Your horse’s conformation impacts their overall performance, soundness, and ability to excel in various disciplines. When it comes to evaluating forelimb conformation, judges will look at the withers, shoulders, elbows, leg, knee and pastern.
The horse’s forelimbs should exhibit symmetry and bear weight equally, with toes pointed forwards and a straight line from the point of the shoulder down the limb to the middle of the hoof.
There are many common conformation faults that affect the horse’s forelimbs. Some of these faults have little impact on the horse’s function or fitness, while others affect a horse’s movement, athletic potential, and long-term soundness.
In this article we will explore the ideal forelimb conformation as well as common flaws and their potential effects on the horse’s gait, soundness, and overall performance.
Equine conformation describes the way a horse is put together physically and how the horse moves. The horse’s skeletal and muscular structure impact not only athletic performance, but also risk of injury or lameness.
When evaluating equine conformation, five distinct aspects are examined: 
- Balance: The distribution of the horse’s body from front to back and side to side, paying special attention to the proportions of the horse’s body as they relate to each other
- Structural Correctness: The horse’s skeletal structure and the way their bones align, specifically in the legs
- Way of going: The way the horse moves, in regards to both cleanliness and quality of movement
- Muscling: The size and quality of muscle on the horse’s body
- Breed and type: How closely the horse follows its breed characteristics, also refers to how the horse is built for a specific purpose
Through many years of study, the standards for a perfectly conformed horse have been defined, describing a horse that is fast, powerful, and remains sound through work. Conformation faults have also been identified. These flaws reduce the speed, power, and/or long-term soundness of a performance horse.
Keep in mind that perfect conformation varies depending on the intended use of the horse. The physical attributes that define an ideal jumping mount may not make the perfect hunter or dressage mount. Even bigger differences in desired traits exist between English performance horses compared to Western or Saddle horses.
However, many faults reduce the capabilities of horses in all discipline, increasing the risk of injury and early retirement.
Identifying Conformation Faults
To evaluable for possible conformation faults, the horse’s body parts should be examined separately. Front limb conformation faults are particularly significant because these limbs bear approximately 60% of the horse’s body weight at rest. 
For performance horses involved in jumping sports, the front limbs are critical for shock absorption. When landing after a jump, the horse’s entire body weight is transferred onto the forelimbs. 
Risks of Faults
Any faults in the conformation of a horse’s front legs can increase the risk of injury, lameness or degenerative joint conditions. Examples of conditions associated with conformation flaws include: 
While certain conformation faults in horses can be mitigated through conditioning, other faults cause problems no matter what interventions are attempted.
Ideal Front Limb Conformation
The ideal forelimb conformation requires limbs that are straight and aligned, with well-defined withers, correctly angled shoulders, well-placed knees and proper foot balance.
To evaluate front limb conformation, ensure your horse is standing on even ground and in good light. Start from the wither and let your eye travel down the limb to their hooves.
A normal wither should be well-defined and smoothly muscled. The wither should tie in smoothly with the neck and the rest of the body with only a minor rise and fall, akin to a rolling hill.
The wither should fall well behind the shoulder, almost in line with the elbow. When the wither falls in line with the elbow, it signifies a humerus length that is approximately 50-60% of the shoulder blade’s length.
A long humerus offers benefits, such as a long stride and enhanced ability to “snap” the leg backwards after extending it forwards. However, an excessively long humerus will result in the shoulder muscles being shortened, limiting your horse’s power. 
This placement of the wither also allows the topline of the neck to be longer than the underline. This topline/underline relationship allows full range of motion of the neck and creates an elegant, refined look. 
The muscling of the wither should be developed enough to fill the wither pocket created on either side. The appearance of these pockets is a strong indicator of poor saddle fit, which should be investigated.
Your horse’s shoulder slope impacts the length and rideability of their stride.
To measure the slope of your horse’s scapula, draw a horizontal line extending straight back from the point of their shoulder and a second line connecting the point of the shoulder to their wither.
The scapula will align with the line from the point of the shoulder to the wither, and should form an angle between 40 and 55 degrees when the horse is standing square.
Dressage horses should ideally have a slope of 45 degrees in their scapula. This more pronounced slope allows for a greater range of motion; the horse can extend their shoulder forwards and backwards, increasing stride length and allowing for a “flashy” gait.
A more upright shoulder (i.e. a scapula slope approaching 55 degrees) is beneficial for jumping and gaited horses. The upright shoulder allows for vertical lift of the front limb, enabling jumpers to lift their forelimbs out of the way of obstacles and giving gaited horses flashier knee action, which is desired in the show ring. 
