Equine Anatomy


The importance of understanding equine physiology

Physiology is the scientific study of the mechanisms of living things. Physiology reveals how cells, tissues, organs, and systems help to maintain normal bodily functions in healthy animals, as well as examining how an animal responds to changes in its environment.  A physiologist is an expert in physiology. Changes to normal physiology imply that disease is present in the animal. A good knowledge of physiology, therefore, can help an owner to maintain their animal’s health.

The horse is an athletic animal, which means that it is ever more crucial to understand equine physiology. A physiologist can help to increase your horse’s athletic performance, prevent injuries and identify problems in their early stages. Doing so can prevent injuries from becoming severe and can increase the strength of the animal. This can be of great economic value to the owner of a sporting horse! Physiological analysis can also be a helpful factor in assessing new horses before buying them. Following the advice of a physiologist, a horse owner can ensure that they choose and purchase an animal that is healthy and strong.

Basic equine anatomy

Anatomy is the scientific study of the body structure of a healthy animal. Anatomy can be subdivided into gross anatomy and microscopic anatomy. Gross anatomy is the study of healthy structures in the body which can be seen using the naked eye, whilst microscopic anatomy is the study of healthy body structures that cannot be seen with the naked eye and require the use of microscopes. In basic anatomical terms, the horse’s body is made up of skin, the musculoskeletal system, the central nervous system, the cardiovascular system, the gastrointestinal system, the lymphatic system, the endocrine system, and the urinary system.


Skin is the largest organ in the horse, made up of haired areas, non-haired areas, pigmented areas, and non pigmented areas. The skin is divided into three layers.

ï Epidermis
ï Dermis
ï Hypodermis

The epidermis is the outermost layer of the horse’s skin. It is a keratinised stratified squamous epithelium. ‘Stratified’ implies that there is more than one cell layer. The outer cell layers are keratinised. Keratin is a protein which is an essential part of the epithelial cells in the epidermis. Keratin helps the skin cells form a barrier and forms the outermost layer of the skin. The only living layer of the skin is the basal layer, which lies on the basal membrane. The basal layer continuously forms new cells, and these cells replace those cells which are sloughed off due to friction and physical damages in the outermost layers. The epidermis acts as a barrier and prevents pathogens entering into the body.

The dermis lies directly under the epidermis, and is divided into the papillary and the reticular layers. The papillary layer is located directly under the epidermis. The dermis is a connective tissue layer consisting of blood vessels, nerve endings, hair follicles, glands, collagen fibres, and elastic fibres. The blood vessels in the dermis have a thermoregulatory function. The thickness of the dermis differs by body region and horse breed.

The hypodermis is located at the very bottom of the skin, and is a loose connective tissue storing a large amount of adipose tissue. The hypodermis is absent in the lips, cheeks, and eyelids of the horse.

A Horse’s Skeleton

The horse’s skeleton consists of two parts.

  1. The Axial skeleton
  2. The Appendicular skeleton

The axial skeleton of the horse is made up of the skull, vertebral column, sternum, and ribs.

The skull is formed of connecting skull bones called the frontal bone, parietal bone, interparietal bone, temporal bone, ethmoid bone, occipital bone, sphenoid bone, incisive bone, palatine bone, pterygoid bone, mandible, and the maxilla.

The vertebral column of the horse consists of 7 cervical, 18 thoracic, 6 lumbar, 5 sacral, and about 20 caudal vertebrae.

The sternum is formed from the interconnecting of sternebrae. Ribs are connected to the sternum via cartilage.

Two forelimbs and two hindlimbs form the appendicular skeleton of the horse. A horse’s limbs are highly adapted for fast running, and the horse can make long strides via the straightening and lengthening of its limbs.

The skeleton of the forelimbs contain the scapula, humerus, radius, ulna, carpal bones, metacarpal bones, phalanges, and sesamoid bones. The scapula connects the forelimb to the axial skeleton. The humerus connects with the scapula, forming the shoulder joint. The radius and ulna form the antebrachial skeleton. The radius supports the humerus to form the elbow joint. The ulna is fused with the radius, but this fusion is interrupted at an interosseous space.
             There are eight carpal bones arranged in two rows, 4 bones per row. The radial carpal bone, the intermediate carpal bone, the ulnar carpal bone, and the accessory carpal bone located in the proximal row from medial to lateral. There are four carpal bones in the distal row arranged from medial to lateral.
          There are also 3 metacarpal bones, called metacarpal 2,3 and 4. Metacarpals 1 and 5 have disappeared over time whilst metacarpals 2 and 4 have significantly reduced in size. These are called splint bones. Metacarpal 3 is the prominent metacarpal bone in a horse, and  is called the cannon bone. It is well adapted to carry weight.
     The horse has three phalanges called the proximal, middle, and distal phalanges. There are two sesamoid bones called the proximal sesamoid bone and the distal sesamoid bone. The distal sesamoid bone is also called the navicular bone.

