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forelegs and hind legs

From: Alicia

Dear Jessica, I'm almost embarrassed to ask you this but I know that you will answer me with kindness. You are so patient with everyone, I think that your students must be the luckiest riders in the world, and I feel so very very lucky to have access to Horse-Sense. I wish my regular magazines were half as good!!!! Could you explain to me about how horses use their forelegs and hind legs differently? I know that there are knees in the front legs and hocks in the hind legs, and that knees bend forward and hocks bend the other way, but I am ashamed to admit that for as long as I have owned horses (ten years!!) I haven't really learned very much about how they work. One of my friends was at a lecture you gave on horses and bio-mechanics (is that right?) and she said I needed to talk to you about this. I have a seven-year-old gelding that is a "short" mover: he takes short strides with all four legs. I never saw this as a problem, but my new trainer says that Kody isn't using his hind legs, that he's pulling himself along with his front legs. I don't understand what he means, and I don't want to look stupid when I talk to him, but I realize that I don't even know enough to ask him what he means by this, because if he answers in technical terms I won't know what he's talking about! Can you help me please? Can a horse really pull itself along by its front legs?

Confused in Canada, Alicia and Kody

Hi Alicia! Thanks, you're very kind. ;-) The answers to your last two questions are Yes and No!

Yes, I can help, and No, a horse can't pull itself along with its front legs. It's physically impossible -- that isn't how a horse's front legs WORK. A horse can stand and even walk on its hind legs -- but a horse that had to stand on its front legs would be stuck in place.

Let me begin with the horse's hind legs and work my way forward. ;-)

With horses, the power source -- the engine if you will -- is in the rear. All of the forward movement, all of the propulsion, comes from the hindquarters and the hind legs. If you look at a horse skeleton, you'll see how the bones of the pelvis are connected to the hind leg bones by the hip joints (ball-and-socket joints). The horse's hind end has a series of joints of various types: the hip, stifle, hock, and fetlock all flex and bend to varying degrees. It's the flexing and then straightening of the hind legs that first stores and then releases energy -- and that's the source of the horse's propulsive power. If you watch a horse in motion, you can see the hind legs flex and bend, collecting energy, and then you can see how the straightening of the hind legs pushes the horse forward.

The forelegs have quite a different job! They "catch" and support the front end of the body as the hind legs push it forward. Forelegs are not active in the sense of creating energy, which is why a horse cannot pull himself forward with his forelegs. Forelegs are, effectively, PROPS. They catch and support the horse's body, absorb the energy created by the hind legs and pelvis, and carry the weight whilst the horse's hind legs bend and flex and store energy to send the horse forward again.

There are no joints connecting the horse's shoulders to his body -- the horse's shoulder blades are connected to his ribcage only by tissue! The muscles, tendons, and ligaments that connect the shoulder blades to the ribcage are called the "thoracic sling".

It may help you to understand the different jobs of your horse's hind legs and forelegs if you think of a pole-vaulter in action. The pole vaulter uses his legs, like the horse's hind legs, to store energy as they bend, then push his body forward as they straighten. The pole vaulter puts the end of the pole on the ground, in the same way that the horse's front legs extend and touch down. Then the pole vaulter's weight pushes down onto the pole, and his body and legs lift and roll over the pole, in the same way that the horse's hindquarters lift as the front end drops and the horse's weight goes onto its forelegs, allowing the horse's hindquarters and hind legs to coil and reach underneath the body, ready to accept the horse's weight and flex and bend to create the energy needed to push the horse's body forward again.

So NO, the horse cannot possibly pull himself anywhere with his front legs. Sometimes trainers use that expression when they are trying to describe a horse that is barely bending and "using" his hind legs at all, and is taking small steps with the tiny bit of energy he creates by NOT bending his joints enough. Your trainer doesn't mean this literally! He is probably just exaggerating to create an image in your mind, in the same way that he might refer to a horse as "ropewalking" if that horse was moving with his front feet too close together.

It IS confusing, though -- so you were right to ask!


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