Revisiting The Exterior of the Horse

When I first began looking into how horses moved in the late 1970’s, the one authority I could find was ‘The Exterior of the Horse’. The tome was rare even then, so I had to borrow it from the Library of Congress through the inter-library loan program. Since I could only keep the book for a few weeks, I copied the most relevant pages and hauled them around for the next few decades.

When I discovered that the book had recently been reissued by Andesite Press, I was thrilled. I finally had access to the whole volume and it would be mine to do as I pleased with. When I opened my copy, I was not so thrilled. The volume itself is about 6×9, but the pages have wide margins all around which means the original has been reduced to somewhat blurry 3×5 images of miniscule print.

The back page blurb does explain that Andesite Press prints reproductions of historical works that are now in the public domain and scholars have selected because they are culturally important documents. These books helped form part of the knowledge base of civilization as we know it. Since they are historical artifacts, the books are reproduced as is, with errant marks, blurred and/or missing pages and poor pictures.

The Exterior of the Horse was first translated into English and published in the USA in 1892. The French authors, considered themselves to be building on the work of Bourgelat, who published his book on the external form of the horse in 1768, six years after veterinary schools were first founded in Europe. Goubaux and Barrier define their field as ‘zootechinics’, an applied science that requires a certain knowledge of equine anatomy, physiology, and pathology in order for an individual to become able to consider the characteristics of an individual horse according to their ‘mechanized aptitudes’ and so discern his commercial value.

Since I had not copied the rather long-winded explanations and defenses of why the authors were presenting the information in their book in a specific way, I had forgotten what a lengthy slog it was to get to the good stuff. When I finally got started rereading it, I also realized that the prose is somewhat pedantic and dated. Those of you who are of a scholarly bent might enjoy digging through the full manuscript. For those who just want a pragmatic explanation, I‘ve decided to offer a synopsis of the principles of ‘zootechnics’.

Since our horses now are generally luxuries, not essentials, we owe it all the more to our equine partners to concern ourselves with selecting horses for more than just their superficial appearance.. Even the American Quarter Association and the Arabian Horse Association now limit halter classes to horses who have demonstrated they can be ridden by being entered into performance classes. Learning how horses are put together so that they can accomplish what we ask of them with minimum harm to themselves and maximum efficiency is essential to humane horsemanship.

Goubaux and Barrier explain that they deduced or confirmed the principles of ‘a judicious appreciation’ of the moral and physical qualities of the horse for certain types of work based on their personal careful research. Their ‘zootechnics’ offers a very different approach from either veterinary pathologists who look for what is wrong after an issue arises or breeders and trainers of the competitive horse industry, who produce horses that sell young rather than horses that stay sound over the long term. Although there has likely been more research into equine biomechanics in the last five years than in the previous 130, those studies still tend to be focused on pathologies, not beauties. Zootechnics is defined through the reciprocal fitness of the all parts of a horse for the work that they are required to do. In order to answer those questions, Goubaux and Barrier divided the horse into three functional regions, the head and neck, the body, and the limbs.

  • The bones of the head and neck consist of the skull, the jaw, the hyoid bone, and the seven cervical vertebrae.
  • The bones of the body consist of the thoracic and lumbar vertebrae, the ribs, and the sternum

Goubaux and Barrier define the horse’s limbs as ‘broken columns articulated from space to space, (that) support the body and, by their movements, transport the whole from place to place. The limbs may be further defined by their position, form and function into pairs of fore and hind limbs. According to Goubaux and Barrier, the horse’s limbs may also be considered in light of their harmonious and reciprocal movements We have now learned that whether a horse is laterally or diagonally coordinated is dictated more by genetics than by the form of their limbs.

  • The bones of the forelimbs consist of the shoulder blade, the humerus, the forearm, the knee, the cannon bones, and the bones of the pastern, fetlock and hoof.
  • The function of the forelimbs is ‘to resist the forces of gravity’ by elevating the horse’s mass while moving forward and they carry roughly 60% of the weight in all quadrupeds including the horse
  • The bones of the hindlimbs consist of the sacrum- including the lumbosacral and sacroiliac joints, the pelvis-including the illium, ischium and hip joint, the femur, the stifle-including the patella, the gaskin, the hock, the cannon bones, the bones of the pastern, fetlock and hoof.
  • The function of the hind limbs is to drive the horse’s mass forward horizontally

Zootechnic equine beauty is dynamic. Some beauties are absolutes, required for all horses to be healthy and sound. Other beauties are considered relative, varying depending on what sort of specialized work is demanded of a horse. Goubaux and Barrier separated horses into two major types according to how we humans want to use them:

  • Harness horses are selected to drag our human contraptions behind them- whether that be plows or carriages
  • Horses are selected to carry riders on their back.

They then differentiated between types selected for speed, those selected for strength and those selected for show. Easily recognizable modern examples of the three types of harness horses would be:

  • Standardbreds selected for racing speeds at the trot or pace
  • Clydesdales and other heavy draft horses selected to haul heavy loads at slow speeds
  • Hackneys selected for high flashy action

. Easily recognizable modern examples of the three types of riding horses would include:

  • Thoroughbreds, selected for speed on the flat carrying minimal weight
  • Endurance horses, selected for their ability to cover long distances while carrying up 25% of their own weight on their back
  • Sport and Show Horses, selected for specific types of eye-catching movement and appearance in the show ring

Over the next few weeks, I will be adding posts to the appropriate guides on Goubaux and Barriers ‘zootechnics’ of the hindquarters and the forelimbs. Since my focus is riding not harness horses, I will be also be adding posts on how biomechanically Square Horses, Rectangular Horses or Gallopers and Trotters function and what enables a horse to carry weight on their backs without injury. It will help if you can keep the difference between absolute and relative beauties in mind as you read those posts.

  • In order to define an absolute equine beauty, zootechnics first asks what do the specific parts of the horse actually do.
  • In order to define a relative equine beauty, zootechnics then asks how do the specific proportions and relationships of those parts of the horse affect their ability to perform the work we humans ask of them.

I was alerted to the existence of the Exterior of the Horse by Dr. James R. Rooney DVM, Professor Emeritus’s reference to the Exterior of the Horse in the first edition of his book, The Lame Horse’. His work laid the ground work for a great deal of research into the neuro-physiology of the horse that has not been integrated into the rather hidebound traditions of the profit driven horse industry. Dr. Rooney defined himself as an advocate for the horse, so I am also doing my best to integrate a pragmatic understanding of his insights into how a horse moves into these posts.

Those who have questions about how the information in these posts can be pragmatically applied to schooling their horses can find detailed descriptions and instructions in my horse training series, Light in the Saddle. Those want to discuss the implication of these posts on work under saddle are welcome to join my Facebook group aimed at trainers and serious riders, The Isometric Rider.


One thought on “Revisiting The Exterior of the Horse

  1. When I tried the horse I have now I felt he was purpose built for the discipline of dressage. He is short coupled with a strong hind end and good shoulders and neck. He is now 17 and still going well. Better than his rider is in fact.

    Liked by 1 person

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