The skeleton of the pelvic limb/hind limb of a horse contains the pelvic girdle, femur, tibia, fibula, tarsal bones, metatarsal bones, phalanges, and sesamoid bones. The pelvic girdle connects the hind limb to the axial skeleton.
     The pelvic girdle is formed by connecting three bones; the ilium, the ischium, and the pubis. The femur connects with the pelvic girdle, forming the hip joint. The hip joint of the horse is well adapted to weight-bearing. The tibia connects with the femur and forms the knee joint. The fibula articulates with the lateral condyle of the tibia.
     There are six tarsal bones; the talus, the calcaneus, the central tarsal bone, and the three distal tarsal bones. Metatarsal bones, phalanges, and sesamoid bones are similar to their corresponding bones in the forelimb.

The nervous system

The nervous system of the horse is anatomically divided into two parts.

  1. The central nervous system
  2. The peripheral nervous system

The central nervous system (CNS) consists of the brain and the spinal cord. The CNS integrates information received and coordinates the activity of all parts of the body. The brain is protected by a bony structure called the skull, and the spinal cord is similarly protected by a bony structures called vertebrae.

The horse’s brain weighs between 400 and 700 grams; compared to its body weight, this constitutes a ratio of 1:800. (For reference, the brain to body weight ratio of a dog is about 1:100. It is fair to say, therefore, that the horse has a relatively small brain (Dyce, Sack, & Wensing, 1987).

There are no connective tissues in either the brain or the spinal cord. Both the spinal cord and the brain are anatomically divided into white matter and grey matter. The white matter contains myelinated axons and oligodendrocytes. The grey matter contains neuronal cell bodies, dendrites, glial cells, and initial unmyelinated axons’ portions.
           In the brain, peripherally located grey matter is called the cerebral cortex, whilst the inner white matter area is called the medulla.

In the spinal cord, peripheral white matter and central grey matter form an “H” shaped area. The central canal is located in the middle of the “H” area, and is lined by ependymal cells. Sensory fibre from the spinal ganglia enters through the dorsal horns of the “H” shaped area, and motor neurons spread from the ventral horns of this area.

Meninges are connective tissues that cover the brain and spinal tissue to protect them.  There are three types of meninges.

  1. Dura mater
  2. Arachnoid
  3. Pia mater

The dura mater is a dense connective tissue layer located externally. The arachnoid has two parts; the layer which contacts the dura mater and the trabeculae system that connects it to the pia mater. There are cavities between the trabeculae which form the subarachnoid space, and are filled by cerebrospinal fluid. Arachnoid villi penetrate the dura mater, where they absorb cerebrospinal fluid into venous sinuses. The pia mater is a loose connective tissue which travels between the brain and the spinal cord.

The peripheral nervous system (PNS) transmits signals between the central nervous system and all the other parts of the body. The main components of the peripheral nervous system are cranial nerves, spinal nerves, ganglia, and nerve endings. The PNS has two divisions.

  1. Sensory division/Afferent division
                 This division is composed of sensory neurons and conveys information from the sensory receptors to the central nervous system.
  1. Motor division/Efferent division
                The motor division carries signals from the central nervous system to muscles, glands, and other tissues. The motor division can be divided into the somatic nervous system and the autonomic nervous system. The somatic nervous system innervates skeletal muscle cells and leads to muscle cell excitation. The somatic nervous system consists of a single neuron between the central nervous system and skeletal muscle cells.
          The autonomic nervous system can be either excitatory or inhibitory. Nerves in the autonomic nervous system innervate smooth and cardiac muscle, glands, gastrointestinal neurons but not skeletal muscle cells. The autonomic nervous system encompasses two neurons connected by a synapse between the central nervous system and the effector organ. The preganglionic neuron is the first of these neurons; passing between the central nervous system and the ganglia. The cell body of the preganglionic neuron is located in the central nervous system. The postganglionic neuron is the second of these neurons which passes between the ganglia and the effector cells.

