Leaping Like Locusts

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One of the peculiar images repeated in Revelations and echoed in the Book of Job is horses described as locusts. They are caparisoned like locusts, and it is intriguing to think that the basic design of horse armor is based on the carapace of insects. They also swarm like locusts, and most importantly to a horse person, they leap like locusts.  People don’t often compare horses to insects, so I became curious about where this all began.

  • “Do you give the horse his might?
  • Do you clothe his neck with a mane?
  •  Do you make him leap like the locust?
  • His majestic snorting is terrifying.
  • He paws in the valley and exults in his strength;
  • He goes out to meet the weapons.
  • He laughs at fear and is not dismayed;
  • he does not turn back from the sword.
  •  Upon him rattle the quiver,
  • the flashing spear, and the javelin.
  • With fierceness and rage he swallows the ground;
  • he cannot stand still at the sound of the trumpet.
  • When the trumpet sounds, he says ‘Aha!’
  • He smells the battle from afar,
  • the thunder of the captains, and the shouting.
  • Job 39-19-25

Once again I was taken to the Iberian and Barb horses whose characteristics include remarkably smooth gaits and tremendous endurance under saddle, a natural flair for collection, and most notably, leaping airs above the ground. Their true story was difficult to come by as when I looked into the history of these horses through English sources, they were sure that the finest of horses originated in Arabia where, unsurprisingly, they had colonies, while the French claimed it was North Africa where they had colonies. The Spanish, on the other hand, claimed their horses sprang directly from the Spanish soil.

Genetic testing is illuminating some of those arguments in a most fascinating way. One study shows that there are numerous maternal lines in horses, indicating that many different groups of horses were domesticated in many different locations. However there it appears that there is much less variety in the male line. The researchers were puzzled by this, but part of horse arcana is knowing that North African and Spanish horse breeders have been infamous for refusing to part with their mares since the dawn of time. Their cavalry consisted of stallions, occasionally geldings, and mules. Breeding stallions were more often acquired as gifts sealing relationships between royal houses than sold.

I would surmise that somewhere in the mists of time there was an exceptional stallion that  could leap like the locust and his sons have spread his traits through out the horse population. This is supported by part of the Arabian horse mythology, as they say that their founding sire was a gift from King Solomon himself, a stallion as fleet as a gazelle.

  • They gave the trumpet call and there came fire and hail.
  • The effigies of the locusts were like horses caparisoned for battle.
  • On their heads were circlets like crowns of spurious gold.
  • Their faces were like men’s faces, but their hair was like women’s hair and their teeth were like the teeth of lions.
  • They had cuirasses like iron cuirasses.
  • The voice of their wings was like the voice of many war-chariots,
  • of many horses galloping into battle.

Gazelles are an interesting choice to compare a horse to as there are faster animals in the area. What gazelles are renowned for is their bouncy gait and ability to spring up into their air with one type  actually being called the springbok, the springing buck. So again, I can also surmise that this stallion was prized for his ability to pass on two vital traits to his offspring:

  • his willingness to work in partnership with humans
  • his ability to spring into the air like a gazelle

Although we know that the oldest images of horses dating back 25,000 years are found in the caves of the Iberian peninsula (click here). it is fairly certain that that stallion had to be born in North Africa because when Tariq and his Berber cavalry conquered Spain in 711 ad, their horses ran circles around the European Knights. Genetic testing in people shows that the Tuareg Berber peoples from Libya throughout the Sahara Desert carry genetic markers that support the hypothesis that they traveled from Iberia to North Africa near the beginning of the Holocene era about 8,500 years ago.

Researchers speculate that the bucolic climate conditions of North Africa during the early Holocene Age when the 1700 year Dryas cold snap had brought cold and drought to Europe were a precipitating factor in their migration. Like the maternal lines of horses, the Tuareg are characterized by village-specific maternal mtDNA lineages. We also know that while horses make up as much as 35% of the bones in prehistoric human food refuse in other areas, in the Iberian region less  than one percent of all bones found in cooking refuse come from horses. Something about the relationship between horses and humans was clearly different here, and among indigenous cultures today it is still common for those who have a particular affinity with an animal to refrain from eating it.