Now that you have measured your horse’s shoulder slope, you can measure their shoulder angle. Imagine a line from the point of your horse’s shoulder to their elbow. The angle between this line and the line going from the point of their chest to their wither should be 80 – 115 degrees.
When viewing your horse from the side, their elbow should align parallel to their body without any outward or inward rotation.
The elbow should be smoothly muscled and track straight, meaning that when your horse takes a step the elbow remains parallel with the horse’s body. 
Upper Leg and Knee
When viewing your horse from the side, the radius (upper front leg bone) should sit directly on top of the cannon bone (lower leg bone) when the cannon is perpendicular to the ground.
Both forelegs should bear weight equally, with the toes pointing forward and the hooves the same distance apart as the origin of the upper leg. 
The radius should be slightly longer than the cannon and smoothly muscled without bunching or knots.
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. 
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 joint does not track straight, the horse’s ability to effectively absorb and transfer concussion is compromised. This can leave the horse vulnerable to arthritis or other degenerative joint issues.
Horses with knee conformation flaws are at particularly high risk of joint problems, posing a challenge to performance and long-term soundness. 
Cannon, Fetlock, Pastern and Hooves
While there is not an exact measurement for the preferred length of the cannon bone, it should have a substantial girth and be shorter than the radius bone.
A shorter cannon bone indicates shorter tendons in the lower leg, which can reduce the risk of injury. Additionally, a shorter cannon bone is lighter, allowing the muscles of the upper leg to move the lower leg more quickly and with less fatigue.
The pastern plays an important role in shock absorption, mitigating the impact when the hoof lands on the ground. Ideally, the pastern angle should match the angle of the shoulder, although perfect alignment may not always be achievable.
Avoid trimming the horse’s hoof to fix the pastern angle, as this can cause more issues than it will resolve.
The pastern angle should also align with the angle of the hoof wall. Known as the hoof pastern axis, if you draw a line down the front of the pastern, the line should follow the hoof wall without any breaks.
The hoof itself should be substantial and appropriate for the horse’s size. The sole of the hoof should form a cup or concave shape with the frog at the same level as the hoof wall. The width of the frog should be at least two-thirds of its length. 
The coronary band should be parallel to the ground and well-formed (i.e. not sunken), indicating a healthy hoof structure. 
Common Forelimb Conformation Faults
Ideal forelimb conformation supports the horse by allowing for efficient motion and concussion absorption. Each component of the horse’s forelimbs is designed to track appropriately over the joint’s connective tissue while transferring shock and concussion upwards through the limb and into the horse’s body.
Faults within the forelimb can impair proper limb movement or concussion transfer, leaving the horse susceptible to acute injury or long-term degeneration.
Wither Conformation Faults
Common conformation faults involving the wither include “mutton” withers and overly high withers.
Mutton-withered or low-withered horses display a lack of withers and no shoulder definition. When looking at your horse from the side, the neck will appear to tie into the back with no rise and fall in between.
Mutton withers are caused by abnormally short spinous processes on the thoracic vertebrae between the shoulders. In normal horses, the spinous processes are elongated and pronounced, forming the rise and fall of the wither. When these are shortened, the wither becomes undefined and mutton-shaped. 
The wither is where the trapezius muscle originates. When the spinous processes of the wither are shortened, the surface area for trapezius attachment is reduced, limiting the range of motion in the shoulder and making the area more susceptible to muscle and tendon injury. 
Finally, low withers make saddle fitting far more difficult. The absence of prominent withers diminishes the lateral support provided to the saddle, increasing the likelihood of side-to-side saddle movement. 
On the other hand, withers that are too high result from abnormally long spinous processes of the thoracic vertebrae. These processes extend farther upwards, resulting in the “shark fin” appearance.
Abnormally high withers typically do not cause significant issues other than making saddle fitting more challenging. Saddle fitting for horses with high withers may require a higher-than-average pommel or a cut-back pommel to accommodate the horse’s conformation. 
All types of withers, regardless of prominence or size, are susceptible to muscle atrophy due to improper conditioning or inappropriate saddle fit. Muscle loss can result in hollow pockets often seen on either side of the wither.
When a saddle is too narrow for a horse’s withers, it can create pressure points on the trapezius, spinalis, and rhomboid muscles, resulting in discomfort and pain during forelimb movement.