There are two divisions in the autonomic nervous system.

  1. Sympathetic division/Thoracolumbar division

                 The neurons of the sympathetic division are attached to the thoracic and lumbar regions in the spinal cord. This division prepares the body for fight or flight responses.

  1. Parasympathetic division/Craniosacral division
                     Neurons of this parasympathetic division are attached to the brainstem and the sacral portion of the spinal cord. This division controls the body’s processes during normal situations such as digestive responses.

The autonomic nervous system controls the internal body processes such as blood pressure, heart and respiratory rates, body temperature, digestion, metabolism, urination, defecation, sexual responses, production of body fluids, water, and electrolyte balance.

The cardiovascular system (CVS)

The cardiovascular system consists of 3 components.

  1. The pump (Heart)
  2. The circulatory fluid (Blood and lymph)
  3. The circulatory system (arteries, arterioles, veins, venules, capillaries)

The CVS is the body’s transport system. It distributes oxygen from the lungs to cells and tissues, removes carbon dioxide from cells and tissues, distributes nutrients that are absorbed in the gastrointestinal tract, removes metabolic by-products in cells and tissues, and transports hormones from their origin sites to their target locations. The ultimate role of the cardiovascular system is to maintain homeostasis throughout the body.

The weight of the heart depends on the horse’s breed and the amount of training it has had.

The heart is located in the thoracic cavity within the mediastinum between the left and right pleural cavities and is protected by the ribs from about the third to the sixth intercostal spaces. The dorsal aspect is horizontally in line with the middle of the first rib, and the ventral aspect is located on the sternum. The long axis of the cardiac silhouette is oriented vertically in the horse (Reece, Erickson, Goff, & Uemura, 2015).

The base is the dorsal part of the heart, and the major blood vessels enter and leave from this section. These major blood vessels tend to hold the heart in a fixed position, though the ventral side of the heart is relatively free within the pericardial sac.

The cardiovascular system has two circulations.

  1. Pulmonary circulation
              Pulmonary circulation carries deoxygenated blood to the lungs to remove carbon dioxide from the blood and absorb oxygen. Pulmonary circulation starts from the right ventricle, where deoxygenated blood is transported to the lungs via the pulmonary artery. Deoxygenated blood is converted into oxygenated blood in the lungs and flows back to the left atrium via the pulmonary veins.
  1. Systemic circulation
               Systemic circulation distributes oxygenated blood in the left ventricle to the whole body through the aorta and carries deoxygenated blood to the right atrium via the cranial and caudal vena cava.

The Lymphatic System

The lymphatic system is a subsystem of both the circulatory system and the immune system. This provides a drainage function, removing excess fluid within tissues and returning it into the bloodstream. Nutrients leave the arterial end of the capillary bed, while tissue fluid containing metabolic waste reabsorbs back in at the venous end. Not all of the fluid is drawn back into the bloodstream, however. If this fluid is allowed to accumulate in the body, it will lead to the forming of an edema. This is where the lymphatic system comes in to play. It picks up this excess fluid and returns it to the circulatory system via lymphatic vessels. Whilst the circulatory system is a closed loop, the lymphatic system travels in one direction and is open-ended.

The lymphatic system also assists the absorption of dietary fat from the intestine. The lymphatic system has an immune function. The lymph vessels are connected to lymph nodes, and lymph is filtered within lymph nodes before reaching the bloodstream. Lymph nodes contain macrophages, dendritic cells, and lymphocytes. These cells destroy the pathogens in the circulatory lymph. Lymphocytes produce antibodies which enter into the bloodstream. These are immunoglobulins that can destroy specific antigens.

The lymphatic system is made up of lymphoid organs. There are two types of lymphoid organs.

  1. Primary lymphoid organs. EX Thymus and Bone marrow
             (Lymphocyte production, maturation, and selection occur in the primary lymphoid organs.)
  1. Secondary lymphoid organs. EX Lymph nodes, spleen
            (Matured lymphocytes enter into the secondary lymphoid organs, and these lymphocytes react with pathogens while the lymph is being filtered.)

The gastrointestinal system

The horse’s gastrointestinal system comprises the oral cavity, oesophagus, stomach, intestines, and other associated structures such as the liver, pancreas, and salivary glands.

