Areas of body condition
We can break out the areas of assessment into at least 6 categories. See chart below.
The BLUE area is skeletal. S.E.A. considers this to be the first area of assessment because horses with skeletal damage from misuse, incorrect training, lack of proper grazing environment etc. will inevitably show poor conditions in the remaining categories. However, it is not uncommon to encounter horses who may show a higher degree of comfort in one area then another since every living condition, training program and horse must be assessed based on their individual conditions.
The common and easiest areas to recognize skeletal issues are in the back, neck and haunches. A very common condition in the back is called Kissing Spines. This condition is easily identified in the lumbar vertebrae, though it is just as common in other parts of the spine, it’s not as easily identified by the naked eye.
Kissing Spines: This is a condition that very commonly occurs from poor riding and training habits affecting the spinal column. As the horse is ridden hollow, that is if he is not educated and conditioned to lift himself up in the core to provide rider support, he is hollow in the spine. This hollowness or downward movement in the vertebral column causes the vertebrae to pinch the nerves causing the horse to hollow more. This reaction from the horse over time permanently closes the spinous processes causing them to bunch together and rub. This causes calcium build up on the bone and may eventually fuse. This condition is painful for the horse because of the many nerve endings in the back. When these nerves are pinched, it sends a signal to the brain to flee from predators. Some horses act out by trying to flee the situation causing the pain, others become despondent for lack of response by the rider or handler.
Another common and easily recognized area within the spine is the displacement of the pelvic bone. When the horse shows one or two lumps on either side of his haunches near the sacroiliac this is commonly referred to as a hunter’s or jumper’s bump. These points are the tuber sacral of the pelvic bone being pushed up. This happens when the spinal column and lumbo sacral become locked or inactive, causing the pelvic bone to slip from its healthy position and push it’s way up. This condition inhibits the horse’s back and hind leg movement and is very painful for the horse. The pain comes from the pelvic bone pulling on the muscles and ligaments in the area, which also affect the nerves of the spine. This may result in numbness in some muscles and/or hyper sensitivity.
We also want to assess the condition of the neck. A common and visible area of the neck is at cervical vertebrae 1 and 2 ( C1 and C2). Here the lamina of the nuchal ligament and the nuchal ligament itself that hold the vertebrae together have been stretched and pulled out of place. This happens when the horse’s head is held or forced into a locked poll position, commonly held behind the vertical by the hand or tack equipment such as side reins. Locking in the poll may also occur when the body is held in tension, thus not requiring an external holding by a riders hands or tack but a pushing of the horse from the riders legs into the hands resulting in the same damage and heaviness in the mouth of the horse. In the case a horse’s poll becomes locked, he loses his ability to bend through the spine, this puts tremendous pressure on C1 and C2 causing a visible bulge on the outside of the neck. This bulge is commonly referred to as “broken at the first vertebra”.
Displacement of the cervical vertebrae is a painful condition because it causes a ripple effect down the spine. This is because the nuchal ligament effects all the spinous processes of the back and may likely pull the vertebrae forward resulting in kissing spines in some areas of the vertebral column.
It also affects the brain potentially causing head sensitivity (headaches). This is because C1 attaches directly to the back of the skull near the cranial cavity housing the brain. When horses experience pain within the body, it triggers the brain into flight mode. He will respond either by fleeing or surrendering. Surrender is often seen as obedience, though the horse is simply giving his ability of survival up for lack of options. Fleeing is often seen as disobedience, so the horse is then conditioned to surrender through poor methods of training or is discarded (put to sleep) for “bad behavior” when the horse doesn’t respond to the training.
The GREEN represents the muscular condition and state of development. Muscular condition is contingent upon the skeletal health of the horse. If any of the skeletal issues mentioned previously are present in the horse’s body we immediately know the muscular condition is not what it needs to be for a healthy body condition or proper muscular development and is the result of inappropriate domestic care.
Muscular condition is assessed in three ways. The first assessment considers the horse’s proper development and attempts to pinpoint these areas. The second is assessing overdevelopment and atrophy where as the third assesses body weight.
