Bob Avila: How to Spot Balance in a Horse

Learn how to spot balance in a horse--and how it can affect athleticism.
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Learn how to spot balance in a horse--and how it can affect athleticism.

If you're shopping for a performance prospect (or any horse), up your odds for success by choosing one that's balanced. What do I mean by that? I mean all his parts and pieces fit together like a jigsaw puzzle, resulting in an overall picture that exudes athleticism. It's simple: Balance and athleticism go hand-in-hand.

After all, regardless of what you do with your horse, be it trail riding, reining, or riding the rail, athleticism will make his job easier for him... and thus for you. When his job is easy, he's less likely to resent it, and more likely to stay sound.

To learn more from Champion Western horseman Bob Avila, download a FREE guide?Perfecting the Lope: Champion Western Horseman Bob Avila on How to Train a Horse to Counter-Canter and Change Leads While Loping.??

So how do you spot balance? I'll show you here. I'm going to present three different horses, each showing varying degrees of balance. I'll explain what I look for from a conformation standpoint, then I'll show each at the lope. I call that the "money gait"--it tells you right away about a horse's balance and athleticism (or lack therein). Ready? Let's roll.

Horse #1
1A. This young stallion has the "X factor," the kind of look that makes you go "Wow!" No small part of that is due to his exceptional balance; this horse looks like an athlete. If you were to divide his body into three parts (head and neck, shoulder
to flank, and from the flank back), they all fit and blend together beautifully.

| Photos by Cappy Jackson

| Photos by Cappy Jackson

His gorgeous head flows into a long, well-shaped neck that ties high into his chest with clear definition. Despite the fact he's lifted his head in response to our "ears up!" request for this photo, you can see how level his neck comes out of his withers. That'll make it easy for him to have the flat-necked topline that makes balance natural when he's moving, too. (My rule of thumb? Low neck equals high back,which means that collection,which requires raising and rounding the back, will be easy for him.)

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He has a short, strong back that ties smoothly into a strong loin and a strong, long hip. Adding to the picture of balance is the fact his shoulder and hip match in length and proper angle, giving him the drive (from his hind end) and reach (from his front end)
necessary for the kind of flat-kneed, sweepy movement and athleticism that wins.

His hocks are low to the ground and directly beneath the point of his hip, rather than positioned out behind him. (Drop an imaginary line from his point of hip, down his hock and cannon bone--it's perfectly straight and correct.) When a horse's hind legs are built like this, it translates into power: It's easy for him to reach beneath his body and propel himself forward, or to sit down over his hind end for stops and turns. A horse whose hocks are camped out behind him has trouble reaching beneath his body, making everything harder for him than for a horse like this.

1B. Balance in action! If you thought this horse looked athletic standing still, just look at him here. Talk about athleticism! His off (left) legs are suspended in the air and nearly touching, and his right front leg is reaching out in response to the thrust from his powerful hind end. He's floating across the ground.

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You can see how easy collection (look how round and elevated his back is) and athletic maneuvers will be for this horse. He could instantly sit down over his hind end for a pluspoint stop or rollback. And when a horse is this balanced and can reach beneath his body with his hind legs like this, lead changes are easy for him. This, my friends, is why I'm all about balance.

Horse #2
2A.
Compare this roan mare to Horse #1. No contest. To me, she's "just a horse," meaning she's average in her build. Her neck ties into her withers fairly level, but is shorter and lacks the shape of the young stallion's. She has a nice shoulder and wither, but a long-ish back, which, coupled with her short neck, makes her less balanced than Horse #1. (It'll also make collection harder for her.)

Her hip has good length, but look at her hocks; they trail out behind her a bit. (They poke out behind that imaginary straight line dropping down from her point of hip.) That will make it harder for her to reach beneath her body with her hind legs, for maximum power, collection and athleticism.

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2B. I rest my case. Sure this mare is capable of doing her job, but it's not as easy for her as it is for the stallion (something
her expression tells you!). She lacks the drive and reach of that horse (look at the distance between her off hind legs compared to his). That's because her back is longer and her hocks are farther out behind her. Good riding and training can help her, but she's just not as balanced--and athletic--as Horse #1.

Horse #3
3A.
Now compare this mare to Horse #1. What a difference! She looks like three different horses stuck together. While I like her kind, soft eye, her neck ties low into her chest and has no definition. The fact that it's heavy on the underside means she's going to be naturally high-headed.

To me, a high neck equals a low back, which makes collection (and balance and athleticism) hard for a horse. That kind of neck tie-in also blocks shoulder reach; her straight, short shoulder won't help it, either.

She has a l-o-n-g back, and a hip that lacks the length she'll need for power. And look at her hocks; they're lagging out behind her hind end. I know from experience that a good brain, a great heart and trainability can help some horses with less than ideal builds overcome their deficiencies and be standout performers. But you can see that this mare is going to have a harder time doing anything athletic than the other two horses here. She's just not built for it.

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3B. This is a lack of balance in action. I'm helping this mare every way I can, and she's trying for me, but you can tell it's not easy. She and Horse #1 are in the exact same phase of their lope strides. But her long back and drag-y hocks make it impossible for her to round her back and compress her body like a coiled spring, as the young stallion has. Look at the distance between her off legs compared to his! His right front leg has so much reach it's still suspended, while hers is already slapping
the ground.

Look, too, at how soft his expression and my contact are. He doesn't need to lean on the bit to balance, because his conformation makes balance natural to him. She, however, is leaning on the bit in an attempt to hold herself up. If I were to let go, she'd tumble onto her over-weighted front end.

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Everything is a struggle for her. And when it's like that, even the bestminded horse can become resentful over time. Soundness, too, can suffer. That's why, when shopping for an athlete, stack the odds in your favor. Buy balance!

Bob Avila's contributions to the Quarter Horse industry were recognized in 1996, when he was named the AQHA Professional Horseman of the Year. In June 2006, Bob took both All-Around Stock Horse Champion and reserve champion honors at the Magnificent 7 competition at the Western States Horse Expo, which features seven of the world's most skilled horsemen. His Avila Training Stables, Inc., is located in Temecula, Calif. He is a member of Team Horse & Rider.

This article originally appeared in the May 2007 issue of Horse & Rider magazine.