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Equine Leg Anatomy: Understanding Key Parts and Common Defects

Equine leg anatomy is a crucial area of study for any horse owner or equine professional. The legs are responsible for supporting the horse’s weight, propelling it forward, and performing a variety of other tasks, making them a vital part of the animal’s overall health and well-being.

Key parts and terminology

The equine leg can be divided into several key parts, each with its own specific terminology. At the top of the leg is the stifle joint, which is analogous to the human knee.

Below the stifle joint lies the knee or carpus, followed by the cannon bone and fetlock joint, which are similar to the human ankle. The pastern joint connects the fetlock joint to the hoof, which comprises the bottom portion of the leg.

Tendons and ligaments run throughout the leg, connecting the various parts and providing support and stability.

Differences between front and hind legs

While the basic anatomy of the front and hind legs is similar, there are some notable differences. The front legs are designed for weight-bearing and stability, with a thick scapula bone connecting to a sturdy humerus bone.

The radius and ulna bones run parallel to each other, with the carpus joint connecting them to the cannon bone.

The hind legs, on the other hand, are designed for power and propulsion.

They are attached to the pelvis via a muscular femur bone, and the patella bone provides additional leverage when the horse is in motion. The tibia and fibula bones are fused together to form a single bone, while the hock joint (analogous to the human ankle) provides flexibility and range of motion.

Leg conformation

The proper conformation of the equine leg is critical for the animal’s health and performance. Horses with correct leg angles are less prone to stress and force-related injuries, and they are more likely to maintain straightness in their movement.

Conversely, horses with conformation defects such as toed in or toed out, tied in at the knee, knock-kneed, bow-legged, over in the knee, back at the knee, sickle hocked, straight hocked, cow hocked, or long toe-low heel may be more prone to injuries and movement issues.

Importance of correct angles

Correct leg angles are essential for the horse’s comfort and longevity. Horses with too steep a slope in their pasterns (known as “long-toe, low-heel” conformation) may suffer from strain on their ligaments and tendons, which can lead to chronic pain and lameness.

Conversely, horses with too shallow a slope (known as “club foot” conformation) may also experience pain and discomfort over time. The angle of the hock joint is also critical, with horses that have sickle hocks or straight hocks being more prone to injury and reduced performance.

Common conformation defects

Toed-in horses may experience a greater degree of stress and torque on their joints, leading to a higher risk of injuries such as sprained ligaments and tendons. Toed-out horses may have a similar issue, with the added risk of interference injuries (where the horse’s feet collide with each other).

Horses that are tied in at the knee (also known as “buck-kneed”) may be more prone to knee injuries, while horses that are knock-kneed may experience issues with their gait and movement. Bow-legged horses may experience stress on their fetlock joint, leading to chronic pain and a reduced range of motion.

Horses that are over at the knee may be at an increased risk of buckling and falling, while horses that are back at the knee may struggle with straightness in their movement. Sickle hocked horses may experience pain and discomfort in their hocks due to the increased angle, while straight hocked horses may be more prone to strain on their hock joint due to reduced flexibility.

Finally, cow-hocked horses may experience a reduced range of motion and are more prone to interference injuries.


In summary, understanding equine leg anatomy and conformation is critical for any horse owner or equine professional. The legs are responsible for supporting the horse’s weight, propelling it forward, and performing a variety of other tasks, making them a vital part of the animal’s overall health and well-being.

By studying key terminology and understanding the differences between front and hind legs, horse owners can make more informed decisions about their animal’s care and training. Correct leg angles are critical for ensuring the horse’s comfort and longevity, while conformation defects can lead to injuries and reduced performance over time.

By staying informed and vigilant about proper leg care and maintenance, horse owners can help their animals stay healthy and strong for years to come. Soundness issues related to the horse’s legs are common in equine athletes and can arise from a variety of causes.

Understanding the causes, symptoms, and treatment options for common leg conditions is critical for any horse owner looking to maintain their animal’s health and performance.

Bowed tendon

A bowed tendon refers to inflammation of either the superficial digital flexor tendon or deep digital flexor tendon in the horse’s leg. It can be caused by a variety of factors, including overexertion, poor footing, and poor conditioning.

Symptoms of a bowed tendon include heat, swelling, and lameness in the affected leg. Treatment typically involves rest, cold therapy, and rehab exercises to gradually increase the horse’s strength and flexibility.


A splint occurs when one of the long, skinny bones in the horse’s leg becomes inflamed and swollen. This condition is most common in young horses, but it can occur in horses of any age.

Symptoms of a splint include swelling and soreness in the affected area, and while it typically does not cause lameness, it can be a cosmetic issue in some cases. Treatment typically involves rest and cold therapy to reduce inflammation, although in severe cases, surgery may be required to remove the affected bone.