The horse is quite distinct when it comes to feeding behaviour. Horses use both lips to collect feed and introduce it into their mouth.  Therefore both of a horse’s lips are sensitive and mobile. A hairy integument extends across the upper lip of the horse.

The oesophagus is a narrow tube-like structure that runs between the pharynx and the stomach which carries food between these two organs. The stomach lies between the oesophagus and the small intestine, entirely within the rib cage, mostly to the left of the median plane. The stomach is the most dilated part of the digestive tract and has a capacity of 5-15 litres. When moderately filled, the stomach lies opposite the 9th to the 14th intercostal spaces. The stomach divides into cardia, fundus, body, and pylorus. The fundus region of the horse’s stomach is known as the blind sac (Saccus cecus). The horse has both glandular and non-glandular regions in its stomach. The margo plicatus is a boundary that lies between two regions.
      The non-glandular part of the stomach is located towards the blind sac and the body lies near the lesser curvature. The glandular part of the stomach is located in the rest of the body and the pyloric part. Feed enters into the stomach via cardia, and once digested then enters into the duodenum through the pylorus opening.

The intestinal tract of the horse is divided into small and large intestines. The small intestine has three parts.

  1. Duodenum – 1m long
  2. Jejunum – 25m long
  3. Ileum – 50cm long

The large intestine also has three parts.

  1. Cecum
  2. Colon
  3. Rectum

As hindgut fermenters, horses have an expanded cecum.  This is about 1m long and has a capacity of 35 litres. Microbial fermentation occurs in the cecum. The cecum is made up of three parts: the base, the body, and the apex. The colon has ascending, transverse, and descending parts. The rectum is the terminal part of the large intestine. This is about 30cm long.

The pancreas opens with its pancreatic duct on the major duodenal papilla. The accessory pancreatic duct opens on the minor duodenal papilla. The pancreas has both exocrine and endocrine functions.
     The exocrine function of the pancreas is the production of digestive juice, which is released into the proximal duodenum. The endocrine part of the pancreas comprises of the pancreatic islets, which produce insulin and glucagon.

The horse’s liver is asymmetrical, and the bulk of the organ is displaced to the right. The most distinctive aspect of a horse’s liver is the absence of a gallbladder. Liver cells produce bile, and this bile enters into the duodenum via the bile duct, through the major duodenal papilla.

The endocrine system

The endocrine system releases hormones directly into to the circulation of the body. These hormones are then transported to their target sites through the bloodstream. The pituitary gland, pineal gland, thyroid gland, parathyroid glands, and adrenal glands are the main endocrine glands in horses.

The pituitary gland has two parts.

  1. The Adenohypophysis
                Adenohypophysis produces growth hormone, follicle-stimulating hormone, luteinizing hormone, adrenocorticotropic hormone, thyroid-stimulating hormone, and prolactin.
  1. The Neurohypophysis
                The neurohypophysis does not produce hormones, rather, it stores and eventually releases the hormones oxytocin and vasopressin.

The pineal gland produces melatonin. It assists in the maintenance of an animal’s biological clock. The thyroid gland of the horse lies on the trachea, and paired lobes are widely dissociated but connected by an insubstantial isthmus.
    The thyroid gland produces thyroxin. Thyroxin is mainly involved in the metabolism and growth of the animal. The parathyroid glands produce parathyroid hormone. This regulates calcium metabolism.

The entire body structure and its functions are absolutely amazing and can be very interesting to study. It can be fascinating to see how the body’s normal structure is formed to allow optimal functionality!


Dyce, K. M., Sack, W. O., & Wensing, C. J. (1987). TEXTBOOK OF VETERINARY ANATOMY (Fourth Edition ed.). 3251 Riverport Lane: SAUNDERS ELSEVIER.

Reece, W. O., Erickson, H. H., Goff, J. P., & Uemura, E. E. (2015). Dukes’s Physiology of Domestic Animals. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons.

Horse diet: What should horses eat?

Horse Grazing

What should horses eat?

The importance of a healthy diet

Horses are non-ruminant herbivores, as well as hindgut fermenters. Compared with its body size, the horse has a relatively small stomach. Normally, the capacity of a horse’s stomach is 5 to 15L. A balanced and healthy diet is the foundation of a horse’s health. A healthy diet is considered to be a combination of all six major classes of nutrients: water, fat, carbohydrate, protein, vitamins, and minerals. The amount of nutrients required varies from horse to horse and changes according to the life stage of the horse, its breed, weight, and workload. It is important for a horse to maintain a steady weight. If this increases or decreases too drastically it can badly affect your horse’s health.

