A Note about Sugarbush Draft Horses

I see it over and over again, and no matter how many times it's said, it's still wrong. "Sugarbush Drafts are just an Appaloosa Draft Cross". Uh.... no. The Sugarbush Draft Horse was a breed created many years ago in Ohio. While the initial cross was made using Percherons to Appaloosas, in the many generations following, the breed has been solidified into a consistent type. Saying these horses are "just" a draft cross makes as much sense as saying that AQHA horses are "just" a Thoroughbred cross, American Cream Drafts are "just" a dilute Belgian, or that Morgans are "just" a grade.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Conformation Clinic: The Body

Today I want to talk about some parts of the body, mainly the back, length of body, and talk more about uphill and downhill.  Our equine model is Cayenne, a 2005 AQHA filly who became part of my family when she was orphaned at 2 days old.

While the "body" of a horse, technically is the whole horse, for today's discussion, it's the main body: everything that is not the head/neck, legs, or tail. 

We do so many measurements on our horses for everyday use - girth length, blanket size, etc. - that it gets confusing when you are measuring a horse for conformational analysis.  The lines for conformation are rarely the lines for equipment, and most times they don't connect where you think they should.  Instead, all of these lines connect to the skeleton.

This is because if you measure the outside of the horse, those angles and measurements change with muscling and weight gain.  Neither Muscle nor fat affect the function of the horse's body though.  Everything ties in together with the skeleton, and we can easily feel many of the horse's bones (and see some) through its skin.

 Uphill or Downhill?
 One of the most commonly discussed and least understood terms used in horses is "uphill" and "downhill". 
There are 3 lines in the picture above.  The green line at the bottom shows a level ground (and I had to tilt this picture a bit to get the mare's feet level with that line, about 1 degree).  The Yellow line is the horse's structural center of balance, drawn from the hip joint to the base of the neck.  The light blue line is the topline, drawn from the withers to the top of the croup.

So when we talk about a horse being "downhill" which line do we use?  Ok, he green one is obviously just for reference, but still, do you actually know?

The problem is that measuring a horse's topline as a basis for conformation has become so common, that most people think it's the rule now.  A horse's center of balance - whether it is uphill or downhill - affects the horse's way of going, and easy of performing specific moves.  Whether those are dressage moves, or cutting moves, the horse's center of balance is still in play.  A horse's top line is really nothing more then eye candy.

Horses with high withers have a disproportionate top line, as do horses with a pointed croup.  Mutton withers, flat croup?  Same thing.  While those bits have their own effect on the overall function of the horse, they don't change the horse's center of balance.  Lets look at a few examples.
 This mare, Arden, has both the same angle to her topline, as her center of balance.  In this case, it doesn't really matter which line you measure.
 Boo though, has a flat croup which makes his top line appear more "uphill" then his center of balance.  This horse is structurally "level", being neither up nor downhill.
And Rico, shown in his yearling uglies.  Yes, I had to turn this picture to get his feet level (he's standing on a hill here, as the fence behind him shows).  But his hip has grown while his shoulder hasn't, leaving his topline to be very downhill.  Even with that though, his center of balance is pretty much level.

So how does this work?  How can the shoulder and hip be different then the overall balance?  Well, that's because what is being measured is the spine, not the outside of the horse.
 Now if you look inside the horse, you can see what we're really measuring.  The blue line goes from the top of the withers, to the top of the pelvis.  The length of the withers, the tilt of the pelvis, as well as the muscle and fat on top of those, will all affect this line.

The yellow line goes from where the spine comes into the shoulder to the hip joint.  You can find the hip joint on a picture by drawing a line from the hip bone (the pointy bit on the flank) to the point of hip.  The hip joint is approximately in the middle of the rump on that line.

I can't tell you which method of measurement is "correct", as the topline has become the most common, but the structural center of balance is the most telling about the horse.  If you know both types of measurements though, it doesn't matter which is more "right".

Body Length
Most measurements for the horse's body are compared against the body length.  To find the length of the body, measure the horse from the point of hip to the point of the shoulder.  This line will always be on a downhill slope.
For comparison, you don't need to go out, see the horse, and measure the real length of this line.  Simply sticking a ruler up to the picture (or a digital overlay ruler) works fine.  So long as you use the same image, in the same resolution for your measurements, they work out.  This is because you're actually measuring the proportions, and not the actual inches of the horse.

So, lets look at where that line is on the horse skeleton:
Here you can see where the bones lie inside the horse.  The point of hip does not actually touch the outside of the horse (there's some muscle that overlays it) but it can be felt, and in most cases seen, on the horse.  The point of shoulder is easily visible in a standing image.