This pain can discourage the horse from properly engaging their shoulder and topline, limiting the flexion and development of these muscles. As a consequence, their size and strength may be compromised. 
Shoulder Conformation Faults
The two major shoulder conformation faults that can affect horses are an overly upright shoulder and an overly sloped shoulder. 
A shoulder is considered “too upright” if the slope of the shoulder is greater than 60 degrees. A shoulder this upright lacks elasticity, making the horse’s gait feel slightly choppier than normal. While some riders may not notice a slightly choppier stride, this alteration in stride quality can impact the entire horse’s body.
A horse with a very upright shoulder will experience increased concussive stress on the entire forelimb. The greater impact placed on each joint and structure in the horse’s limb can lead to a higher risk of lameness issues as the horse progresses in its athletic career. 
Horses with a shoulder angle of less than 40 degrees are considered “excessively laid back”. In these cases, the shoulder slope is too steep.
While this conformation may not have a direct impact on the horse’s soundness, it can make saddle fitting more difficult. A very laid-back shoulder will cause saddle slippage, as the saddle may slide too far down the horse’s ack. When the saddle is appropriately positioned on the horse’s back, it will lay over the scapula and restrict shoulder movement.
Elbow Conformation Faults
Conformation faults in the elbow include elbows tied in too close and elbows turned out.
When a horse’s elbows are tied in too close, the humerus bone angles inwards towards the centerline of the horse’s body. With the elbows angled inwards, the whole forelimb is turned outwards.
This causes the horse to stand “toes out“, with the front feet positioned with the toes pointing away from each other instead of being parallel. When the knee is flexed, the lower leg “wings” or comes inward.
Tied-in elbows tend to accompany narrow-chested horses, restricting forelimb movement. Not only will the forelegs be too close together, but the winging of the foot inwards increases the likelihood of foreleg interference, in which the lower leg and hooves cross over and hit each other. 
Interference of the forelimb can result in serious injury, especially at higher speeds. 
When a horse’s elbow turns out, the humerus bone angles away from the horse’s body, resulting in the horse’s elbow turning outwards.
The horse’s forelimb will rotate inwards, creating a “pigeon-toed” stance in which the toes of the forelimbs point inwards.
When the knee is flexed the horse “paddles,” characterized by the the hoof and lower forelimb circling outwards.
Horses with turned-out elbows are often base narrow, in which the chest of the horse is wider than the point at which the hooves land on the ground.
Having a base narrow conformation does not come with direct implications for the horse’s soundness, but any deviation in normal movement will put additional strain on the structure of the joints. This leaves the horse susceptible to increased joint wear and tear. 
Upper Leg Conformation Faults
The angle at which the horse’s forelimb joins the rest of their body is also susceptible to conformation faults. Ideally, the forelimbs join the body at a perfectly vertical angle. However, deviations from this ideal can occur.
Camped Under or Camped Out
When the forelimb joins the body at an angle behind the vertical, the horse is considered “camped under“. The horse’s forelimb angles backwards, moving the front feat closer to the hind feet.
Horses that are camped under will experience more strain on the posterior tendons and forelimb ligaments due to the posture of the lower forelimb.
This posture also increases the amount of weight a horse carries on its front legs, resulting in a short, choppy stride and a propensity for tripping and stumbling. 
When the forelimb joins the body at an angle in front of the vertical, the horse is considered camped out. The horse stands with the front feet stretched further away from the hind feet.
Horses that are camped out will experience undue strain on the hooves, fetlocks, and knees. To remain in this position the joints have to bend backwards in an unnatural position. 
Horses may exhibit a camped out or under stance due to conformation or in response to pain. A horse that does not normally stand camped out or under may be attempting to alleviate hoof pain caused by inflammatory conditions, such as navicular disease or laminitis.
Base Wide or Base Narrow
Horses may also be “base wide” or “base narrow”, describing the width between the hooves on the ground relative to the horse’s chest width.
Base narrow horses have forelimbs that angle inwards. This conformation can be caused by other flaws, such as an overly wide chest or an inappropriate angle at the origin of the forelimb on the horse’s body.
Base narrow horses tend to land with more weight on the outside of the hoof wall. This increased pressure makes horses more susceptible to conditions such as ringbone, sidebone, and heel bruising. 
Base wide horses have forelimbs that angle outwards away from each other, and tend to have narrow chests. These horses have a tendency to place more weight on the inside of the hoof wall when landing, predisposing these horses to ringbone and sidebone, and impacting long-term soundness. 