It is important to adapt a horse’s diet according to its requirements. This helps to control any harmful effects and aid the horse in maintaining a normal and healthy condition. The nutritional requirements of a horse varies according to age. Young horses, for instance, require a high amount of protein and energy. When pregnant or lactating, mares require an increased amount of nutrients.

As horse owners, we all want our horses to be healthy and high-performing. A balanced diet plays a significant role in this. A balanced and nutritional diet is extremely beneficial to a horse, helping it to maintain a healthy weight. It is also essential to give the animal the proper amount of feed. Various diseases, such as laminitis, can occur in animals which are overweight.

A healthy diet helps to ensure strong bones and teeth. Consuming the correct amount of calcium phosphorus is essential for the maintenance of strong bones and teeth. Giving your horse a balanced and healthy diet with allow it to be more energised and to perform to the best of its ability. Providing clean forage at floor level can also help the animal maintain good respiratory health.

A healthy diet helps with the maintenance of hair, increases muscle mass, increases milk production in lactating mares, maintains electrolytic balances, and prevents dehydration. Horses with a good diet are also likely to have a higher ability to fight off illness and to recover from illness or injuries.

What do horses like to eat?

An adult horse typically requires dry feed amounting to 2- 2.5% of its body weight each day, with the large majority of this made up of roughages. Horses also eat fruits, vegetables, concentrate, supplements, salt, and treats.

Grass: This makes up the significant part of a horse’s diet and is the animal’s natural feed. Horses enjoy the pleasant chewing sensation and the smooth texture of grass. Grasses contribute to the maintenance of a healthy digestive system. You should always make sure to provide clean pasture without anything toxic mixed in. Recommended grasses for horses’ grazing include rhodes grass, crested dog’s tail, cocksfoot, brown-top, prairie grass, and red grass.

Legumes: Legumes contain more digestible energy and crude protein than grasses. Legumes can be planted alongside grasses to increase the nutritional value of forages. Lactating mares and performing horses need more energy than other horses do, it is advisable to provide a mixture of legumes and grasses for these animals. These should be avoided, however, when feeding overweight horses. Alfalfa and clover are commonly grown legumes that are good to include in a horse’s diet.

Hay: Hay is a form of processed forage made by cutting grass and turning it in the ground to dry it out either under sunlight or mechanically. Grass is harvested before it flowers in order to produce hay. Hay is a preservative method of forages; if there is no fresh forage available, for example in cooler months, hay can be used to to fulfil a horse’s nutritional requirements. It is important to make sure your hay is of good quality and that there are no toxic plants mixed in. Hay containing legumes is more nutritious than plain grass hay.

Fruits and vegetables: Fruits and vegetables are good examples of low-fat treats for horses which improve the moisture content of their feed. It is important to wash, clean, and cut fruits and vegetables before feeding them to your animal. Carrots, apples, bananas, apricots, beetroot, cucumber, celery, blackberries, peaches, and oranges are all suitable for horses. Some fruits and vegetables, however, can be poisonous to horses. Make sure to avoid these toxic fruits and vegetables, which include avocados, onions, tomatoes, and potatoes.

Concentrate: Concentrate is often used to improve the nutritional value of horse feed. This is a hard feed made up of grains and cereals. Concentrates have higher energy than forages. It can useful to feed this to horses who have high energy requirements. Make sure to add the correct amount of ingredients while processing and mixing. Oats, barley, and maize are good examples of concentrate. Crushing and boiling the raw ingredients before feeding helps to improve the digestibility of the concentrate.

Supplements: supplements are used to add extra vitamins and minerals to a horse’s diet. If your horse eats hay, it can be very beneficial to add a supplement to ensure its nutritional requirements are met. An excessively high dose of supplements can cause the development of toxic conditions, so it is important to measure an exact amount of these. Good supplements can improve the quality of a horse’s skin, hooves, bones and muscles, can strengthen the immune system, the function of the nervous system, and can help maintain and repair cells.

