Conformation is the unanimous term used when describing how a horse is put together. It dictates the athletic ability and ability to remain sound. Generally this refers to the skeletal makeup of the horse. A horse that is said to have “good conformation” is considered to be well-put together, proportionate, and balanced based on requirements for the breed and discipline.
Alternatively, “poor conformation” describes a horse that has flaws or weaknesses within its skeletal frame and structure. This makes the horse more susceptible to injury and lameness, impairing the ability to carry out its job.
When considering the conformation of a horse, you also need to take into consideration the condition of the horse. This includes being able to distinguish the skeletal anatomy of the horse versus the actual physical condition the animal is in.
A horse’s “condition” typically consists of several factors. This includes the type of work or discipline it is used in, health status, feeding regiment, and the general care of the horse. For example, a horse used for reining, jumping, or racing should be in prime condition. These horses are athletes that are fed based on their workout routines. Furthermore, well-conditioned horses are in general good health, with solid muscle development. They typically have workout and training regiments that keep these athletes in tip-top shape for their competitions.
Breed, Age, and Sex
First thing’s first, the breed of the horse needs to be considered when evaluating a horse for conformation. Each breed of horse has different characteristics that define the conformation of that breed. Arabians, for example, have a higher tail set due to having one less vertebra in the back compared to other breeds. Therefore, if you are evaluating an Arabian and note that is has a low or poorly set tail, you can factor in either poor breed conformation or potential unsoundness in that horse. On the contrary, the Quarter Horse will be more muscled through the forearm and chest compared to an Arabian. Lack of muscling in a Quarter Horse could have multiple contributing factors as well, but well-developed musculature is a staple for this breed.
Age should also be considered when evaluating conformation. For example, if you are evaluating the conformation of a yearling versus a ten year old versus a twenty year old, there will be a few distinguishable differences between the ages that need to be considered. Younger horses are less likely to have the muscular development of middle-aged horses; similarly, geriatric horses are more likely to have swayback and muscular atrophy that comes with age.
Another point to consider when evaluating conformation is the sex of the horse. Mares tend to have slightly longer backs, and those that have had numerous babies tend to have sprung ribs that can give them a more swayback appearance. Stallions tend to have a higher muscular development due to testosterone versus geldings; however, the amount of training and physical ability should be considered when evaluating musculature in horses.
The Head and Neck
The first area of the horse to look at for conformation is the head. The head should be proportionate to the body, with bright and clear eyes, attentive ears, a quiet mouth, and clean nostrils. The forehead should be broad, with “kind” eyes set well apart for peripheral sight. The nostrils should be fairly large but proportionate to the head, allowing for good respiratory air flow when the horse is working. The muzzle and mouth should be well proportioned as well; not too long or too short. A horse with a small mouth may be difficult to find bits for; alternatively, a large-mouthed horse may also be more difficult to fit and may tend to be stronger through the jaw.
The way that the head sets into the neck can affect the amount of flexion the horse is capable of. The general rule of thumb is that the neck should be equal to one-and-a-half times the length of the head. It should be long enough to allow for adequate rein length. Also, a well-developed top line from poll to withers with a gentle curve is desirable. The neck should tie into the chest and shoulders well, meaning it is neither too high nor too low.
The Shoulder, Withers, and Chest
The shoulder should be nicely sloped, allowing the horse to move freely. The scapula, or shoulder blade, should be longer than the humerus. Ideally, the slope of the shoulder should be on a 45 degree angle from the withers to the point of the shoulder. This allots the horse a longer and smoother stride.
During a growth spurt, the withers on young horses can appear lower than the croup. This is commonly referred to as being “downhill” in conformation. However, as they mature, this should level out. The withers should be well formed, not too flat or too defined. Overweight and flat-withered horses tend to have more of a “rolling” action, making them more difficult to fit and ride. The high-withered horse suffers similar issues in saddle fit. High withers leads to saddle sores and requiring more specific pads and saddles to make the horse more comfortable.
The chest should be broad and deep. This allows for the heart and lungs to do their job and makes for an athletic horse. The legs should be proportionate width-wise, allowing for even action in the front. Too wide of a chest tying into the legs could also contribute to the “rolling” action previously described.
The Girth, Back, and Hindquarters
A more desirable trait of any horse is being “deep through the girth”. This also allows for adequate room for the heart and lungs. The distance from the point of the withers to just below the elbow of the front leg should be the same from the elbow to the ground.
The length of the back should be proportionate to the overall size of the horse. The horse is typically divided into thirds; nose to girth should be the same length as the point of the withers to the point of the hip, and again from the point of the hip to the point of the buttock. The back should also be strong and not too narrow or broad.
The loins and hindquarters should be well-muscled. The tail set should be well-set, with a level pelvis and well-rounded quarters. Long hips and strong hindquarters are most desirable. The point of the buttock should be in line with the point of the hocks.
Lastly, leg conformation is also extremely important when considering the conformation of any horse. Soundness starts from the hoof, so hoof angle is relative to pastern angle, which is also relevant to the angle of the shoulder. Ideally, well-conformed legs will be straight and uniform all around.
Fore front legs should have long and muscular forearms and short, dense cannon bones. The pasterns should be uniformly straight, with a slope similar to that of the shoulder. If the pasterns are too long, the risk pf potential injury is higher; too short, and the horse faces lack of resiliency for the concussion of the hoof meeting the ground.
The hocks of the hind legs should be “well-let-down” with long and muscular thighs. You should be able to dram a straight line from the point of the buttock to the point of the hock, then to the rear of the fetlock joint. All joints should show no signs of inflammation or swelling, with angles approximately sloped to that of the front pasterns and shoulder slopes.
Hoof conformation is one of the most important aspects of a horse; with no hoof, you have no horse. Hoof conformation is a topic within itself. This will be covered next week!
In conclusion, this is a very basic and introductory look at the conformation of a horse. There are different variations by breed and discipline. Personal preference is also a factor. Ultimately, you want a horse that is proportionate and well put together if used for performance. There are blemishes and unsoundness issues for every breed, shape, and size of horse. Regardless, horses are wonderful creatures; enjoy them!