The shape and structure of a horse, referred to as its conformation, significantly influence both its athletic performance and long-term soundness.

How a horse is built not only determines how they generate power and speed, but also how their body absorbs and redirects concussion. A horse with conformation faults may experience reduced athletic performance and an increased vulnerability to injury caused by concussion and improper movement.

The ability to assess conformation for desired performance is critical when judging whether a horse is suitable for the job you want them to do. For example, a horse with particular conformation faults may not be a good mount for a 1.20m jumper but may excel for low-level pleasure riding.

Evaluating conformation becomes more complex when considering specific breed and sport criteria. An Arabian bred for halter performance may be very desirable for their discipline but may not be desirable for a hunter under saddle class.

Nevertheless, most conformation factors are universal across all breeds and disciplines, serving as indicators of a horse’s long-term soundness and suitability for work.

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Setting a Horse Up for Conformation Inspection

When examining a horse’s conformation, it is critical to set them up properly. Conformation rules are based on the proper alignment of a horse’s body.

These guidelines often involve comparing different parts of the horse’s body to one another. For instance, the positioning of the lower portion of the horse’s legs in relation to their knees and hocks is crucial.

If the horse is not correctly positioned, it becomes difficult to accurately judge the appearance and alignment of various structures in relation to each other. [1]

Ground and Environment

When evaluating horse’s conformation, it is important to choose a neutral environment that allows you to focus on the horse’s build and not how they are affected by the ground.

Follow these guidelines to select the right environment:

  1. Ensure the horse is standing on perfectly flat ground to eliminate any influence from uneven terrain. Angled or rolling ground can make it difficult to evaluate if the horse is even from wither to croup.
  2. Ensure your horse is standing on ground that is free of long grass or impeding vegetation. You want to be able to view their hooves and pasterns in comparison to their upper legs and body.
  3. Ensure your horse is standing in good light with minimal shadows. Lighting conditions can hide or emphasize flaws, potentially misleading your perception of the horse’s conformation.
  4. When submitting a conformation photo, ensure the background environment is not too distracting. Minimize any background elements so the judge may focus solely on your horse’s physical attributes. [1]

Horse’s Stance

Your horse’s stance is pivotal to properly evaluating their conformation. Follow these steps to position your horse:

  1. Ensure that your horse is standing with their head at a neutral level, neither low as if grazing nor high as if frightened.
  2. Position your horse in an open stance, so you can see all four hooves when looking at the horse from the side. In an open stance, each foot is slightly offset, allowing for clear visibility of how each foot and lower leg are connected to the horse’s body.
  3. Stand your horse so that their near hind leg is positioned with the hock directly in line with the point of the buttock. This is crucial for identifying issues with hock conformation. [1]

The picture below is of a horse appropriately presented for conformation inspection. The horse is clean, on level ground, standing in an open stance, and there is nothing on or near the horse that can be distracting to the viewer. [2]

Evaluating Conformation in Horses | Mad Barn USA

Grooming

Whether submitting your horse’s picture for professional judging or looking at your own horse’s conformation, the horse must be well groomed and presented in minimal tack.

Presenting a clean, plain horse avoids distractions caused by dirt or flashy tack. The focus should be solely on the horse itself, without any add-ons that can distract from the actual picture.

Follow good grooming practices to ensure that your horse is clean and tidy. If your horse has a long mane, ensure the mane is held to the side opposite from which the horse is being evaluated. A long, full mane can hide most of the neck, limiting inspection.

Ensure your horse’s tail isn’t hiding any part of their hind legs and remove any boots or wraps from their legs. Ensure an unobstructed view of all aspects of your horse’s anatomy. [1]

Factors of Conformation Evaluation

When evaluating a horse’s conformation, don’t just look at isolated parts of their skeletal structure. Assessing equine conformation for performance encompasses a broader perspective of the horse.

Conformation examinations can be broken down into the following components:

  • Balance: Evaluating the distribution of the horse’s body from front to back and side to side, paying close attention to the proportions of the horse’s body as they relate to each other.
  • Structural Correctness: Assessing the alignment of the horse’s skeletal structure, particularly in the legs.
  • Way of going: the way the horse moves, in regard to both cleanliness and quality of movement.
  • Muscling: Observing the quantity and quality of muscle mass throughout the horse’s body.
  • Breed and Type: Assessing how closely the horse adheres to breed-specific characteristics and how the horse is built for their intended purpose. [3]

Each of these aspects of conformation is interconnected, forming a holistic circle of attributes that collectively contribute to the horse’s success or lack thereof as an athlete.

Balance

Balance is one of the first conformation aspects that should be examined. Balance refers to the overall proportions and distribution of the horse’s body parts.

