Xenophon Continued: Notes on conformation

Xenophon describes what to look for when purchasing a horse in fairly simplistic terms when compared to the level of detail presented in Horse Conformation: Structure, Soundness, and Performance (Equine Research, 2004). However, it is evident that he had a reasonably sound understanding of the importance of form relative to function and equine health. One notable shortcoming is that in some instances, Xenophon’s focus was primarily on how conformation affects the comfort of the rider and what bearing it has on the aesthetic value of the animal. This is most evident in his descriptions of the body of the horse, the back, barrel and withers.

For example, when describing the back, Xenophon says that a double back is both “better looking” than a single back and “easier to sit upon”. Based on this description, one can only assume he is referring to a groove along the spine rather than a ridge. While this is true if riding without a saddle, it doesn’t speak to the full function of the horse’s back. The back should be relatively short, straight and wide to support the weight of the horse’s ribs, muscles and organs, as well as the weight of a rider while allowing the horse to maintain balance (Equine Research, 2004).

As for the barrel, while Xenophon understood that it should have deep sides rounded at the belly, which he interpreted as a sign of strength and a healthy appetite, he states that, as with a double back, the deep sides and round belly also make it “easier for a rider to sit on the horse”. However, he makes no mention of the importance of the depth and roundness of the barrel to accommodate and protect the horse’s large heart, lungs and other internal organs within a spacious rib cage, which should have largely-spaced backward sloping ribs to allow for full expansion of the lungs (Equine Research, 2004).

No hoof, no horse

These examples aside, Xenophon (1893) was keenly aware that the feet were of the utmost importance in determining the value of a horse, and should be examined first, for “just as a house would be good for nothing if it were very handsome above but lacked the proper foundations, so too a [horse], even if all his other points were fine, would yet be no good for nothing if he had bad feet; for he could not use a single one of his fine points” (p.14).  He recognized that the pasterns should be moderately sloping and the knees supple, and perhaps most importantly, he knew the value of healthy hoofs, with an emphasis on the thickness of the horn and the height of the walls. However, his view that the frog should be kept off the ground is somewhat erroneous, failing to recognize its role in absorbing concussive force and contributing to the horse’s sense of proprioception. The size and hardness of the frog changes in response to water content and ground contact, and plays an important role in biomechanical function and shock absorption with its ability to widen and dissipate concussive force when the heel strikes the ground (Equine Research, 2004; Hood and Larson, 2013).

Nonetheless, Xenophon’s observations continue to present a good starting point from which to evaluate the conformation of the horse, even if they do seem somewhat human-centric, and understandably so, as his descriptions were based on observations and learned experience, not informed by in-depth studies of biomechanics and kinesiology as current conformation standards are.

Xenophon vs. Equine Research

Here is a full list of Xenophon’s notes on conformation compared to the book Horse Conformation: Structure, Soundness, and Performance by Equine Research (2004).

The Art of Horsemanship (Xenophon, 1893) Horse Conformation: Structure, Soundness, and Performance (Equine Research, 2004)
Head Bony, with a small jaw, a large poll. Proportional to the size of the body, long with well defined features and ample room for the nasal passages teeth, tongue and top of the windpipe. The angle where the head meets the neck must not be too acute, otherwise it may restrict the horse’s breathing by compressing the larynx
Jaws The jaws should be symmetrical.