This line really tells us little about the horse by itself, but it's the basis for all of the other comparisons we make in the body.  If something is "short" or "long" it is in relation to this line.

Back Length:
The length of the back is one example of a measurement judged against the overall body length.  The horse's back should be 1/3rd of it's body length, but horses between 1/3rd and 1/2 of the body length are useful for different reasons.  In many instances, you will see this measured with rectangles.  While that works, getting identical rectangles drawn, copied, and moved around the image is only easy if you're very comfortable with digital drawing programs.  I won't even go there, as I'm struggling to use them myself.

Instead, I use the super simply "MS Paint" and just draw lines and use the ruler.  This is the more accurate method, and while not as pretty, it tells me all I need to know.

So the back is measured from the point of the withers to the Lumbar Sacral joint.  If you just went, "The WHA??" don't worry, you're not alone.  The lumbar sacral joint is the point where the spine goes through the pelvis.

Now, the actual joint here is inside the horse, but we use the exterior area of this joint for the measurement.  If you're comfortable with your horse's body, you probably know where it is.  That soft spot in the lower back of your horse.  On a well muscled horse it is not easy to see though.

So, I'm going to pull out a picture of a horse in sad shape.  This is "Moon" one of our Second Chance horses here.  She came to us very thin, but it allowed us to easily see her LS (Lumbar Sacral) joint.
See the dip in her back (inside the red circle with the green arrow pointing at it)?  This is where her spine makes the turn down to go through the pelvis.  It is this "soft spot" that we use for measuring the back, as it's what can be felt by our hands.

So lets judge a horse's back length.  Here's Cayenne, with her back length in white, and her body length in blue:
Her total body length is 11.92 cm, while her back length is 5.14cm.  You can measure in inches if you prefer, but it makes the math harder then using metric.  To have an ideal back length, the horse's back will be 1/3rd the total body length, or 11.92 divided by 3 (=3.97).  So, since 5.14 is bigger then 3.97, we can safely say that Cayenne has a "long" back.  If you divide the length of back by the length of body (5.14/11.92) you get the percentage of the length of back to the total body length (In Cayenne's case that is 43%).

But here is where it all gets confusing.  The "ideal" length of back also depends upon what you want to do with your horse.  Horses with longer backs (1/3rd to 1/2 body length) tend to be smoother to ride, as the back works as a shock absorber.  Most gaited horses are long backed, as an example.  Long backed horses also have more flexibility in their backs.  This can be useful in dressage to get the horse rounded and engaging its hind quarters.

On the flip side, a short backed horse (1/3rd of body length and under) is stronger, and often more agile.  These horses have less worry about straining their back when doing work, and often can work longer hours while carrying weight.  Many draft horse breeds, such as the Belgian Draft Horse, are short backed to allow more power when pulling.

While there's a lot more involved in the body then just this, I want to leave off here.  No one needs a headache, right?  So lets look at what all of these lines means for the conformation of our little Quarter Horse.

Cayenne has a long back, and a level build.  This means that she will have very smooth, non-jarring gaits that are easy to ride.  This type of conformation is ideal for the trail horse, allowing the horse to bend and flex with terrain, and yet strong enough to support the rider.  Her level center of balance is the happy middle between flashy action (uphill) and quick take off (downhill).  In other words she will excel as a "jack of all trades' type of horse.

I will go into more flaws of the body when we discuss overall balance at a later date.

The Sugarbush Draft Horse:
The Sugarbush Draft Horse ideally should have a back length of just over 1/3rd of the total body length.  This falls into the range accepted as "medium long" (between 33% and 45% of the total body length).  This allows the Sugarbush Draft Horse the laxity in the back to give its rider a comfortable ride, while being short enough to keep the action of the legs presentable.

The Sugarbush Draft Horse does not typically excel at highly collected work because of this, but can perform well with proper training and conditioning. 

The Sugarbush Draft Horse should have a slightly uphill center of balance.  This helps allow the horse to round and offers freedom of the forelegs and ease in shifting the balance of weight onto the hind end.  Because of this, the horse's gaits are large, smooth, and pleasurable.

Programming Note:
The next installment of the Conformation Clinic will resume on Monday.  Weekends are a bit crazy around here, so I will need the time to prepare all of the example pictures.  Hope everyone gets to spend some good time with their horses!


  1. Very interesting, i have always wondered on the high wither thing when measuring horses going uphill/downhill.  I am enjoying this confirmation talk.

  2. Thank you for doing this series, I've learned a thing or two from them.  

    You don't want to know how I was taught to "eye ball" conformation....  It's a bit "old timer" as my gramps taught me.  

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