I became interested in the specific conformation behind the horses’ abilities when I got myself embroiled in some of the squabbles that were fragmenting the Spanish Colonial Horse breeders in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. I found myself pointing out that refusing to register the offspring of registered horses on the basis of undefined subjective criteria undermines the credibility of a registry and that  there are fundamental differences between an individual breeding horses and a horse registry. One difference is that breeding may be completely subjective while registries document  objective, ideally factually based, criteria like which horse was sired by a particular stallion and out of a particular mare. This made me extremely unpopular especially when I asked for an objective definition of a mysterious quality called the ”Spanish Hip’ when I found that horses deemed to be lacking it were being refused registration.

There was no factual information to be had, so I decided to see if there was any objective basis at all. My first problem was with the accepted mode of judging the structure of the horses hind end that has people drawing a line from the point of the horses hip bone to the point of their buttock, ignoring the actual hip-joint. Here is a video showing the skeletal complexities of the horse’s hind end:

Although there is now some new research into horse locomotion, at that time I had to go Goubeaux and Barrier’s ‘Exterior of the Horse’, first printed in English in 1892,  to find some guidelines for my search. The book was written when horses were still working animals and the authors’ focus was on the most efficient bio-mechanical structure for the desired task, as horses are really not built to carry weight on their back (click here).

They have no collarbone, so their shoulders are a sling made of muscle and connective tissue  holding up their ribcage and their spine is a long truss that is designed to allow their inner organs to hang down. The only solid  bony connection of the spine is the sacroiliac joint where the spine and pelvis join. So the structure of the hind-leg, the relationship between each of the bones and the angles they make at the joints, has a profound affect on how the horse moves.

According to ‘The Exterior of the Horse’ the hip joints of both draught and race horse hips tend to be greater than 90o or obtuse angles when standing at rest. The hip joint is the spot where the pelvic girdle and the femur meet. It can be approximated by finding the boney protuberance of the greater trochanter on the femur. This spot is important  as it is the point of leverage where large muscles that propel the horse forward attach. At about 22 seconds and again at 1:55 and 4:57 into the following video, you can clearly see the white connective tissue connecting muscle to bone at the point of the hip, the stifle, and the greater trochanter of the femur.

Even more importantly, the relationship of the greater trochanter of the femur to the stifle and point of the hip also indicates the position and focus of the pivot point that the entire body of the horse moves around. Usually the angle between the horse’s stifle and hock, or knee-joint  and ankle, is about the same as the hip, so when they are open angles, that makes the entire hind-limb rather straight. For horses whose primary work is under harness, whether that is fancy trotters pulling carriages or heavy draught horses hauling freight the most efficient hip structure is a steep pelvis from the hip-joint to the point of the hip and a near perpendicular thigh bone.  That enables the horse to push forward against the harness with short strong steps and resist any backward inertia, the hind leg functioning like a ratchet.

A Mongolian horse with a classic 'ratchet' hip

Evidence of the first domesticated Eurasian horses’ use in harness begins to appear around 2000bc .Mongolian horses may be true descendants of these horses and this individual is near perfect example of the ‘ratchet’ hip structure. While the ratchet type of hip tends to result in a rough and bouncy trot, pacing offers a much smoother ride and many Mongolian horses have five gaits.

Race horses need to be able to maximize the length of their stride by folding their hind leg up and reaching well up under themselves at speed as well as extending the hind leg completely out behind with minimal muscular effort. While the near perpendicular thigh bone is also most efficient for  the racing gallop, the pelvis needs to be more horizontal so that the whole hind-leg can swing easily through a full arc like a pendulum. While the modern Thoroughbred often shows the influence of their pony mare ancestors in having a more open hip joint, the Turkomen sires that founded the breed were ‘rectangular’ horses with 90o  hip and shoulder joints.

