Leg anatomy & conformation
If you’ve ever had a horse with an injured leg, you may have learned about the anatomical intricacies of equine limbs. Although it may seem overwhelming at first, your horse’s front and hind legs are somewhat similar to your own arms and legs.
By understanding ideal horse leg conformation and applicable terminology, you will be able to more accurately assess your horse’s limbs. Since leg care is essential for soundness, your horse will thank you for this newfound knowledge.
Equine leg anatomy comes with some specific terms. Here are some of the key parts you’ll want to learn, starting at the top of the legs and working our way down:
Stifle – Found on the hind legs only, the stifle is equivalent to the human knee joint. Located between the femur and the tiba, the stifle is below and behind the flank swirl.
Knee – Also called the carpus, the horse’s knee is anatomically similar to the human wrist. It is a plane joint that allows sliding movement.
Hock – The pointed joint that is between the tibia and the cannon bone of the hind limbs. This is known as the tarsus.
Fun fact: Horses only have knees on their front legs!
Cannon – The large bone that sits underneath the carpal (knee) joint. Also known as the third metacarpus. Horses have four cannon bones, one on each leg. This bone sits below the hock/knee joint.
Fetlock – The joint between the cannon bone and the pastern.
Pastern – The sloping portion between the fetlock and the hoof.
Hoof – Made up of keratin, this encapsulates and protects the digits of the horse.
Tendons & Ligaments – The tendons and ligaments that make up the lower leg (forelimb and hindlimb) are the superficial digital flexor tendon, deep digital flexor tendon, and the suspensory ligament.
Fun fact: Horses do not have any muscle below the knee or hock joints.
What parts of the leg are specific to front legs? Hind legs?
Anatomically, everything below the knee/hock are exactly the same on both the fore and hind limbs. It is above these joints where things differ. For example, the front legs are made up of the scapula, humerus, radius, ulna, and carpus.
The hind legs include the pelvis, femur, patella, tibia, fibula, and tarsal bones.
Front Leg Terminology:
Hind Leg Terminology:
The bones and joints in your horse’s limbs can greatly affect their health, wellbeing, and movement. Straightness and correct angles are critical for balance and symmetry, and soundness throughout the body.
How does leg conformation affect the rest of the horse?
Your horse’s legs are their foundation. Without a strong, and correctly angled base, the rest of the body will compensate where necessary. Have you ever injured your knee and shortly after had your lower back start to act up? Horses experience the same type of snowball effect.
What angles are important in your horse’s leg?
When speaking about equine anatomy, you will frequently hear how important angles are within the body. This is because the angles of certain structures and joints dictate how much stress and force is placed on that part of the body. The most important angles to keep an eye on within the horse’s leg are the hoof and various limb joints. Straightness of the legs is also very important.
Incorrect angles can lead to bowed tendons and other soft tissue injuries.
What are some examples of a conformation defect in the leg(s)?
Here is a list of some of the most common conformational defects seen in the limbs of horses:
Toed in: One or both legs are rotated in towards one another.
Toed out: One or both legs are rotated outwards away from each other.
Tied In at the Knee: The cannon bone is narrower where it ties in with the knee joint.
Knock Kneed: The knee joints come in towards one another.
Bow-legged: The carpal joints are away from each other.
Over in the Knee: The carpal joint appears to be buckling forward.
Back at the Knee: The knee and cannon bone appear to curve backwards when the knee joint is extended.
Sickle Hocked: Excessive angle of the hock joint.
Straight Hocked: Too much straightness through the hock and stifle joint. Also called “post-legged.”
Cow Hocked: The points of the hock joints angle in towards one another.
Long Toe – Low Heel: This occurs with incorrect hoof angles which can lead to stress placed on the tendons and ligaments of the lower leg.
Soundness Issues – Related to the Leg
Your horse’s limbs are the driving force behind all of the power and energy of their movement. Without sound legs, you will not have a sound horse.
What is a bowed tendon?
A bowed tendon is when the superficial or deep digital flexor tendon becomes inflamed. Because of the swelling, the tendon can appear to look curved or “bowed.” This injury can be on the front or hind legs.
What is a splint?
For starters, horse’s have 2 long, skinny bones that run alongside each cannon bone. When these bones become inflamed or fractured, a hard bump may appear. This is usually caused by poor conformation and stress. Once healed, the bump from the splint will be purely cosmetic.
What is a locking stifle?
Also called Upward Fixation of the Patella (UFP), a locking stifle is caused when the patella becomes restricted and “stuck” from ligaments and tendons. Horses with locking stifles will appear to be moving normally and then suddenly have a peg leg when the hind limb becomes stuck in an extended position. Horses that have too straight of a hind limb conformation or weak medial patella ligaments can be prone to UFP.
As mentioned earlier, your horse’s legs are extremely important for their health and wellness. Proper care and maintenance will help ensure your horse’s limbs are well protected.
How can you protect a horse’s leg(s)?
Utilizing sport or splint boots can ensure that your horse’s legs stay protected when working. Polo wraps are another good choice and are easy to clean. These types of protections help reduce the chances of your horse injuring their legs either with their other limbs or their hooves.
How do you treat an injured leg?
Treatment options for injuries can vary drastically, depending upon the type of injury and location on the leg. Although researching on your own can be helpful, I always recommend owners follow a treatment plan that was provided by their veterinarian.
Support wraps, ice boots, liniment, poultice, clay, and limiting movement with stall rest or hand walking are all good options for tendon and ligament injuries. Shockwave, cold laser, infrared light therapy, and Pulse Electro Magnetic Therapy (PEMF) can also be utilized to aid with healing.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: What are the legs of horses called?
The front legs are called the forelimbs and the hind legs are the hind limbs.
Q: What are a horse’s front legs called?
The horse’s front legs are called the forelimbs. They are anatomically like the human arm.
Q: What is a horse’s gait called?
The horse has 4 different gaits–the walk, trot, canter, and gallop.
Leg terminology can seem a bit overwhelming due to the amount of information out there. Start slow and digest bite size pieces. Remember that there will always be more to learn when it comes to horses!
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