Equine 101: Anatomy Part 1: Parts of the Body

I told you we were going back to basics last week and here we are.  What better way than to start with the basic foundation of the horse.  The horse’s BODY!

To begin we’ll only discuss the outer body parts and major areas.  In the next few weeks I’ll dive deeper into skeletal, muscular, digestive, etc.

Although it seems pretty basic…head…tail…hoof.  It’s vital to really understand how a horse works and the purpose of their systems.  The better foundation you have the more you will be able to work with your vet and understand why and where your horse hurts.  You’ll be able to understand the biomechanics of how the horse moves and why they move in such a way; What parts affect different areas of the body.

For references and further reading I’ve included a list of really great links at the bottom of the page.  Check out those articles too for in depth talk about specific areas on the horse.

Special thanks to Maggie Uptain for assisting me on editing this photo.
  • Head:  There are many parts of the head that function to make the horse function properly.  The horse’s head weighs 10% of the body on average (about 120 pounds!)
  • Poll: Right at the top of the head there’s a bony area where the skull meets the vertebrae.  This area also has a lot of nerve endings and where the halter and bridles rest.  Many horse people don’t realize how sensitive this area can be to trauma, many horses have tension here.  Massage, chiropractic, and myofascial release are all great ways to help relieve this tension.
  • Ears: Horses ears are pretty incredible structures.  They can rotate nearly 180 degrees and can hear up to 2.5 miles away.  They have a wider range of hearing than us humans as well, they can even hear the bats echolocation screeches.  In addition to hearing ears are a major part of the equine communication system. We’ll get into body language later.
  • Forelock: The forelock, or “bangs,” of a horse if the top part of the mane that falls through the ears over the poll. Having hair here helps to keep the head and ears warmer in cold temperatures.
  • Cheek:  The cheek is the broad flat area below each eye.  The molars are back here and this is where most of the chewing happens.  If a horse is tender in this area a good place to start looking for solutions is with dental.
  • Muzzle: To keep our vocabulary concise I opted to just give you the muzzle.  I’m pretty sure you can figure out the mouth and nostrils.  The muzzle is this whole area.  The lips are incredibly nimble and can graze very short blades of grass.
  • Neck: The neck can also be called “crest.”
  • Mane:  A mane is the hair that runs along the crest.  A thick mane aids in warmth during cold weather.
  • Withers: The withers are a prominent bony structure at the base of the neck.  This will be more obvious when we look at the skeleton but this is the thoracic vertebrae.  We measure horses at this point since it has little change in height.
  • Loin: The loins lay along the back right after the last rib and before the pelvis.
  • Croup:  The croup is located along the back and is the highest point of the pelvic girdle.  In some horses the croup is more prominent and we can discuss this later.
  • Dock: The dock is the meeting point of the tail and pelvis.  This part is an extension of the spine.
  • Tail: Unlike zebras and donkeys, the horse’s tail is covered completely in hair.  The tail aids in maintaining warmth during the colder months, communication, and for pest control.
  • Chest:  The chest is the huge muscle mass in the front of the horse’s body mass.
  • Shoulder: The shoulder is a large bone running from the withers to the chest.  We are often concerned about shoulders when fitting saddles.  A properly fitted saddle allows the shoulder to move.  If the saddle is too narrow the shoulder collides with the saddle and causes soreness and impaired movement.
  • Barrel:  The barrel is the belly, the main area of mass where the ribs are located.
  • Flank: The flank is set right behind the rib cage and before the hip/pelvis.  This can be a tender area and we look here to count respiration.
  • Elbow: The elbow is located at the top of the front limbs just as the leg meets the barrel.
  • Knee: The knee in the forelimbs is a bulbous joint found halfway down the front leg.
  • Cannon: The long bony region below the knee that carries most of the weight of the horse.  It is supported with ligaments and softer tissue.
  • Fetlock: The fetlock is another joint, this one connects the cannon bone to the pastern.  We will see more of the lower leg in the skeletal anatomy.
  • Pastern:  Two bones below the fetlock make up the pastern and they help with gait smoothness and shock support.
  • Hoof: The hoof is a very important structure mostly made up of keratin (fingernails).  The hoof makes contact with the ground and encapsulates a network of nerves and several small bones.  To understand better I will cover the hoof on it’s own at a later time.
  • Stifle: Located below the loin and behind the flank, the stifle is the “knee” of the horse.
  • Hock: Moving further down the hind legs from the stifle you reach the next joint.  This is the hock.

Hopefully this is enough to get you started without overwhelming you.  There are certainly more terms and parts I could throw at you but this will be sufficient when entering into the horse world.


Please take a moment to check out these great articles.  I used these articles for reference and they explain each part in more detail.  There’s so much to learn!

The Spruce – The Parts of a Horse

Horse and Hound – 11 Things You Need to Know About Your Horses Ears

Pet Helpful – A Horse’s Tail What Does It Use It For?

Second Opinion Doctor – Horse Anatomy The Croup

Practical Horseman – Preventing and Relieving Tightness in Your Horse’s Poll

EquiMed – Conformation and a horse’s legs

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