Salt: A horse’s average salt requirement is 1-2 tablespoons per day. Horses love to eat salt in the summer months, and consume this either from a salt lick block or from loose salt in a bucket. If your horse is not consuming the correct amount of salt using these methods, you should add salt into their diet.

Treats: Horses love treats. Plenty of horse treats are readily available at your local supermarket, in particular fruits and vegetables which are great treats for horses! Apples and carrots tend to be a favourite. Before choosing commercial treats, carefully consider the ingredients as some contain high sugar content and can be full of additives which are not beneficial to a horse’s health.

Water: A horse requires an adequate amount of freshwater in addition to its feed. Water is one of the most important requirements to keep a horse in good health. If your horse does not consume a sufficient amount of water, it will show signs of dehydration, decreased feed intake, reduced physical activities, and dry mucous membranes. It is therefore important to supply easily reachable water sources to the horse throughout the day. The water level should always be kept high as horses do not like to drink water from sources where the levels are low. Horses also do not like to drink water that is too hot or too cold. They prefer to drink water at 25 0C. There is therefore a huge responsibility for those in charge of farm management to maintain a comfortable and controlled zone for horses to live in.

Essential tips for horse health

*Supply plenty of fresh, clean water throughout the day.

*Horses should be fed with plenty of forage, and stabled horses should be provided with higher amounts of forage than concentrate.

*Give the horse a balanced diet. This will help to prevent laminitis and other conditions caused by the horse becoming overweight.

*Make sure not to include any toxic plants, vegetables, and fruits in your horse’s diet.

*Rapid changes in diet can be harmful and should be avoided. If you need to change your horse’s diet, this should be done gradually.

*Take into consideration any special requirements your horse may have, particularly pregnant and lactating mares and ageing horses.

*B Vitamins can help to reduce a horse’s stress.

*Vitamin E helps horses to recover from diseases.

*Ensuring a horse’s food has a pleasant odour and a soft texture can help increase the palatability of feed and increase a horse’s feed intake.

How should a horse be fed?

First, calculate the horse’s nutrient requirements according to its special needs. It can be very helpful to check this with a veterinarian. First and foremost, ensure that you give the horse fresh, clean water before feeding. Then provide the horse with an adequate amount of roughages (good quality forages and hay). These are a horse’s primary source of feed, and horses will eat a large amount of these.
Give a measured portion of concentrate (according to the horse’s specific requirements) throughout the day. The amount of concentrate consumed by the animal per day should be significantly lower than the amount of roughages it consumes. Make sure to supply the correct amount of supplement alongside feed. Giving the horse special treats will help to build the bond between you and your horse. Avoid feeding your horse immediately before or after exercises.

If the feed you provide is unpleasant to the horse, or if it is provided in an insufficient amount, the horse may refuse to eat.  Ultimately this will result in malnutrition and weight loss. Animals prefer to eat highly palatable, tasty feed. Providing an excess of feed, on the other hand, can result in a horse becoming overweight.

Concurrent infections are more common in horses suffering from malnutrition as this can result in reduced immunity. Overweight animals, on the other hand, cannot bear their own weight. Extra force is exerted on their joints, which, with time, will likely lead to osteoarthritis. This can result in severe pain to the horse while walking and riding. Laminitis is another condition that occurs in overweight horses. For all these reasons, it is essential to manage a horse’s nutrition well.

Avoiding horse poisoning.

Some foods are toxic to horses and can be harmful even in small portions. Keep your horse from toxic feed such as chocolate, caffeine, tomatoes, avocados, garlic, onions, potatoes, meat, bread products, cabbage, broccoli, dairy products, ragwort, acorns, and lawn clippings

Introduction to Long and Short Strides

Fix Yourself To Help Your Horse

As a horse rider, it is important to have a good understanding of strides, their lengths, and how to measure them.
        Stride length is a measurement made between two neighbouring successive steps or jumps made by the same leg. This length is usually measured in feet or metres.