 

 

Strong and broad with sufficient width between the jaws to accommodate the large amount of airflow required for optimal respiration. To ensure proper grinding of food and even wear of the teeth, the jaws should meet evenly and have good up-and-down and side-to-side motions.
Eyes Prominent eyes enable the horse to see farther. Horse’s with deep-set eyes may have a slightly limited field of vision. Prominent, round eyes that are widely-spaced at the sides of the head enable horses to see nearly 360 degrees. The eyes should also be bright, clear, alert, and intelligent in appearance. Eyes that are dark brown in colour may be preferable, as blue and green eyes are more photosensitive.
Ears should be small Ears should be proportional in size to the head. If they are too long, the horse is said to have mule ears, too far apart or droopy, they are considered lopped. Either way, this is generally of minimal concern.
Muzzle Wide nostrils are necessary for the horse to breathe freely. The muzzle should be small with large, open, thin-walled nostrils to intake large volumes of oxygen. Firm, muscular lips are needed to select and grasp food.
Neck The neck should be slim and rise straight up from the chest to the poll, where it bends to reach the head. The neck, although slender, should be muscular and slightly arched along the topline, from withers to poll, with a straight underline
Withers High withers provide the rider with a “surer” seat and a stronger grip on the shoulders. Well-defined, medium high, sloping withers usually indicate longer shoulder muscles, which allow for increased extension of the forelegs and freer movement of the hindlegs. They also help keep a saddle in place.
Chest A very broad chest is not only handsome and strong, it is better adapted to carry the legs far apart from one another. Well-defined and fairly wide, without being extremely wide or overly narrow. An overly narrow chest will result in the forelegs being too close together, and too much width will cause a rolling motion when the horse is in motion. A slight pectoral bulge should be visible from the side.  
Forelegs Moderately sloping pasterns leading up to stout cannon bones and forearms. Knees that are supple in bending indicate an overall suppleness in the legs. Long, sloping shoulders, angled toward the front to meet the upper arm, which angles toward the back to meet the forearm, then straight down from the elbow to the fetlock, where the foreleg angles toward the front again through the pastern to meet the hoof. The angles of the shoulder, pastern and hoof wall should be equal to maximize shock-absorption.
Back A double back is both better looking than a single back and easier to sit upon. Based on this description, one can only assume he is referring to a groove along the spine rather than a ridge. The back should be relatively short, straight and wide to support the weight of the horse’s ribs, muscles and organs, as well as the weight of a rider while allowing the horse to maintain balance.
Loin A broad short loin makes it easier for the horse to raise his foreleg and follow with the hindquarters. The loin plays a key role in impulsion and is most effective at supporting the lumbar vertebrae and transferring power forward from the hindlegs when it is short and well developed.
Barrel Deep sides rounded at the belly indicate strength and a healthy appetite, and make it easier for a rider to sit on the horse. The barrel should be deep and wide to accommodate the horse’s large heart and expanding lungs with a spacious rib cage to protect them, along with the internal organs. Backward sloping, largely-spaced ribs allow for full expansion of the lungs.    
Hind legs Xenophon states nothing specifically about the hindlegs, and instead refers the reader to his specifications for the forelegs. Providing most of the power for locomotion, the hind legs also absorb a great deal of concussive force.  Well muscled and strong, the angles of the stifle and hock are less than those of the shoulder and upper arm. The point of buttock, point of hock, and back of the cannon should line up with one another in a straight line.  
Hind-quarters Proportional to the sides of the chest, the hindquarters should be broad and full. Appearing square and symmetrical when viewed from behind, with a rounded croup, the muscular, powerful  hindquarters play a key role in moving the horse.
Feet The horn should be thick with high walls of the hoof to keep the frog off of the ground. Well-proportioned and set squarely on the legs with rounded toes and broad heels, the feet should be balanced and symmetrical, allowing for even distribution of concussive forces.
Starting from the top
The head, neck & chest

According to Xenophon, the head should be bony, with a small jaw and large poll. Equine Research (ER) specifies that the head should be proportional to the size of the body, long with well-defined features and ample room for the nasal passages, teeth, tongue and top of the windpipe. The angle where the head meets the neck must not be too acute, otherwise it may restrict the horse’s breathing by compressing the larynx. ER describes the jaws as being strong and broad with sufficient width between them to accommodate the large amount of airflow required for optimal respiration. To ensure proper grinding of food and even wear of the teeth, the jaws should meet evenly and have good up-and-down and side-to-side motions. Whereas as Xenophon simply states that the jaws should be symmetrical. He likewise simply indicates that wide nostrils are necessary for the horse to breathe freely, which is accurate, however, that’s where his description of the muzzle ends. In addition to a small muzzle with large, open, thin-walled nostrils, firm, muscular lips are needed to select and grasp food (ER).

