HORSE ANATOMY

Most of us think about horse anatomy in terms of how it relates to riding, driving or therapy work.

And although it seems like the anatomy of a horse was made to be ridden, its anatomy was perfected and slowly developed to ensure its own survival over millions of years.

The horse, as we know it today has been around for about 5 million years. Originally it dwelled in the forest, foraging for leaves and undergrowth. Interestingly, the horse gradually moved from a forest environment to graze the open fields.

The new conditions influenced change in their physique. Over time and as a necessity, the horses’ legs became longer and the original 4 toes became a single hoof.

Horses have a strong flight and herd instinct; coupled with their anatomy the horse could outrun its predators.


It’s believed that we domesticated the horse around 3500BC.

It was reported in 2008 that there are now over 59,000,000 domestic horses worldwide! Imagine that!

Horse anatomy is much more than bones and muscle. It’s worth noting that horses have a well-developed sense of touch. They can actually feel a fly land anywhere on their bodies.

Horses are able to see more than 350 degrees, and their sight for day or night is excellent. They actually have the largest eyes of any land mammal.

Their sense of smell is way better than ours. And their hearing is great thanks to ears that can rotate to catch the slightest sound without the horse moving its head.

Put all of this together and you can see why the horses survived and didn’t end up as some prehistoric fanged creature’s lunch!

One of the most interesting features of horse anatomy is the ability of the horse to sleep standing up. They’re able to lock their hind limbs and this was another handy survival characteristic. Groggy from sleep, they could still flee instantly in the presence of danger.

Just as in other mammals, the skeleton has several functions not the least of which is to protect the organs and providing a place to hang those long legs.

The skeleton of the horse has 205 bones and what’s is interesting is the bone that’s missing! The horse's anatomy does not include a collarbone. Their front legs are attached to their spine through a complex system of muscles, ligaments and tendons.

MATURATION

Most horsemen consider a horse to be an adult by the time it’s 4 years old. However, the skeleton of the horse actually continues to mature and does not stop growing until they are six years of age.

Although some Thoroughbred horses start their racing careers as young as 2 years old, most horses don't get started under saddle until they are older than 2 years.

In some riding disciplines the preference is to wait until later to ensure the horse is fully developed.

Whether it’s the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Horses, Horse Racing or Reining, there’s a common saying in the horse circle: NO HOOF, NO HORSE.

When you think about the sheer size of the horses' body it’s hard to imagine how the horse gets around on those little stick legs perched on those little hooves! There's a lot riding on those!

Interestingly the outside of the hoof is made up of the same material as our fingernails. On the inside of the hoof are cartilage, bone and soft tissue.

The hoof, as small as it is in relation to the rest of the horses anatomy, also helps to pump the blood back up the horses legs and to its heart!

That soft tissue in the in the heel on the bottom of the hoof is the Frog. The Frog compresses every time the horse takes steps and this action results in pumping the blood.

Who knew that horse anatomy could be so interesting!

THE LEGS

The knees on a horse are not quite the same as our knees. The carpal bones in the horses' knees make them more like our wrists. The large joint in the hind legs is called the hock and is kind of the equivalent of one of our ankles.

Just like in people, tendons attach muscle to the bone, cartilage or other tendons and are needed for support and to move the muscles. And just like in people, tendons can get damaged pretty easily if they are strained too much. Just like a football player it can end a horses career or severely limit their usefulness.

Ligaments are what attach a bone to a tendon or one bone to another bone. Just like us, an injured ligament takes a long time to heal. In horse anatomy, there are no muscles anywhere in the lower parts of their legs!

THE MOUTH

Horses are grazing animals and their teeth are specially equipped for grinding. The teeth never stop growing which is important because the horse is constantly wearing them down!

From this pattern of wear on the teeth, veterinarians and experienced horsemen can tell the age of a horse.

THE STOMACH

For such a large animal the horse has a fairly small stomach. It can hold about 4 gallons but it was really meant to function best by eating and digesting small amounts all through the day. The digestive system, which is mostly intestines, is about 100 feet long.

A large percentage of the digestive process takes place in the 65-70 feet that make up the small intestine. After the small intestine comes the cecum or caecum which is about 4 feet long. This is where the fermenting takes place that digests hay, grass and plant fibers. The large and small colons make up the rest of the system along with the rectum.

When is comes to horse anatomy, the very things that enabled them to escape predators and survive for millions of years now gives them the ability to run a race, jump a jump, cut a cow or just look spectacular in our own backyard.


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