The Ahkele Teke consistently shows the racing hip structure and its ancient lineage is still thriving in Turkistan, the most likely progenitor of the racing hip in Thoroughbbred is the oldest founding sire the Byerly Turk.

The Ahkele Teke consistently shows the racing hip structure. Genetic research indicates there was a distinct lineage of ancient domesticated horses in the area now called Turkistan. Even though 95% of modern Thoroughbreds are descended from a single sire, the Darley Arabian, they have only a smattering of genes in common with the modern Arab horse. Thoroughbred DNA carries predominately Turkomen and English pony genetic markers and the breed consistently shows the racing hip structure.

Sloping hindquarters became indicative of draft ancestry and rough bouncy gaits while a flat croup became highly desirable in a riding horse bred for speed. Although the Exterior of the Horse dismissed Spanish horses as ‘goose-rumped’ like a draft horse and inefficient at either hauling and racing, at least I knew where I should be looking. So I collected images of Spanish horses from nearly 500 years and over three continents, got out my protractor and my ruler and started drawing lines. Sure enough, there was a consistent and distinctive pattern found in horses of pure African and Iberian descent, as well as a consistent pattern in riding horses that had had an infusion of Spanish blood.

The original Spanish horse does indeed have a pelvis as steep as any draft horse with a slope of 40o. The difference is that when the horse is at rest they have  a 90o angle at both the hip and stifle joint.  This  ‘z’ shape makes the hind legs into springs that can collapse and extend with minimal muscular effort, so it is very easy for the horse to basically squat down and shift the burden to its hindquarters when weight is put on its back.  The efficiency of the Spanish Hip is in its carrying ability, not its pushing force. Even better,  when that spring is uncoiled, the horse with the Spanish Hip easily leaps like the locusts, often spontaneously demonstrating all the varieties of the airs above the ground.

Visually, the horse with a true Spanish Hip appears to have a deep round rear end with the stifle joint directly below the point of the hip. They will  also appear to have a short back. This is a bit of an illusion because what is shorter is the horse’s belly line, as there is less distance between the horse’s elbow in front and its stifle in back. The square horse so desired in baroque dressage has a 90o  angle at both the shoulder and the hip, but the ‘square’ is more of a diamond shape.

A rare example of the springy Spanish hip in a contemporary Andalusian

A rare example of the springy Spanish hip in a contemporary Cartujano Andalusian

What I found when I started looking at the relationships between the hip-joint, pelvis ,and thigh bone was most intriguing, but my grand discovery was met with a resounding silence in the circles of Spanish Colonial Horse breeders. Suddenly the Spanish Hip became a non-issue because it is very rare even among so-called Spanish breeds. I found it consistently in the descendants of the Monty Holbrook, Romero, and Santo Domingo horses,  among the best of the North African Barbs, and occasionally in the Cartujano line of Andalusians. I have hope that the unique hip structure underlying the athleticism of the Iberian horse will bcome more widely recognized and preserved as the Portuguese Lusitano breed standard now includes the most telling and easily discerned trait of the ‘Spanish Hip’ requiring that ‘the thigh…is orientated in such a way that the patella is in the same vertical line as the hip bone’

Because the thigh and gaskin of the Spanish Hip are so much longer than in other types, mixed ancestry often results in conformation faults in the hind legs, as can be seen in many individuals among the remnants of the Spanish Colonial Horses in the USA.  In horses of mixed ancestry with good conformation, like most modern Andalusians, Lipizzaners, and even the occasional European Warmblood, their pelvis is usually a relatively horizontal 35o but both the hip and stifle joints retain the 90o angle. While they do have to make a muscular effort to shift weight towards their hindquarters, their hip and stifle joints can still operate as springs, opening and closing easily within the bio-mechanical limits of the joints.

lippizan stallion

A contemporary Lipizzaner stallion from the Spanish School of Riding in Vienna with a modified Spanish hip. Notice that his withers are higher than his croup and that the hoof of the supporting hind-leg is easily set down directly below the point of his hip. The three major joints in the hind leg are all bent at approximately equal angles.