With your horse on even ground, step back and compare the highest point of their wither to the highest point of their hip. Ideally, these points should be perfectly even, as in the photo below. [4]

Conformation Assessment for Horses | Mad Barn USA

Horses can also exhibit an “uphill” or “downhill” conformation. In horses with an uphill conformation, the withers are positioned higher than the highest point of the buttock, while in a downhill conformation the withers are lower than the highest point of the buttock.

Overall Proportions

To assess if the overall proportions of your horse are correct, visually divide their body into thirds. Imagine a line dropping vertically from the highest point of your horse’s wither and another line extending on the flank, following the line created by the change in hair direction. The following three sections should be equal:

  • The space in front of the line from the withers (excluding the neck)
  • The space between the wither and flank
  • The space behind the flank

In other words, the horse’s body should be evenly divisible into three equal sections. This proportionate division is indicative of a well-balanced conformation. [3][4]

Conformation Exam for Horses | Mad Barn USA

Rule of Squares

Determine if your horse’s body follows the rule of squares. Start by visualizing a line from the highest point of your horse’s withers to the highest point of their buttock.

Next, imagine vertical lines extending from the point of their buttock and their chest. Extend these lines to create a box, completing it by drawing a line from the top of the box to where your horse’s feet meet the ground. [3]

If the box is rectangular and not square, the horse may have a long or short back. A back that is too long is weak, but a back that is too short predisposes the horse to issues, such as kissing spine. [4][5]

Evaluating Horse Conformation | Mad Barn USA

Heart Girth & Neck Proportions

To facilitate appropriate breathing and lung capacity, your horse needs a relatively large heart girth. The heart girth is the vertical length from your horse’s wither to the bottom of their body. This length should be the same as the length from the bottom of their body to the ground.

Now look at your horse’s neck. The length of your horse’s neck from poll to wither should be twice as long as the distance from the throat latch to where the neck extends from the chest.

Facial Balance

Finally, does your horse have a balanced face? The perfect head conformation will depend on standards for the breed, but overall balance is universal. The distance from the poll to the midpoint between the eyes should be half the distance from the midpoint between the eyes to the midpoint between the nostrils.

The width of the horse’s head from the outside of one eye to the outside of the other should be the same length as the distance from the poll to the midpoint between the eyes. [3]

Once you have examined the overall balance and proportion of your horse, you can take a deeper look into the angles and length of their limbs and bones.

Structural Correctness

Structural correctness directly impacts how your horse can perform their intended job. Examine your horse from head to toe to identify any significant flaws.

Head and Neck

The structural aspects of your horse’s head and neck dictate how easily they eat, take contact on the bit, and balance.

Your horse’s head should be conformed so that their top incisors are directly in line with their lower incisors.

If the top incisors protrude forward over the lower incisors, it is known as a parrot mouth or overbite. Conversely, if the top teeth are positioned behind the lower incisor, the horse has an underbite.

A horse with an inappropriate bite pattern will experience uneven wear, potentially impacting their ability to eat. [6]

Your horse’s throat latch should be well-defined without excess fat or muscle to impede poll range of motion.

The base of your horse’s neck should be level to the point of their shoulder and the neck should tie in fairly high up the chest to allow for appropriate flexibility. [7]

Shoulder

Your horse’s shoulder angle impacts the length and rideability of their stride. When drawing a horizontal line straight back from the point of their shoulder, their scapula should lie at an angle between 40 – 55 degrees when standing square.

A horse with an upright shoulder angle (greater than 55 degrees) will have a small, choppy stride that is not pleasurable to ride.

A horse with a laid back shoulder angle (less than 40 degrees) will have a long swooping stride, but will be more difficult to fit a saddle to. [3][7]

Front Limbs

Front limb conformation not only determines stride length but also your horse’s ability to stay sound when in work.

When viewing your horse from the side with the cannon bone (lower leg bone) perpendicular to the ground, the the radius (upper front leg bone) should sit directly on top of the cannon. Both forelegs should bear weight equally, with the toes pointing forward and the hooves the same distance apart as the origin of the upper legs.

A horse is considered base narrow if their hooves are closer together than the origin of their upper legs. On the other hand, a horse is considered base wide if their hooves are wider than the origin of their upper legs.

Both conformation faults will cause uneven wear to their hooves, ligaments, and cartilage, affecting long-term soundness. [3][7]

Elbows

Examine the position of their elbow in relation to their wither. Ideally, the elbow should align directly underneath the wither, indicating that the length of their humerus (upper arm bone) is approximately 50-60% of their shoulder blade.

