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.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Conformation Clinic: The Hip

The hind end of the horse only carries 40% of the horse's body weight usually.  While training and collection can change those ratios, when relaxed and moving on its own, the horse tends to move on the forehand.  Because of this, the hip angle is often given less importance then the shoulder angle, yet it too determines how a horse moves.

Judging the shape of the muscling on a horse is purely an aesthetic thing.  Horses with lean muscles may be preferred in some breeds (Arabians, Saddlebreds) while horses with bulky muscles are commonly seen in other breeds (most draft horses, stock horses).  Because size and shape of the muscles can be influenced and altered by training and conditioning, I won't go into that here.  Instead, I want to focus on the skeleton of the horse, which can not be changed.

Oh example horse today is Ishka, a 5 year old Appaloosa mare, owned by my mother.

The Lines and Measurements:
The main areas of interest that we are going to look at are the bony protrusion of the pelvis at the flank (Hip bone) to the point of hip - what would be the seat bone in a person.  The point of hip can be felt on the horse's buttocks, and usually can be seen as a slight pointed area below the dock of the tail.  The last point of reference is the stifle, or "knee cap" of the horse.  The horse's stifle is located just below the horse's sheath (in males) on the leg, near where it meets the body at the flank.

The lines made between these angles should form a pretty even looking triangle.  Deviations from an equilateral triangle result in a loss of balance overall, but may be found in horses with specialized breeding.  The equilateral triangle shape gives the horse equal power to carry the leg forward as it does to carry the leg back.

As an aside, I want to point out how little information is really available on this.  When writing this, I started to get all the numbers mixed up in my head, so went to check a few sources (my favorites are here, here and here) I could find tons of people talking about "goose rumps" and "ideal rumps" and such, but no basis for measurements.  With out the numbers to compare to, conformation is little more then an opinion.  But I did find them (and realized my confusion is due to the range allowed).

So, the top line of that triangle there, which measures the length of the pelvis, should be 30% of the horse's total body length.  Longer then that has few problems associated with it.  Rather it's the short hip that has most of the negative impact on the horse.

The angle of the hip is judged against "level" or the horizontal.  Again, it is standard to use a perfectly flat line (when the horse's feet are level, otherwise use the same angle as the ground the horse is standing on) but this results in flaws on growing horses.  

To get an idea of the variance of a horse while it is in an awkward stage of growth, I compare the horse's angles both to "level" and to the horse's center of balance.  I discussed how to find the center of balance previously, both when talking about the shoulder, and the body.  Of course, this method is not perfect, so should then be compared to the measurement against the horizontal.

In the case of Ishka, the angle of her hip is 23 degrees when compared to the horizontal.  Ideally, the shoulder angle and hip angle should be the same.  Ishka's shoulder angle is 44.2 degrees (so pretty much perfect) but her hip angle does not match that at all.  Technically this is a flaw, but it's a flaw that is bred for in many breeds to gain action in the hind end.

What the Hip Angle means for movement:
The more shallow (horizontal) the hip angle, the easier it is for the horse to lift it's hind legs toward its belly.  In Ishka's case, her sloped shoulder gives her a very smooth ride, while her shallow hip gives her suspension and lift in most of her gaits.  Ishka has lovely expression of movement, and easily engages her hind as much as her forehand.  Notice below that even when moving in a lazy way, her hind end has as much lift, if not more, then her forehand.

But there's a downside to it.  The more shallow the hip angle, the less power a horse has from the hind end. You probably have noticed that stock horses and draft horses both tend to have more sloped hips.  This allows them to use their pelvis and femur as a lever against the ground, giving the horse "torque".  The more slope, the more "engine" a horse has from the hind.

Here is Diva showing what I mean.  Her well sloped hip allows her to give this kind of push with ease. 

The Hip Angle:
Of course, as with the shoulder, the angle of the joint to itself is also important.  When discussing the shoulder, we talked about the openness between the scapula (shoulder blade) and the humerus (forearm).  In the hip, it is the angle between the pelvis and the femur (upper leg bone). 

The ideal angle is 90 degrees.  More openness (an angle larger then 90 degrees) means that the horse will have more reach.  This is good for race horses, or jumpers, as it allows the leg to reach completely out behind the horse before the femur comes into contact with the lowest part of the pelvis. 

A more closed angle, or one that is less then 90 degrees, allows the horse to bring its legs under itself more.  This is ideal for the dressage horse, and horses with high action in the hind legs (such as Hackney Horses and Clydesdales).