Locking stifle

A locking stifle occurs when the patella bone in the horse’s hind leg gets stuck in place, causing the horse to have difficulty extending its leg. This condition is most common in horses with weak medial patella ligaments or poor hind limb conformation.

Symptoms of a locking stifle include a clicking or locking noise when the horse’s leg is extended, and in severe cases, the horse may have difficulty standing or walking. Treatment typically involves rest and rehab exercises to improve strength and flexibility, although in some cases, surgery may be required to correct the problem.

Leg care

Preventing leg injuries in horses is key to keeping them sound and healthy. Protective measures such as sport boots, splint boots, and polo wraps can help cushion and support the horse’s legs during training and competition.

Proper conditioning and footing are also critical in reducing the risk of injury. In cases where a leg injury does occur, prompt diagnosis and treatment are key.

Support wraps, ice boots, and liniments are commonly used to reduce inflammation and pain in the affected area. Poultices and clays can also be used to draw out heat and inflammation from the leg.

Rest and controlled exercise are critical in allowing the horse’s leg to heal properly. In some cases, shockwave therapy, cold laser therapy, infrared light therapy, and PEMF may be used to promote healing and reduce pain.

In summary, soundness issues related to the horse’s legs are common and can arise from a variety of causes. Understanding the symptoms, causes, and treatment options for common leg conditions can help horse owners keep their animals healthy and performing at their best.

Prevention measures such as protective gear and proper conditioning are critical in reducing the risk of injury, while prompt diagnosis and treatment can help horses heal properly and quickly. As an equine owner, understanding the terminology related to horse legs and gaits can be daunting.

Here are some frequently asked questions about horse leg anatomy and gaits to help clarify some common queries.

Horse leg terminology

Q: What is the difference between forelimbs and hind limbs in horses? A: Forelimbs refer to the horse’s front legs, while hind limbs refer to the back legs.

The legs of the horse have distinct differences in structure based on their location in the body. Q: What are some common terms used when describing the different parts of a horse’s leg?

A: Some of the common terms used when describing the different parts of a horse’s leg include the stifle joint (analogous to the human knee), knee (or carpus), cannon bone, fetlock joint, pastern, and hoof. Q: What are tendons and ligaments, and what role do they play in horse leg anatomy?

A: Tendons and ligaments are fibrous tissues that connect various parts of the horse’s leg. Tendons attach muscles to bones, while ligaments connect bones to other bones.

Tendons and ligaments provide support and stability to the leg.

Horse gaits

Q: What are the major gaits of the horse? A: There are four major gaits of the horse: walk, trot, canter, and gallop.

The horse may also perform additional variations of these gaits, such as the extended trot or collected canter. Q: What is a walk gait?

A: The walk gait is the slowest of the four major gaits, with the horse moving forward with a four-beat pattern. During the walk gait, the horse’s front and hind legs move in a diagonal pattern.

Q: What is a trot gait? A: The trot gait is a two-beat gait where the horse’s diagonal pairs of legs move in unison.

The trot is faster than the walk gait, and many horses are trained to collect or extend their trot for various activities like dressage and jumping. Q: What is a canter gait?

A: The canter gait is a three-beat gait that is faster than the trot but slower than the gallop. During the canter, the horse’s hind legs step under the body, and the front legs reach forward.

The horse may lead with their left or right leg, resulting in two variations of the canter gait- the right lead, and the left lead. Q: What is a gallop gait?

A: The gallop is the fastest gait of the horse, with the horse moving forward with a four-beat pattern. During the gallop, the horse’s hind legs push off the ground, propelling them forward with speed and power.

In summary, the horse’s leg anatomy and gaits are critical components that every equine owner should understand. Horse legs have distinct differences between their forelimbs and hind limbs, and several parts, including the stifle joint, knee, cannon bone, fetlock joint, and pastern.

Tendons and ligaments provide stability to the leg. There are four major gaits of the horse, including the walk, trot, canter, and gallop.

Understandably, each gait has specific characteristics that make them unique, and learning them can aid in the proper care and training of your horse. In conclusion, horse leg anatomy and gait are important components for any equine owner to understand properly.

The horse’s leg has different parts, the forelimbs and hind limbs with specific unique features. Proper understanding of leg anatomy through prevention measures such as protective gear, conditioning, and prompt diagnosis and treatment of common leg conditions can keep horses healthy and performing their best.

The four key horse gaits are the walk, trot, canter, and gallop, and each has peculiar features. Key FAQs related to horse leg anatomy include understanding forelimbs and hind limbs, common terms that describe the horse leg, the four major gaits, and variations of each.

Understanding these topics will help keep equine athletes safe and healthy, which is vital for performance and a happy life.

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