
Response: This is where the theory breaks down. A horse that is high in the withers is NOT always built uphill. A classic example is the racing TB. They are ALWAYS built downhill, but because the TB has a prominent wither, the wither is often higher than the croup or equal to it. Because they are built "downhill" they are able to dig in and execute fast starts. Any horse required to execute fast starts needs to be "shorter" in the front end. Picture a greyhound in your mind. If an animal is shorter in the hind end and takes off fast, they will come "up" in the front end like a speedboat, because it will be the the hind end that will "dig in". This causes the animal to lose valuable start time while he tries to lower his own front end.

The words "uphill" and "downhill" is an attempt to articulate the levelness of the spine. The spine does NOT follow the topline of the horse. It's inside the horse. In the front end the spine threads through the scapula (shoulder blades) and becomes the neck. The withers have vertical "finger-like" bones that stick up from the spine. These vertical structures are not calcuated in the levelness of the spine. Only where the spinal cord goes through the bones of the spine, (the centre of the spine) is where you will estimate "spine levelness". When you compare that spine levelness to the ground (or horizon) it will tell you if the horse is 'uphill', level or downhill.

The spine levelness is found by locating 2 points on the horse's body and drawing a line between those points. That line tells you the spine levelness. The 2 points are: The lumbar sacral (LS) joint, and the lower cervical curve (LCC).

The lumbar sacral (LS) joint is deep inside the body and can't be "seen" with the eye. You can find it by palpating a horses back. Start in the middle of the back along the spine and press down just enough to feel the bones. As you press each time, move an inch back towards the tail. You will feel: bone, bone, bone, bone, bone, mush, mush, bone, and then arrive at the croup. The "mush, mush" is the exact location of the lumbar sacral joint. Once you do this to a number of horses, you will learn to "see" where the LS joint is on a picture by the dips, valleys and shadows on a horse.

The lower cervical curve (LCC) is the lower curve of the horse's neck bones. It is found by standing in front of the horse and running both hands down either side of the neck. When you get to the widest part of the neck, that is the location of the LCC.

Draw a line either on a photo, with your eye, or use a measuring tape/stick on a live horse. Does the line go down towards the front? Downhill build. Is the line pretty straight - no more than a 4 inch deviant down? Then the horse is functionally level. When you assess spine levelness, you need the horse to be standing square in front, and holding his head in a natural to natural-high position. You can't judge spine levelness on a grazing animal.