The superficial (SDF) and deep digital flexor (DDF) muscles are critical for equine forelimb locomotion. Knowledge of their mechanical properties will enhance our understanding of limb biomechanics. Muscle contractile properties derived from architectural-based algorithms may overestimate real forces and underestimate shortening capacity because of simplistic assumptions regarding muscle architecture. Therefore, passive and active (=total - passive) force-length properties of the SDF and DDF muscles were measured directly in vivo. Muscles from the right forelimbs of four Thoroughbred horses were evaluated during general anesthesia. Limbs were fixed to an external frame with the muscle attached to a linear actuator and load cell. Each muscle was stretched from an unloaded state to a range of prefixed lengths, then stimulated while held at that length. The total force did not exceed 4000 N, the limit for the clamping device. The SDF and DDF muscles produced 716+/-192 and 1577+/-203 N maximum active isometric force (F(max)), had ascending force-length ranges (R(asc)) of 5.1+/-0.2 and 9.1+/-0.4 cm, and had passive stiffnesses of 1186+/-104 and 1132+/-51 N/cm, respectively. The values measured for F(max) were much smaller than predicted based on conservative estimates of muscle specific tension and muscle physiological cross-sectional area. R(asc) were much larger than predicted based on muscle fiber length estimates. These data suggest that accurate prediction of the active mechanical behavior of architecturally complex muscles such as the equine DDF and SDF requires more sophisticated algorithms.