Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Understanding conformation: It's an uphill battle!

Recently on the COTH bulletin board there was discussion on what "uphill conformation" really means. How can you tell if a horse has that desirable uphill build? It was a useful discussion. The newbie method of eyeballing the horse croup-to-wither was debunked, and the method suggested by the experts -- the "stifle to elbow" comparison -- was advocated. Even Hilda Gurney says that your horse is downhill if the stifle is higher than the elbow, and uphill if the stifle is lower. I'm no Hilda Gurney, but I defy anyone to find any dressage stallion that meets that criteria. For example, the gorgeous stallion Riccione (below) looks uphill, does he not? But look at the lower red line! I posted the picture below to the discussion thread, trying to get clarification:
One poster thought the elbow was higher than my line suggested, but my goodness how hard is it to find an elbow? Plus you could argue that the stifle is a tad higher than where I marked it. I asked the list to find a conformation shot of a horse that is uphill. No one on this thread seemed to be able to show an example of an uphill horse using the stifle/elbow method.

It doesn't help that it's very hard to find a good conformation shot. Most horses are stood up for conformation shots using a few tricks to show them to advantage. You see a lot of tilted cameras with fences sloping in the background, a lot of horses standing on unlevel ground, etc.

Another method is introduced...
One poster presented an alternative method to evaluating a horse's up or downhill tendency: locate the lumbosacral joint (LSJ) and then draw a line from there to the base of the horse's neck, where the neck vertabrae connect to the thoracic vertabrae. This line's slant will determine an uphill or downhill build. How interesting, I thought!

I turned to my much-thumbed Horse Conformation Handbook by Heather Thomas. Thomas supports this alternative method. The critical factor, she states, is the position of the vertebral column itself. Creating an imaginary line from the lumbosacral joint to the 5th/6th neck vertabrae is the best way to assess whether a horse is essentially uphill or downhill. Okay, fine. The question is, where the heck are these two locations?

Thomas says to stand in front of the horse with hands on either side of the neck. Slide your hands down the neck until where you find the vertebrae/muscling are thicker-the neck's widest part. I think she means the widest part as you face the horse and feel the neck between your hands. The goal is to locate the 5th/6th vertabrae and mark it.

Lumbosacral joint (LSJ)
The LSJ is just below and often slightly in front of the point of the croup. How close it is to the croup depends on the length of the loin. The actual joint is deep in the back, around 4" beneath the surface.

Here is a picture of these locations on an actual horse, as best as I can find them based on a review of many equine skeletons online.

Let's try it!
Armed with knowledge, I try this method on my stallions.

Riccione. Again, poor Riccione is barely level.

Las Vegas, Oldenburg-approved stallion. Just level. What a loser, huh?

In desperation, I try a Lipazzaner stallion. Nope. Losers! The whole lot of them!

At last! An animal worthy of being called uphill! Heh, heh...

One COTH poster went so far as to respond, "It just goes to show you how FEW horses are really uphill." Well, if that few are uphill, what does it say about the large numbers competing at the FEI level? How meaningful is the measure, if successful athletes and breeding stallions don't measure up?

So you see my frustration. Apologies to folks who thought this article would be illuminating. It's possible that you have to physically examine and feel the horse to arrive at the correct locations for the LSJ and base of the neck. The Thomas book gives a few examples, and I confess I'm not sure WHY the LSJ is markedly lower on the horse that is uphill when compared to the level and downhill horses. Look on page 198/199, those of you who have this book.

And the bottom line is, how do they move? Why do we feel we have to judge a standing horse? Not one of us will ever have to buy a horse based on a conformation shot, and even judges get to watch the horses move. Maybe all of this is just like reading tea leaves...

I'd love to hear input and ideas.


  1. It seems like it might make more sense for people to talk about the way a horse moves as uphill or downhill. As you pointed out, what is important is the horse's movement. I have seen some incredibly oddly-proportioned horses competing in dressage up to at least 3rd level. Some of them just had that natural light way of moving, coupled with athleticism that allowed them to succeed. Maybe "uphill" is really a horse that naturally tracks up and pushes forward from the hind end, and "downhill" is a horse that is heavy on the forehand. However, I'm sure there will always be an argument about this!

  2. *applause* This is, in fact, an illuminating post -- not because it answers the question, but because it means that, despite all we've been taught, we don't yet have the answer. Perhaps we don't really NEED the answer! *gasp*

  3. Too funny with giraffe. I burst out laughing.


  4. I don't think many horses are structurally uphill, but that many can be functionally uphill. Still better to be level than down hill for dressage.

  5. I agree, horses evolved to eat grass. It's on the ground.

    Giraffes evolved to eat leaves in the trees. These are up in the air.

    We can tinker, but we can't change some of the basic design that is inherent in these animal.

    When I saw the giraffe I burst out laughing.


  6. Fun post! You might try reading Dr Deb Bennett's. 'Principles of Conformation Analysis, v I -III', published by Equus between 1988-1991. She's the first (that I know of) to advance the idea of the LSJ-lower cervicals measurement. She also explains how the flexion of the LSJ & low. cerv, produce 'lightening the forehand'. Which a 'downhill' horse can do if properly ridden. Your guy is real cute! Good luck.

  7. I feel a lot less foolish now! I'm not an expert anyway. But I've never felt confident judging "uphill" versus "downhill", except in very obvious cases. I feel better knowing that there isn't an accepted gold standard of measurement. It's always seemed easier to judge how a horse moves or how he rides.

  8. I'm late to the party but...

    I'm glad I found this article -- I was wondering about this myself!

    My feeling is that there is no such thing as uphill, only level.

    Also, perhaps the elbow point to stifle joint, just below where you marked the first horse, since uphill is a matter of moving off the hocks enough to free the shoulder?

    I need to look closely at my own horses. One is naturally very well-balanced, and the other tends to get going downhill.

  9. Loved this post! I liked the humor in it to make the frustration level of us looking for horses. It helps to realize nothing is perfect!



Hi Guys, Your comments are valued and appreciated -- until recently I never rejected a post. Please note that I reserve the right to reject an anonymous post.