Before any equestrian event, it is important to have a good idea of your horse’s stride length. It is also very important to have the ability to shorten or lengthen strides whenever required. Most equestrian events are designed according to a standard stride length. There is generally a 57 – 60 foot distance between two obstacles. If you are jumping an oxer of up to 3 feet, there should be 57 feet between obstacles; if you are jumping 3 feet or more, there should be 60 feet between obstacles. 12 feet is considered to be a standard stride length which means the the horse will have four strides between two obstacles.
       Before starting an equestrian event, you should check whether your horse does indeed take four strides between two obstacles. If your horse takes 3 or 5 strides, the rider should work to adjust the horse’s strides to the standard length. This will improve the horse’s performance, and will help to build a better relationship between rider and horse. If the rider is able to lengthen and shorten the horse’s stride at will, the horse will be able to balance well whilst being ridden. This will allow adjustments to be made with the rider in the saddle without stopping the horse or even changing from one gait to another. When increasing stride length, the front legs should stretch more towards the front, whilst the hind legs stretch more towards the back of the horse. The ultimate result will be that the horse covers more ground in the same number of strides.

Short stride is a common effect of hind limb lameness. Neurological problems can also cause short stride in horses. Identifying a short stride is simple, however identifying lameness is more difficult. To help diagnose lameness, eliminate pain, and reduce the spread of inflammation it can be very helpful to engage the assistance of a professional. It is also vital to seek professional knowledge about how to treat lameness in your horse, and how to properly manage horses which are suffering from lameness.

Horses sometimes develop short stride as a result of practising in small, indoor areas. If this is the case, try selecting a better arena with a better floor for your horse.

Normal stride length and movement

12 feet is considered to be a standard stride length. Modern riders place huge effort into achieving standard stride with their horses. It is important to remember, however, that “driving” the horse forward is not an acceptable method. As a horse rider, you must “allow” the horse to move forward keeping your body in a position vertical to the horse’s back.  Achieving longer strides without losing the horse’s balance is important. For this to happen, the horse must relax its topline musculature, so it can be very helpful for the rider to allow the horse a free ride.

Diagnosing issues

First, it is important to know the causes of short stride in order to be able to diagnose any issues. As mentioned previously, lameness is the main cause of short stride, however false riding can be another cause of this.

Let’s discuss how to diagnose this issue. First, find an outdoor arena with a good amount of space and a good surface to allow for clear footing. Warm the horse up before starting a walk and observe the horse while it is walking. If the horse appears unwilling to walk and shows abnormal behaviours while walking, it is usually safe to assume that lameness is the problem. If there are no abnormal walking behaviours but the horse’s strides are short, work on lengthening the stride. Remember, over-lengthening of the horse’s stride can also be a problem.

Place two obstacles at a 57 to 60 feet distance from one another and then canter or trot. Count the horse’s strides. If your horse makes three strides for a distance of 60 feet, your horse’s strides are lengthened; if your horse makes five strides, your horse’s strides are shortened. Both lengthened and shortened stride can reflect badly on riders who participate in equestrian events.

In modern dressage, most riders say that it is easier to lengthen a canter than a trot. Select an outdoor area with a good terrain and mark two points on a straight line with 60 feet between them. Say “Go!” loudly when you pass the first point and say “Stop!” when you pass the second point. Continue riding until the number of strides becomes consistent. Your target is to make four strides between these two points. Remember that it is important to maintain the rhythm and tempo of the canter.

Measuring the length of a horse’s stride can be very useful. A standard stride length is 12 feet. There are two basic methods used to measure a horse’s stride length.

  1. The intuitive method

We have already discussed this method in different ways. You will need a vertical, an oxer, and a measuring tape. If your horse jumps less than 3 feet,  place the two obstacles with 57 feet between them, or if the horse jumps 3 feet or more than then place the obstacles 60 feet apart. Start your workout and count each stride loudly.

  1. The mechanical method

For this method you will need a rake, a clear and unmarked arena, and a measuring tape. First, rake the floor to make a clean riding path. Warm your horse up and then allow it to canter along this path. Allow the horse to make several cantering movements. Finally, you can find the length of your horse’s strides by measuring the spaces between the hoof marks with a measuring tape.


Shortened strides are quite common, so it is often necessary to lengthen your horse’s stride to a standard level. Here are some golden tips for improving your horse’s stride:

First and foremost, be aware that a horse is an animal just like you. They feel love, and they can sense kindness, anger and sadness. Stay calm while you are riding. Many riders become angry when their horse is not making the desired strides, and this can be extremely counterproductive. Be calm and kind-hearted to your animal. Then start performing lengthening activities. Place vertices at various heights and allow the horse to jump over them. Maintain a good rhythm of movement. This will boost your horse’s confidence, and will passively increase stride length. When measuring stride length, count out loud. This will help familiarise the animal with your voice and will help it to maintain a good rhythm.