A longer humerus is beneficial in that it allows for a longer stride and improved ability to extend the leg forward and “snap” it backward. However, an excessively long humerus will result in the shoulder muscles being shortened, limiting your horse’s power.

Conversely, a humerus that is too short will result in a short, choppy stride. This not only reduces speed due to a shorter stride length, but also their gait will be more unpleasant to ride. [3]

Cannon Bone

While there is no exact measurement for the preferred length of the cannon bone, it should generally be substantial in girth and shorter than the humerus.

A shorter cannon bone means shorter tendons in the lower leg, which reduces the risk of tendon injury.

Furthermore, a short cannon bone is lighter than a long cannon bone of the same girth. A light lower limb means the muscles of the upper leg can move the lower leg quickly and experience less fatigue. [8]

Knees

Your horse’s knees should be relatively large and flat at the front. A small, pinched knee crowds the tendons and cartilage, hinders knee action and reduces the ability to absorb and transfer concussion.

A knee with a smooth front allows extensor tendons to glide over a smooth surface, reducing inflammation and increasing comfort during movement. [3][8]

The knee should lie directly between the forearm and cannon bone to create a perfectly straight, vertical line when viewing your horse from the front and sides.

If the knee buckles backwards when viewing your horse from the side, your horse is considered “back at the knee” or “calf kneed”. If the the knee buckles forward, your horse is “over at the knee” or “knee sprung”.

Both conformation issues strain the tendons and ligaments around the knee, indicating a high risk of lameness issues in the future. [8]

If, when viewing your horse’s knees from the front, your horse’s knees bow outward, your horse is “bow-legged”. If the knees bow inward, your horse is “knock-kneed”. These issues also strain the tendons and ligaments.

When the knee joint does not track straight, the horse’s ability to absorb and transfer concussive forces is compromised.

Knee conformation flaws leave the horse susceptible to arthritis or other degenerative joint issues, and can be detrimental to performance and future soundness. [8]

Hoof and Pasterns

Ideally, the horse’s pastern angle should follow the angle of the shoulder. Many horses do not have a perfectly matching pastern and shoulder angle, but the angles should ideally be close.

Avoid trimming the horse’s hoof to “fix” the pastern angle as this can cause more issues than it will resolve.

Pasterns should be appropriately long and sloped. A short, upright pastern will predispose your horse to arthritis and navicular disease.

The pastern angle should follow the angle of the hoof wall. When drawing a line down the front of the pastern, it should follow the hoof wall without any breaks.

Known as the hoof pastern axis, this angle should be 45 to 50 degrees from the ground. The heel of the hoof should match this angle. [3][8][9]

Hoof Conformation in Horses | Mad Barn USA

Hind Legs

To examine hind leg conformation, stand directly behind your horse. From the point of the buttock to the hoof, all joints should align along a straight line.

Hock Deviation

A mild inward deviation of the hock with the toes pointing slightly outward is acceptable. However, if the deviation is more pronounced, it can lead to strain on the tendons and ligaments surrounding the hock, increased susceptibility to spavin, and uneven weight distribution on the inside of the hoof. [3]

If the hocks deviate slightly outward, the horse is bow-legged. This is more common in larger draft breeds, as the gaskin tends to be overdeveloped and push the joints outward. Horses that are out at the hocks are susceptible to bog spavin or thoroughpins. [3]

Hock Angles

Next, view the horse’s hocks from the side while they stand with their fetlock in line with the point of their buttock. You should be able to draw a straight line from the point of the buttock, continuing down the back of the tendons of the lower leg.

If the tendons lie in front of the line, the horse is sickle hocked (too much angle to the hock joint). This common flaw is detrimental to the power and speed generated from the hind end, increasing strain on the back of the hock. [3][8]

Straight Hocks

Measure the angle formed by your horse’s hock between the upper and lower hind leg. If this angle exceeds 170 degrees, your horse is considered “post-legged” or too straight in the hock.

This detrimental conformation flaw increases the likelihood of locking stifles. A straight hock results in a straight stifle, leaving the kneecap susceptible to slipping out of the patellar groove.

The hock joint is designed to bend upon impact, absorbing and transferring concussion to other parts of the body, and protecting the sensitive structures within the joint.

When there is not enough angle to the joint, the horse’s foot impacts the ground in a short stabbing motion. This increases the concussive force on the hock joint, resulting in a higher risk of arthritis. [3][8]

Way of Going

Having thoroughly examined your horse’s conformation while standing still, it is now time to look at your horse in motion to assess their way of going.

When observing your horse walking and trotting in a straight line, pay close attention to how each limb moves in relation to each other and the rest of their body.

