General posture

The horse's general posture is usually referred to in ridden terms as its 'frame' or 'outline'. However there are also dynamic elements, referred to as its 'movement' and 'way of going'.

Posture is to a large extent pre-determined by the horse's static conformation, but can also be affected by:
  • training
  • rider effect
  • the external environment
  • internal state (eg fear)
  • physiological aspects ( eg pain)

Some interesting observations by Deb Bennett about posture here.

Some different ridden horse postures:

Long and Low

In this posture the horse stretches its head and neck down and out towards the ground. The outline of the spine (topline) gives a slightly rounded (convex) and extended appearance .

The horse in this clip shows some work in a long, low position, but is not consistent in its frame: it occasionally draws the head up and hollows the topline, and seems to be unsure about what is required (maybe someone can translate?!)

An interesting discussion of Long and Low here.

Round and Deep

In this frame, the horse stretches its head and neck towards its lower body. The topline is round (convex) and moderately compact.

Neck flexion is primarily at the third vertebra and the face is behind the vertical.

Watch minutes 1.00 - 3.00 in this video to see a horse being warmed up in a round and deep posture.


This is a position of extreme flexion. The head and neck are drawn towards the horse's chest.

The overall frame is very compact, and the neck is flexed at the third vertebra. The face is behind the vertical.

Inverted posture

This horse tends to work in an inverted (hollow) outlne. The overall frame is quite short, but the topline gives a concave impression.

This is sometimes referred to as 'above the bit'.

Novice frame

A horse working in a relaxed novice frame: the topline is round, the poll (1st cervical vertebra) is the highest point, and the horse's face is mostly in front of the vertical.

Advanced Frame

Compared to the Novice horse, the posture is more 'uphill': the forehand is lighter and the hindlegs stepping under the body more. The overall frame is more compact.

The poll is still the highest point, but the face is is closer to the vertical.

Some interesting observations about posture in relation to self-carriage here, also the source of the following diagram to illustrate muscles used by the horse to retain its dynamic posture.


The Ears

Ear movements in the ridden horse can indicate issues directly related to the ears themselves such as:

  • poor fitting tack (e.g. tight browband)
  • irritation due to flies / midges / water
  • internal irritation (e.g. due to infection or abscess)

In the absence of any of the above, ear positions generally reflect the horse's internal state, and ear movements can provide really useful feedback to both the rider and observers on the ground.

Ears Pricked

Pricked ears usually indicate that the horse is alert and attentive, but not necessarily to stimuli provided by the rider! The ears may move around, and this behaviour is often accompanied by a high neck carriage. This is not always helpful for competitive riding, hence use of ear plugs in horses over sensitive to noise.

Ears pinned back (pain)

Pinned back ears can indicate fear, pain or aggression. Other body signs need to be considered as well in order to distinguish between these.

The horse in this clip is suffering from abdominal pain (ridden here for diagnostic purposes ).
Ears pinned back (fear)

Ears pinned back in a horse showing fear following introduction of a rider.
Ears to the side

Ears to the side usually indicate that the horse is relaxed.

Note the softly mobile ears in this clip: the ears appear to be 'flicking backwards' towards the rider, which is a sign of relaxation and attention.

One ear back

This usually indicates that the horse is listening: if the inside ear is back this may indicate that the horse is 'listening' to the rider.

Note this horse's inside ear moving back as the rider prepares him for the upward transition.


Happy ears!

This horse's ears show both relaxation and attention to the rider: the harmony we all aspire to!
Engaged ears!

This is superb footage of a horse's ears during a Cross Country round. .This horse clearly loves his work and is really tuned in to his rider. A whole range of movements are displayed, If you don't have time to watch it all, skip to 10.00 for an explanation of the ear movements.


The Mouth

The mouth (and tongue) is arguably the individul body part which gives most information about the ridden horse's internal state. However, interpreting the observable signs of mouth issues can be complex, as the problem may be in the mouth itself, or could be a reflection of issues elsewhere.

Problems with the mouth itself may include:

  • physical pain (eg dental issues)
  • tack issues (bits, nosebands etc)
  • conformation issues (eg large fleshy tongue in relatively small mouth)
  • training / rider issues (poor contact)

Mouth issues may also reflect the following:
  • pain elsewhere in the body
  • training issues (tension / lack of engagement / submission)

Mouth issues are heavily penalised in Dressage horses as they reflect lack of submission.

Tongue hanging out

The infamous 'blue tongue' video of a horse with its tongue hanging out. In tis instance the horse's tonguw was trapped between the two bits of the double bridle.

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The Eyes

Any obvious change in the eye itself is likely to have a medical cause.

When assessing the ridden horse's eyes we are actually looking at the effect of facial tension (or lack of) affecting the skin around the eyes.

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The Nose

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The Tail

As an extension of the spine, the action of the tail is usually linked to general posture. However because of the increased mobility and long hair, tails can be extremely expressive!

In a happy ridden horse, the tail should be softly carried with a gentle swing. Other tail actions often indicate physical pain, particulalry back tails. Other causes of abnormal tail carrriage include:

  • external irritation (eg flies)
  • tension
  • anger
  • excitement

Some horses do display excessive tail movement in the absence of any other behavioural signs of stress, so like any other body part, the tail alone cannot really indicate the horse's internal state.

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