Decoding Horse Conformation

Get the ins and outs of conformation from a horse-judging expert, so you can learn to ‘see’ a horse like a pro and master judging jargon once and for all.

You might hear your horse-loving friend say, “That horse just doesn’t look right,” or, referring to a famous performance horse, “Wow! Did you see him? He’s gorgeous!” When you ask why she favors a particular horse, she can’t seem to give you a straightforward answer, which leaves you scratching your head.

While “look” has a lot to do with why a rider may be drawn to one horse over another, there’s more to assessing a prospect than intuition. The good-look factor often closely coincides with good conformation, which is based on the principles of horse anatomy. A horse with proper internal structure (or anatomy) will move with more ease and efficiency, allowing him to be a better athlete and withstand the demands of his job—even if it’s as low-impact as leisure riding.

Here, I’ll take the head-scratching out of conformation by teaching you what’s good, what’s not-so-good, and why. I’ll also teach you to decipher common horse-judge jargon, so that next time you or your horse friend “just like” a horse, you’ll have the eye and the lingo to explain why.

Good conformation always starts with balance. This is the look-at-me factor that good horsemen are attracted to. A horse with good balance always has an attractive profile, which means he appeals to the eye. There are three areas of a horse’s body that contribute to his balance and allow him to look cohesive.

If you split a horse into thirds at the shoulder and the hip, you can assess his front third (by the depth of his shoulder), his middle third (by the length of his back and midsection), and his hind third (by the depth of his hip). A horse that has good balance will have equal length in all three of these sections. If you use a string to measure the length of his shoulders, you can use this same length of string to measure his topline and his hips, and, ideally, these areas are all equal.

Unequal length in one or more of these areas affects his proportional balance. Inequality diminishes the aesthetic blending of all body parts for eye appeal and prohibits athletic potential. For example, a horse with equal length in his shoulders and his hips, with a middle third that’s too long, will have a weak topline. This extra length in his middle third, or topline, could cause him to develop a swayback and reduce hind-end function. A horse’s hind end is his motor, so inability to harness this power will affect his movement. Lack of length in his shoulders will also affect athleticism. Too-short shoulders make a horse heavy on his front end, and he’ll carry his weight in front of his toes. This causes sharper break over in his knees, which translates into more jarring movement.

Proper overall balance typically comes from good structure. A horse with good structure in the angulation of his shoulders, hips, pasterns, and hocks; proper ratios between his top and bottom lines; and correctness through his front and rear legs will withstand everyday use better and be more athletic in general. Here are some specifics.

This stallion is a great example of the features of good conformation. He’s balanced, structurally correct, and attractive. His minor faults are his lack of muscle volume and less-than-ideal roundness to his croup. As you can see, from the point of his croup (just right of the line) to his tail, he’s a little straight. This horse’s shorter conformation allows him to make quick, agile movements.

The shoulders
I’ve already stressed the importance of good length in a horse’s shoulders, and especially in relation to the other areas of his body. While good length is positive, if this length is situated straight up and down rather than laid back and sloping, the horse won’t move well. Ideal shoulder angulation lies back at a 45-degree angle in relation to the ground. Some variation from this is OK. Too much deviation, such as too much uprightness, results in a short, choppy stride. Well-sloped shoulders allow more forward reach in his front legs, which enables him to cover maximum distance with the least amount of effort.

The preferred slope of a horse’s shoulders doesn’t change based on his size or event. A trail horse, Western pleasure prospect, and cutting horse should all have well-laid-back shoulders. The reason a taller horse is typically best for Western pleasure-type classes and a shorter-framed horse is more suitable to a cutting or cow horse isn’t the slope of his shoulders, but the length of his shoulders, hips, and limbs. A taller horse has longer shoulder bones, which allow him to cover more ground with each stride. (Horse 3, page 72, is an example of this type of conformation.) A shorter horse, on the other hand, can make quick, agile movements because he has shorter shoulder bones. (Horse 1, above, is an example of this type of conformation.) As long as a horse has proper angulation in his shoulders and balanced length in relation to the other thirds of his body, he’ll be athletic and move well. So, a horse with a larger frame will have longer shoulders, hips, and a longer back to ensure that he’s properly balanced, and vice versa.

The pasterns
A horse with long, sloping shoulders typically has complementary structures beneath it. Proper shoulder structure allows the front legs to travel straight down into a horse’s pasterns. This means he’ll track straight and will be soft when he travels. The softer the landing of the feet, the easier a horse will be to ride and the more resilient he’ll be under the physical demands of performance. Because the pasterns act as shock absorbers to a horse’s movement, it’s important that a horse’s pasterns match his shoulders in slope. Proper angulation is most affected by the length of the pasterns. Too-long pasterns are often too laid back and close to the ground, which will place excess pressure on the structures of the lower legs. Too-short pasterns are often too upright and are unable to absorb concussion well, which causes a choppy stride and makes the horse more susceptible to lameness and injury over time.