Horse’s with deep-set eyes may have a slightly limited field of vision, whereas prominent, round eyes that are widely-spaced at the sides of the head enable horses to see nearly 360 degrees. The eyes should also be bright, clear, alert, and intelligent in appearance (ER). Xenophon does not elaborate on what to look for in the eyes, apart from their prominent position on the head to enable the horse to see farther. Likewise, he says simply that ears should be small, whereas, according to ER, ears should be proportional in size to the head. If they are too long, the horse is said to have mule ears, too far apart or droopy, they are considered lopped. Either way, this is generally of minimal concern.

Moving down from the head, Xenophon prized a slim neck rising straight up from the chest to the poll, where it bent to reach the head. However, the neck, although slender, should be muscular and slightly arched along the topline, from withers to poll, with a straight underline (ER). At the base of the neck, the withers should be well-defined, medium high, and sloping. This indicates longer shoulder muscles, which allow for increased extension of the forelegs and freer movement of the  hindlegs. They also help keep a saddle in place (ER). This last feature is what was prized by Xenophon, as high withers provide the rider with a “surer” seat and a stronger grip on the shoulders.

Handsome and strong, Xenophon indicates that a very broad chest is better adapted to carry the horse’s legs far apart from one another. The ideal chest according to ER should be well-defined and fairly wide, without being extremely wide or overly narrow. An overly narrow chest will result in the forelegs being too close together, and too much width will cause a rolling motion when the horse is in motion. And a slight pectoral bulge should be visible from the side.  

The legs: supple & powerful

The forelegs should consist of long, sloping shoulders, angled toward the front to meet the upper arm, which angles toward the back to meet the forearm, then straight down from the elbow to the fetlock, where the foreleg angles toward the front again through the pastern to meet the hoof. The angles of the shoulder, pastern and hoof wall should be equal to maximize shock-absorption (ER). Xenophon describes the forelegs in simpler terms, with an emphasis on suppleness and moderately sloping pasterns leading up to stout cannon bones and forearms. Knees that are supple in bending indicate an overall suppleness in the legs, and refers the reader to these same specifications for the hindlegs, greatly underestimating their importance in locomotion.

Providing most of the power for locomotion, the hindlegs also absorb a great deal of concussive force.  Well muscled and strong, the angles of the stifle and hock are less than those of the shoulder and upper arm. The point of buttock, point of hock, and back of the cannon should line up with one another in a straight line (ER). Proportional to the sides of the chest, the hindquarters should be broad and full (Xenophon). Appearing square and symmetrical when viewed from behind, with a rounded croup, the muscular, powerful  hindquarters play a key role in moving the horse (ER).

The loin plays a key role in impulsion and is most effective at supporting the lumbar vertebrae and transferring power forward from the hindlegs when it is short and well developed (ER). Xenophon was definitely in tune with this, as he indicates that a broad short loin makes it easier for the horse to raise his foreleg and follow with the hindquarters.

The End.

References

Equine Research. (2004). Horse Conformation: Structure, Soundness, and Performance. Guilford CT: The Lyons Press.

Hood, D.M. and C.K. Larson. 2013. Building the Equine Hoof. Eden Prairie, Minnesota: Zinpro Corporation.

Xenophon. (1893). The Art of Horsemanship. Translated by M.H. Morgan. Boston: Little, Brown, And Company.

 

One thought on “Xenophon Continued: Notes on conformation

  1. Pingback: Examining Xenophon’s ‘The Art of Horsemanship’ through the Lens of Modern Equine Welfare – l'écurie equine

Comments are closed