Ishka, the chestnut Appaloosa mare we've been looking at, has a hip angle of 70.6 degrees. This is considered to be a closed angle, and should give her higher action, but her action is only mediocre.  Naturally, that's because there's more to it!  The hip is connected to the rest of the horse, and it's relation to the horse matters.

Hip Length:
So, a horse should have a hip length of at least 30% of its body length.  Ishka's hip is 30.2% so just barely long enough.
To calculate the length of the hip in comparison to the horse's body, you need 2 lines.  The red line is the hip, as measured from the point of the hip to the hip bone (some may say point of hip to point of buttocks, it gets a bit confusing as "point of hip" refers to many things, depending upon how it is used).  The other red line there is Ishka's shoulder, as measured from point of shoulder to top of withers.  I think y'all can figure out which is which.

The blue line connects the 2, and is the horse's body length.  This line starts at the point of the shoulder, and goes to the point of the pelvis on the buttocks (point of hip, as I have been using it in this series).  Ishka's body measured out to 11.96 cm, while her hip line was 3.6cm.  Again, I use metric because it makes the math easy, and the actual numbers don't really matter, since my REAL horse is much longer then 12 centimeters!  It's all about the ratio of one length to the other, and so long as the image is not distorted, and is to proper scale, the ratio is the same.

So, if you divide the length of the hip (3.6) by the length of the body (11.96) you get the percentage of the body length of the hip.  3.6/11.96 = 0.3017...  or 30.2%.

Effect of Hip Length on Movement:
So, a short hip would be one that is less then 30% of the horse's body length.  A long hip is one that is more then 35% of the horse's body length.

A horse with a short hip has a harder time collecting, because the muscles are shorter in the lower back and upper leg.  This results in difficulty rounding the lower back (i.e. collection) and a loss of driving power (impulsion).  While these horses may be "quick" to move, the speed (think miles per hour) is less then that of a horse with a longer hip.  This can be beneficial in certain disciplines such as cutting where the horse must stay in a flexed position, and make many rapid changes in hind leg placement.

A horse with a long hip is usually idea, but in some cases the hip length can be too long.  This results in a horse who tends to stand camped out, or a horse who may have sickle hocks (more on that with hind legs).  The length of hip actually interferes with the horse's ability to get its own body out of the way of its legs, thus limiting flexibility.  This is a more uncommon "flaw" in horses, since the excess of hip length must be significant (usually over 40% of body length, depending upon other angles).

The Overview:
So, if we put this all together, you can see that most hips are useful for something.  The point of knowing a horse's conformation is to make sure that the horse is working at a job that it can be comfortable doing, and to give the horse the best chance to excel in its discipline. 

The main influence the hip has, is on the movement of the lower legs and back of the horse.  You can not ask a horse to round its back with out asking it to move its hip, simply because of the way the horse is made.  The connections between the back and the legs (which is important in most disciplines) relies strongly on the hip and hip angle in the horse.

The Sugarbush Draft Horse
The Sugarbush Draft Horse tends to have a slightly flat hip, with a slightly closed hip angle.  Ideally the Sugarbush Draft Horse should have a hip angle between 80 and 100 degrees, with the slope of the hip being between 35 and 40 degrees.  This reduces the horse's pulling ability, but gives it impulsion and suspension. 

Since the Sugarbush Draft Horse is not built to pull heavy weight (unlike most draft breeds) but rather is a riding horse, this hip conformation results in a moderately powerful yet very graceful riding horse.  This is the area the Sugarbush Draft Horse excels.


  1. I am learning more about conformation from you than I have learned anywher else.  You are explaining it so clearly.  Now, when I feed the horses at the boarding stables, I check each one of them to review what I have learned--and get frustrated when they are standing in a way that I can't see them well.  Thanks so much.

    Judi DalyAuthor of "Trail Training for the Horse and Rider" and "Trail Horse Adventures and Advice"

  2. Is it too late to send you a pic of Nyx? I know she's fugly, so it won't hurt my feelings when you point it out, =-) She's got a big head, a short neck, a long back, which is slightly hogbacked, short Friesian hip, big feet, she's 17 hh, narrow, and has loooong legs. She might even be tied in behind the knees. My vet loves her, says she's got a perfect shoulder and would make an excellent dressage horse and tells me to stop calling her fugly, then smacks me for it. I know nothing about dressage, so I can't agree or disagree, =-) I do know she has a very comfortable trot and a very swinging walk, lots of movement.

    Maybe you can use her for the good and bad, LOL! Maybe she's just fine for a warmblood and I'm using the wrong scale to critique her, (I was raised on an App farm so tend to compare everything to a stock horse conformation. Still learning warmblood and sport horse conformations.)