Downhill Balance: The Bottom Line on the Topline

This horse demonstrates downhill conformation, which can appear in any
breed, but which is particularly common among the stock horse breeds.
            Many growing horses, especially those in the stock horse breeds, go through phases where the top of the croup is taller than the highest point of the withers. In many cases, the front end eventually catches up, but when this build persists into adulthood, it is generally considered a conformation fault. Variously termed as being “downhill”, “bum high” or having “downhill balance”, such horses are said to be more prone to front end lameness and back problems, as well as to have more difficulty performing athletic endeavors.  However, there is little in the way of scientific evidence to support the assertion of increased lameness risk, and some argue that downhill balance is not a fault at all. 
There is even the perception in some circles that downhill balance can be an advantage, particularly in a cutting horse, and it is a fact that some top cutting and reining horse sires have a markedly downhill build.  Still, most equine professionals prefer a horse that is at least level if not actually uphill – even a cutting horse.  Says Jerry Black, DVM, a veterinarian and cutting horse competitor in Oakdale, CA, “The cutting horse has to work low to the ground, so he should not be built with ‘downhill’ conformation. The horse has to drop his hip, with sufficient strength in his back, loin, hip, and stifle to stop hard. If the hip is higher than the withers, there's a lot of pressure placed on the loin during the stop, so the horse can't get as good a set into the stop, or get as deep into the stop.”
Top Reining horse trainer Shawna Sapergia of Airdre, AB, agrees, but points out that every individual is different. “My preference is a horse that has a really good wither that comes back quite a ways on their back, a really balanced topline and a good angle to the shoulder. I just feel that such horses can handle themselves as good or better than a downhill horse, but it really does depend on the individual’s athleticism. I’ve seen some horses that are conformationally really good in terms of what I would like to see, but they just don’t have the athleticism or the desire to do it, and then you have other horses that conformationally you don’t think they should they be able to do anything, and they have so much heart and try that they’ll outperform many that are built better. For me though, when I’m picking horses to breed to, I’m really looking for that wither and that topline to cross on.”
Asked why she doesn’t like a downhill build, Shawna says, “When horses are built downhill, you can definitely feel a difference in how they travel and how they carry themselves. You have to work a lot harder when you’re riding them to get them to drive up underneath themselves with their hind end and keep their shoulders elevated. They want to naturally travel heavier on the forehand, and they tend to fall in. That comes across the whole board with the spins and the stopping and circling and everything else. It’s something that you’re constantly working on to remind them to use their backs more, which in turn is probably going to cause more strain in their backs.  It’s just generally harder for these horses to do what they need to do.
“As for the cutting horses, I don’t think it helps them at all to be built downhill. Again, things can vary a lot depending on the individual and their athleticism, but I think a horse that is more balanced and has a better wither and shoulder line is going to be as handy or handier in a cutting situation than a downhill horse. If you think about it being downhill, and they’re crouching even lower with their front end, they really, really have to use their backs hard to maintain their balance.”
One would naturally assume that if a downhill horse has to use its back in such a way, it would be more prone to back problems, but that does not seem to be born out by clinical observation. Says Dr. Antonio Cruz, DVM, MVM, MSc, DrMedVet, DACVS, DECVS, of Paton and Martin Veterinary Services, in Aldergrove, BC, “Many Quarter Horses are built that way, and that happens through a selection process. The selection process would have dictated that if those horses get sore, they probably would have been weeded out. It’s not like we see back problems coming out the wazoo in Quarter Horses. If that conformation was predisposing them to that, you would probably would start to see many more back problems.”
What is seen very commonly in downhill horses is lameness of the front feet and limbs, but as Dr. Cruz points out, this may have nothing to do with their being downhill. “It just happens that those downhill horses often have other risk factors for forelimb lameness, like small feet, low heels, long toes, so, what is worse? It is very difficult to separate them and say what is causing the problem. Intuitively, you would think that if a horse has downhill conformation, it has much more of its weight on the front limbs, but nobody is really showing that. Just because I see a horse is downhill, I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s going to have a forelimb problem. If I see a horse with the other risk factors I would say yes, most likely the horse will have a forefoot problem.”
Mike Scott, DVM, DACVS, partner and surgeon at Moore & Company Veterinary Services, in Calgary, concurs with Dr. Cruz, stating, “Intuitively, if you think about a horse that’s bum high, he’s going to seem to be heavier on his forehand, and ultimately, you would conclude that he’s going to stress his front feet and joints more than if he came balanced between his front end and his hind end. But, do we actually see that in practice? I agree with the concept, but I don’t really know if it’s true. I see lots of Quarter Horses in my practice, and probably 65% of their lameness issues are in the front foot or the fetlock. But that’s whether they’re bum high or not, so I can’t say that there is an obvious trend.”
So what is the bottom line on the topline? We may never know, but as with most things, it’s probably wise to avoid extremes and aim for a horse with a build that makes it as easy as possible form him to do the job you want him to do.

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