Your horse’s movement should be free and straight. Each joint should flex and extend without stiffness or hesitation.

The hind feet should follow the track of the front feet, with the hind feet landing in the print left by the front feet. Additionally, the front feet should be able to move out of the way to avoid interference, known as forging or overreaching. [8]

Furthermore, your horse’s front feet should track straight without dishing (circling to the inside) or paddling (circling to the outside).

The horse should also have a free and easy motion to the head and neck. Any incorrect movement may indicate conformation flaws, injury, or conditioning issues. [8]

Muscling

Your horse’s muscling should be equal on both sides and comparative from front to back. The muscles should be long, smooth, and well-defined, but not tense or bunched.

The gaskin and stifle muscles should not be bunched up high between the legs. A bunching gaskin and stifle can create a bowing to your horse’s hind legs. Ideally, the stifle muscles should be the widest part of your horse when viewing them from the front.

The muscling of their back and hindquarters should be smooth and tie in over the hip without sharp angles.

The muscles of their neck should be defined, but smooth. The top portion of their neck (the crest) should have a slight bulge without being overly developed. The lower muscles of the horse’s neck should be less developed than the upper muscles.

A horse with poorly developed muscles through the whole neck is considered “knife-necked“, whereas a horse with overdeveloped muscles underneath the neck is considered “ewe-necked”. [8]

Breed and Type

Finally, consider the breed and type of your horse. Many breed registries have characteristics that are considered necessary or ideal for the breed. For example, Arabian registries prefer a fine-boned horse with a dished face, while the Andalusian registry prefers a thickly built horse with a coarser head. [10][11]

Many breeds are bred for a specific use and follow a “type”. Horses of the same type are typically used for the same purpose. Types include but are not limited to:

  • Sport horse: Medium to light bone, typically Thoroughbreds, Warmbloods, or outcrosses, commonly used for English performance disciplines
  • Hunter: Thicker in bone and a lower headset than sport horses; Thoroughbreds, Warmbloods, Quarter Horses, or outcrosses
  • Stock: Hardier, closer to the ground with more bone; Quarter Horses, Paints, Appaloosas, most often used for Western riding
  • Saddle: Lighter in bone, usually gaited with flashy movement, high neck carriage; Tennessee Walking Horses, Morgans, Arabians, Paso Finos
  • Pleasure and Versatility: Any breed closer to the ground with mid-level athleticism, used for any lower-level discipline, the most common riding horse you will see
  • Draft: Strong, thickly built stocky horses bred for pulling heavy loads; Clydesdales, Percherons, Belgians, etc., can be used for pleasure riding
  • Baroque: High neck carriage, thickly built with flashy movement; Andalusians, Lusitanos, Friesians, most often used for dressage and working equitation [8]

Conditioning to Overcome Conformation

Upon closely examining your horse’s conformation, you may have noticed certain areas of concern with the way they are put together or muscled.

This does not necessarily mean your horse cannot fulfill the intended job or discipline they were acquired for. Instead, it highlights the need for additional conditioning and maintenance to overcome any conformational faults.

Many breeds originally bred for for a specific purpose can be very successful in other disciplines. For instance, Clydesdales, traditionally used for heavy pulling, can still be used in low-level jumping or dressage. They just might not achieve elite-level performance and may need special conditioning and maintenance, such as joint injections. [8]

However, a horse with good conformation possesses advantage over those with poor conformation. They can move easier, with better function, and they are more likely to stay sound.

Developing an eye for judging conformation allows you to identify your horse’s flaws and take appropriate action, safeguarding them against potential long-term injuries.

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References

  1. Fasig-Tipton. How-To Guide: Conformation Photos. 2015.
  2. Sky Legacy Stud. The Annual Purebreed Show 2022. 2022.
  3. Duberstein, K. Evaluating Horse Conformation. Universtity of Georgia Extension. 2017.
  4. Triple Crown Racing. Buyer’s Guide. 2019.
  5. Jeffcott, L. Disorders of the thoracolumbar spine of the horse — a survey of 443 cases. Equine Vet Journal. 1980. View Summary
  6. Johnson, T. and Porter, C. Common Disorders of Incisor Teeth and Treatment . IVIS. 2006.
  7. Melbye, D. Conformation of the horse. University of Minnesota Extension. 2021.
  8. Smith Thomas, H. The Horse Conformation Handbook. Storey Publishing. 2005.
  9. Pethick, B. Guidelines for Balance. The Natural Angle. 2006.
  10. Education/Evaluation Commision. Arabian Conformation. Arabian Horse Association. 2023.
  11. Andalusian Horse Association of Australia. Standards of Excellence. 2018.