If the horse shows obesity, we know his muscular development is not in its healthiest state. A horse performing a daily routine that promotes sustained high performance and a protecting of the skeletal structure will not show obesity when charting for weight.
Assessment #1: We begin the assessment along the top line of the horse noting the attachment of the neck in front of the withers. This area of the neck, when properly developed, shows a convex curve that leads smoothly into the crest. If this area shows underdeveloped muscaling it will be concave. Fat can easily mask the proper muscling of this part of the body. The muscle will feel firm and show a definitive line whereas fat blends into the withers and neck and is soft.
Assessment #2: The muscle connecting the withers to the back should be filled in. Musculing in this area of the back confirms that the horse has strength in the rider support area where the saddle would sit just behind it. Atrophy in this area shows a concave impression just behind the scapula and a protruding wither. This is often caused by poor saddle fit and poor training.
Assessment #3: A well developed haunches will be filled in at the top and give a rounded appearance. When the haunches are underdeveloped there are two ovals one on either side of the spine that extend from front to back that will be concave. This area of the haunches is easily masked by fat and more difficult to identify for the untrained eye.
The underline of the horse will always correlate with the top line. If the top line is well developed, the horse’s barrel (belly in front of the flank) will be lifted. This gives support to the back and lumbo sacral. The neck will also be soft and relaxed.
The ORANGE refers to the emotional state of the horse. If the skeletal and muscular conditions are poor then we can conclude that the emotional state of the horse will also correlate. As prey animals horses express emotions in quite an opposite way from humans.
Leaping and jumping is most commonly a display of insecurity, that could be either a need to show dominance for self preservation or the fleeing of a seemingly dangerous situation. When observing a horse that is running and jumping around, note his eyes, they are typically wide with his nostrils flared, the horse will often display a high head and a dropped back, which we’ve learned earlier, sends a signal of flight to the brain. This is because he is at his state of highest alert. If you have experience with horses, you will know that they often become more pusshy. This is because a pushy horse feels the need to control the actions of his heard in order to protect it.
Despondent is often confused with compliant and obedient. A despondent horse shows no alertness in his eye and takes little to no notice of his surroundings. This is abnormal for a heard and prey animal because he relies on his awareness of his surroundings for survival. Despondent horses can become reactionary because of their lack of awareness. When observed these horses are dule and uninterested in their environment.
The balanced horse is alert but not over reactive. He stands with his head at an equal height to his withers and is able to maintain this calm nature while being ridden. The eyes are soft and he moves easily through his body. He is not pushy but maintains a respectful distance from his handler.
The RED in relation to the previous three just discussed is often the first assessment taken by the viewer. However without the other three, it’s impossible to make an accurate assessment of body condition when considering the horse’s weight. This is because weight has everything to do with the health of the intestinal function and skeletal structure and very little to do with external factors. Therefore if we’ve concluded that the horse is healthy in all the other areas but scores low on the weight chart, it’s safe to say a complete focus on diet and intestinal health to improve his weight would be appropriate. However, the factors of skeletal displacement and poor muscular development act upon the horse’s intestinal well being and causes him to live in a state of higher risk to gastric and impaction colic.
When the back and core are lifted they give support to the horse’s digestive tract resulting in a reduced chance of impaction and gas colic. This is because the muscles give support to the intestine rather then compressing them down as when the horse moves in a hollow state.
The PURPLE shows a small sliver within the chart representing the small part it plays in the overall health of the horse. Conformation is an aesthetic preference of the horse and an attempt to improve his athleticism, which accomplishes both well. However, horses with poor conformation benefit the same as do horses with good conformation when developed properly. They can achieve the same level of movement though separated by a degree of preferred performance. A horse that abides by the conformational standards of sport and breed will have the advantage of greater movement and flexibility if and when developed correctly. Conformation easily masks a horse’s level of training and development because he already conforms to a state of aesthetic preference. These horse’s often suffer most from inappropriate training, this is because it is believed that their bodies are strong and well developed simply because of their appearance. However conformation has very little to do with proper development and proper training. Conformationally “correct” horses develop at the same rate as every other horse.
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