Knee Conformation Faults
A horse’s knee structure can exhibit various conformation faults, which may include the following:
Back at the Knee
In horses that are back at the knee, the cannon bone angles backwards at the knee, allowing the knee to fall behind the vertical.
This conformation fault increases stress on the front of the knee, leaving the horse susceptible to chip fractures in the small bones of the knee and knee arthritis. Being back at the knee is considered to be a very severe fault and undesirable in performance horses. 
Over at the Knee
When the joint structures at the back of the knee are too tight or contracted, it can cause the knee to fall in front of the vertical, resulting in a permanently bent appearance.
Horses that are over at the knee may experience tripping and stumbling, as well as landing toe first, which affects the way the hoof absorbs impact.
In extreme cases, horses that are over at the knee may have difficulty locking their knee in place while standing, resulting in an impaired stay apparatus. This can lead to challenges in maintaining stability and experiencing disrupted sleep or difficulty standing in one place for long periods. 
Knock-Kneed (Carpal Valgus)
In horses that are knock-kneed, the entire knee of the horse is set inwards when looking from the front, and the lower limb does not continue on the same angle of the radius.
While common in developing foals due to weakness of the support structures in the joint, it is considered a conformation fault when the horse is finished growing.
Knock-kneed horses often display toeing-out due to rotation of the cannon bone at the knee. These horses experience excess stress on the inner structures of the knee, including the joint capsule and the medial collateral ligament. 
Additionally, they may experience interference at the knee, leading to potential injuries caused by the knees colliding together. 
Bow-Legged (Carpus Varus)
Bow-legged conformation is characterized by an outward angle of the radius while the cannon angles inwards, setting the horse’s knee to the outside of the vertical.
These horses are more likely to experience osteoarthritis of the knee, fetlock, and pastern. These horses are also prone to sidebone due to increased pressure on the outside areas of the hoof wall when the horse puts their foot down. 
In a horse with tied-in knee, the tendon appears narrower than the rest of the cannon bone where it meets the back of the knee.
The narrow width limits the flexor tendon’s ability to absorb and transfer concussion, making the horse more susceptible to flexor tendon injuries. 
Bench Knee (Offset Cannon)
A bench knee refers to a conformation fault where the cannon bone is set too far to the outside of the knee.
Bench knees result in significant weight-bearing through the medial splint bone, increasing strain on the interosseous ligament and increasing the likelihood of popped or broken splints. 
Pastern Conformation Faults
Pastern conformation faults are often detrimental to a horse’s long-term soundness. Horses with incorrect pastern structure often experience pastern and fetlock issues as well as a breakdown in other structures of the lower forelimb.
Long, Sloped Pasterns
Horses with overly long, sloped pasterns will often exhibit a “broken back” axis to the hoof. Instead of being able to draw a straight line from the fetlock over the coronary band and extending to the toe, the line breaks backwards at the coronary band. 
The sloped pastern and broken back axis increase strain on the posterior structures in the pastern and fetlock, including the suspensory apparatus and flexor tendons.
Furthermore, because the pastern is so long and the fetlock relatively weak, horses may experience a total drop of the fetlock while jumping or galloping, increasing the potential for sesamoid fracture.
Short, Upright Pasterns
Horses with short, upright pasterns will often have a “broken forward” axis to the hoof. The line drawn from the fetlock towards the toe juts forward at the coronary band.
A broken forward axis reduces the fetlock’s ability to absorb and transfer concussion up the leg. As a result, the bones in the foot and fetlock bear a greater load of the weight-bearing force, increasing the risk of stress fractures and arthritis in those areas. 
Dealing with Conformation Faults
When examining your horse or a potential mount for forelimb conformation faults, keep in mind that no horse is perfect. All horses will have some deviation from ideal conformation.
If you are a horse owner, knowing how to evaluate your horse’s forelimb conformation can help you understand how certain traits influence your horse’s performance, soundness, and overall well-being. By identifying conformation flaws, you can make informed decisions regarding your horse’s training, management, and potential suitability for specific activities or disciplines.
During pre-purchase exams, conformation faults in horses are carefully evaluated to assess their potential impact on the horse’s soundness and suitability for the intended purpose. As the potential buyer, it is up to you to decide which faults are permissible and which are unacceptable.
Certain faults may be okay for horses performing in one discipline but not another. Speak to your veterinarian or coach for more information on which faults can be overlooked or managed with interventions, such as appropriate training, joint injections or nutritional supplements.
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