 I was thrilled when I came across Gerd Hausmann’s recent videos on the failings of modern dressage (click here)for a great video on horse anatomy and bio-mechanics) as he is one of the very few knowledgeable voices speaking out for the horse. As a veterinarian, he deals with the damage to horses that are being shown in disciplines like dressage and reining  that were developed using Iberian horses. He talks about the rear leg functioning as a spring in collected movements and that demanding that of modern horses often forces them to flex their joints beyond the limits of their bone structure. A straight hind leg also means the supporting hoof is further back than the sacroiliac joint, and to add to the poor horse’s difficulty, saddles normally seat the rider as far from the rear end as possible.

Racing hip piafe

The stress from collection is focused on the sacroiliac joint with a pendulum type of hip structure. Like the ratchet hip, the supporting hind foot only reaches as far forward as the hip joint, but the more level pelvis offers less leverage for raising the horse’s body. Because the spinal process on the sacrum are tilted forward and those on the lumbar tilt backward a painful condition called kissing spines occurs when the combination of weight and muscle tension forces the horse’s spine to ‘hollow’ and the spinal processes rub against one another.

Since draft hindquarters function as ratchets and racing hindquarters function as pendulums instead of springs it is sadly no surprise that degenerative issues in the spine, and hocks as well as the suspensory tendons front and rear result when these horses are asked to lower their hindquarters and carry more weight with their back legs.

The ‘warm’ in European Warmblood often comes from carriage horses bred for high flashy leg action, especially in front, and pushing power behind. Edward Gal demonstrates full collection with a ‘ratchet’ type of hip on Mooreland’s Totilas. Comparing the same phase of the same movement with the Lipizzaner above Totilas has to work much harder to accomplish less. Exaggerating the bend in the stifle and hock just to place his hind-foot as far forward as his hip joint increases the stress on his joints and the likelihood of injury.

While I appreciate and support the gains that genetic markers have allowed breeders of Spanish Colonial Horses to make, I would encourage them to select for the distinctive abilities and conformation of the original horse as well as the blood lines. As humans begin to remember and recognize the horse’s original role as guide to our own inner alchemical and spiritual transformation, the physical and mental attributes of the Iberian horse once again become priceless jewels.

Spanish Piaffe

Ruy D’Andrade at eighty on his horse with a true Spanish hip also in the same phase of the piaffe. The withers are higher than the croup, the supporting hind foot is under the cantle of the saddle well forward of the sacroiliac joint and all three joints of the hind-leg are equally bent. All accomplished with a loose rein and the horse’s nose well in front of the vertical. because the bone structure of the hindquarters makes it easy!

An Iberian horse with even a modified Spanish hip structure that retains the 90oangle at the hip looks like this when facing a bull in the ring:


The horse is a similar position to the D’Andrade’s mount above performing the piaffe,  where the actual hip joint, the stifle, and hock joints all close slightly instead of opening. The springy hindquarter then carries the weight of horse and rider easily as it elevates the entire spine without stressing the sacroiliac joint. The horse maintains their stability with the lightest touch of one front hoof on the ground while the other is freely elevated, ready to extend in whatever direction may be required. The horse’s front end is free to respond to the slightest shift from either rider or bull in a situation where micro-seconds make a difference.  Since the horse’s joints and back work well within in their bio-mechanical limits, the wear and tear on the horse’s body is also minimized.  Dressage training translates to the working arena without a hitch when the horse has the Spanish hip.

Despite the American Quarter Horse Association’s acknowledgement of the Spanish mares that founded the breed, they have selected for the more open (100o-110o) angle of hip joint found in the pendulum and ratchet types of hips.  When AQHA cutting horses settle on to their back end while working cattle that open hip structure ends up looking like this:


Lindy Wells on her champion American Cutting Horse

A horse with the open type of hip joint  has to close the hip drastically, from an open angle of 100o-110o to an extremely acute angle, of 45o-50o,  while the stifle stays open, and the hock straightens out. The horse’s top line remains level while the sacroiliac joint behind the saddle bends notably. The strain on the horse in this position includes the over-burdened forehand as the horse prepares to spin and block the cow.  The knee of the stabilizing front leg is appears nearly convex, while the hoof of the mobile leg is still on the ground despite the horse’s effort to bend the shoulder, elbow, and knee joints.