The length of this gelding’s shoulders and hips don’t match his topline; both appear to be too short. He also has a low-tying neck and sickle hocks.

The hips and hocks
Ideally, the slope of a horse’s hips complements his shoulder angle so he can reach underneath himself for long rear-leg strides.

The length and slope of this gelding’s shoulders and hips are adequate and complementary. He has a low-tying neck, but better hocks than Horse 2. His taller conformation gives him longer shoulder bones, allowing him to cover more ground with each stride.

The hocks are equally important in athletic maneuvering and stride. Proper set means they’re in the proper location horizontally in relation to the point of a horse’s hips. Visualize a straight line from the point of the horse’s hip, through his hock, and down to the back of his fetlock. Enough angulation in a horse’s hocks will enable proper flexion, so he can reach his hind legs up toward his belly and track directly behind his front legs. This ensures that his power originates from his hind legs and that there’s equal distribution of stress throughout his entire leg. Improper angulation of his hocks unevenly concentrates pressure to his leg joints, making him more susceptible to soundness issues over time. For example, a horse with hocks that sit too far behind the point of his hips could be post-legged. He’ll have a rough gait and will lack impulsion from his hind end. It’ll also concentrate stress to his stifles and pasterns, which could cause injury.

The topline and neck
A strong topline means a horse is level across his topline from the point of his withers to the top of his hips. This helps strengthen his topline and enables him to engage his hocks while remaining light in his front end. If he’s taller at his hips than his withers, his weight shifts forward, resulting in a front-heavy, jarring stride.

This mare has acceptable slope and length to her hips and shoulders, but her middle third is too long. It appears that she might be sickle-hocked if she were standing normally.

An ideal back is half as long as a horse’s underline so he can bring his hocks up underneath himself with greater ease and power. If this ratio is too close to equal and his back is excessively long, it’s more difficult for him to gain collection, and he’ll have a hollow back that won’t allow him to achieve collection and engage his rear end—his power source. He’ll struggle to get his hind legs underneath himself for efficient stops and other maneuvers.

This one-to-two ratio applies to a horse’s neck, too. A horse uses his neck to reach forward and stay balanced while he extends his stride or collects himself. A neck with equal length in the top and bottom lines doesn’t extend well, inhibiting athleticism. A high neck-to-shoulder tie-in will also allow him to achieve proper collection, and use well-sloped shoulders by allowing free front-leg movement.

Adequate muscling enables athletic maneuvers; however, muscling has no weight over other areas of conformation. Muscle and substance can often be developed through proper feeding and exercise, but proper balance and structure cannot. Sometimes, however, genetics play a role in a horse’s ability or inability to carry muscle, which affects a horse’s potential. Adequate muscling to do his job wins over bulk and volume. The high-volume muscling often seen on a halter horse, in the shoulders especially, isn’t necessary for the jobs that most stock horses perform (e.g., reining, cow horse, trail, and Western pleasure, among others). In events such as roping, barrel racing, and other quick, high-speed events, high-volume muscles create explosive movement. So there’s some difference in muscle expression based on a horse’s use.

This gelding has upright shoulders, which makes him look like he’s standing on his toes. The angle of his shoulders also doesn’t match that of his hips. This disparity in his structures causes a shorter, choppy stride.

Breed and gender characteristics enhance a horse’s look and eye appeal. In breeding animals, gender characteristics are imperative. Mares have more delicate features and are feminine. Stallions are more masculine in appearance than both mares and geldings. A kind, wholesome look is ideal in geldings. There are universally desirable characteristics, no matter a horse’s gender. An ideal head is short from eye to muzzle, with good expression in the face, and has a clean muzzle, kind eye, and short ears. An ideal stallion exhibits a masculine, well-defined jaw. There’s some difference in breed character between stock-horse types and lighter-breed horses. For example, an Arabian has a slight dish to his forehead, a refined look to his profile, and ears with slight inward curvature. It’s also acceptable for gaited horses, such as Tennessee Walking Horses, to have slightly longer faces from eye to muzzle.

A horse that’s pleasing to the eye attracts a judge’s eye in the show pen or a potential buyer at sale time. Strive to find a horse that best combines all positive characteristics of conformation to the highest degree.

Clay Cavinder is a carded judge with the Paint, Quarter Horse, Palomino, and Appaloosa breed/color associations, as well as the NRHA and NSBA. During his 15-year judging career, he’s officiated at shows across the U.S. and in Canada, Europe, and Australia. He’s an Associate Professor in Animal and Dairy Science at Mississippi State University and is the MSU State Horse Extension Specialist where he teaches and conducts research in equine physiology. He’s also the coach of the horse-judging team and has coached former teams to championships and reserve titles at major events.

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