Understanding the Anatomy of Horses

anatomy of horse

The horse is one of the most common and versatile animals used in human transportation and work. Understanding basic anatomy is important for all horse lovers but especially those working with horses. A few simple concepts can help you provide better care for your equine residents and help your staff understand what they are seeing.

The skin of a horse is composed of two layers, the epidermis and the dermis. The epidermis is the outermost layer and acts as a protective barrier against pathogens. It also has a moisturizing function. The dermis is a thick layer of connective tissue that contains blood vessels, hair follicles, glands, collagen and elastic fibres. It is a storage area for fat and has a thermoregulatory function.

Underneath the dermis is a hypodermic layer, which contains fat and a large number of lymph vessels. Lymph vessels are important for the immune system. A healthy horse will have a normal turnover of the epidermis and an acidic skin pH, both of which act as a mechanical barrier to invading pathogens. A low turnover rate can result in flaky skin, similar to dandruff in humans.


The axial skeleton of a horse consists of the skull, vertebral column and ribs. The skull is formed by connecting skull bones called the frontal bone, parietal bone, temporal bone, occipital bone and sphenoid bone. The vertebral column is formed by 7 cervical, 18 thoracic, 6 lumbar and 5 sacral vertebrae. The ribs are attached to the sternum and are connected to each other by cartilage.


There are over 100 muscles in a horse, each of which have primary and secondary actions. Some muscles are used for movement while others support the body’s structure. The horse’s leg muscles are especially well developed and are used in a wide variety of activities.

The digestive tract is complex, with structures on both the left and right sides. Gillian covers this topic in detail in her on-demand seminar Digestive Anatomy, Feeding and Nutrition.