Although the AQHA cutting horse may be able to manage the slower, heavy bodied, short (or no) horned, and relatively placid cattle bred in the USA for meat, the agile, long-horned, and aggressive fighting bulls from Spain require every advantage the horse and rider can leverage. The Iberian horse and rider are more likely to leave these encounters unscathed as they can take maximum action with minimal effort. Perhaps even more important to consider is that an AQHA cutting horse’s working life peaks at 3 year old futurities with back and joint injuries a given, while an Iberian bullfighting horse may work well into their teens and remain sound into their old age.

While I appreciate and support the gains that genetic markers have allowed breeders of Spanish Colonial Horses to make, I would encourage them and all breeders of Iberian and Barb horses to select for the distinctive abilities and conformation of the original horse as well as the bloodlines. As humans begin to remember and recognize the horse’s original role as guide to our own inner alchemical and spiritual transformation, the physical and mental attributes of the Iberian horse once again become priceless jewels.

And here is classical horseman JP Giacomini on the exceptional Lusitano stallion Bicanço along with several other horses demonstrating piaffe and passage.

A timeline for the peoples of the Horse Clan and their Leaping Horses looks something like this:

  • 30,000 bc people painted horses in the caves of Iberia
  •   8,500 bc Iberian horses and people migrated to North Africa due to climate change,
  •   5,000 bc an exceptional stallion is born to the horse people, who then begin to ride their horses, and trade the colts.
  •      200 bc  The Numidians are the finest light horse cavalry ever seen. They ride with only a neck rope, their weapons  are a javelin, and a short sword with a small round shield for protection
  • 40-44 ad St. James, the Patron Saint of Spain and Equestrians, sets the foundations for the Way of St James
  •  65-95 ad Revelations is recorded for posterity
  •    400 ad Revelations is included in the official cannon of the Catholic church, although it was and is contested material.
  •     711 ad Tariq and his Berber light cavalry conquer Spain. Crossing the distantly related Spanish and Berber horses over the next 800 years produces exceptional animals
  • 1200 ad Wolfram writes Parzival whose initiatory journey is guided by his Castillian Grail Horse
  •  1458  ad Pope Calixtus III was troubled enough to forbid the Spanish locals their rites in caves that were painted with horses
  •    1,500 ad Iberian horses and people arrive in the Americas
  •    1,800 ad the Horse Tribes of the North American Plains are described as the finest light horse cavalry ever seen. Some use Spanish saddles and bridles, most  ride with no tack carrying a small round shield and hand weapons, uncannily much like the Numidians

(click  for next in history and mythology or  for more on how horse anatomy affects performance under saddle




11 thoughts on “Leaping Like Locusts

  1. Very awesome! I have a critically endangered ancient Spanish horse breed that was found segregated high up in the mountains of Utah, 40 miles away from the old Spanish trail that their ancestors were herded up on from the missions in San Diego. We call them California Vaquero Horses to honor their heritage and history. California Bridle riding style and tack was developed off their backs. It is a breed standard to have a D shaped hip. My 2 1/2 year old stud colt (soon to be stallion) leaps like a locust with ease and for fun. I’d love to send you his video and pictures so you can see him move. A 1997 peer reviewed genetic article was written about 118 horses that were tested out of 256. The results were only Spanish ancestry with trace amounts of the ancient Iberian Garrano pony. I’ve never seen a horde breed that looks even remotely similar to them. They look like they are from another time.

  2. Pingback: Welcome to the 2013 November Blog Carnival of Horses | EQUINE Ink

  3. I just note in the biblical quote, it speaks of “thou cloth his neck with thunder” in the King James version. I think that refers to the distant sound of thunder made when a horse shakes his neck. The ancients worshipped the horse because of the connection with “thunder”.

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