Conformation is the way a horse is put together and can vary between breeds. These variations are both natural (depending on a breed’s ancesty), and manmade (from our selective breeding of physical traits).
Selective breeding has occurred for thousands of years and has always had as the main objective to develop a horse that was useful in a particular environment. It has only been in the last 50 to 60 years that horses have become predominantly used for recreation rather than work. So a breed or type of horse always had a job to do and the job dictated the ‘ideal’ conformation for the task. You can relate these different physical trait to humans. Think about all the different shapes and sizes humans come in and you will start to understand why horses take so many forms.
The conformation of any particular horse always starts with its skeleton. So a horse’s bones might be larger or smaller, they might attach at a slightly different angle. All of these variations will determine how tendons and muscles attach and give that particular horse its conformation and its physical abilities and limitations.
However all of these differences still have to be correctly proportioned or the horse may be unbalanced, more likely to get injured and unable to perform its job.
A horse is said to have ‘correct proportions’ when certain measurements are equal. For example: the length of the head, the depth of the body at the girth, the distance from the point of the hock from the ground, the distance from the chestnut on the front legs to the ground, the distance from the croup to the fold of the stifle and from the fold of the stifle to the point of the hock should all be the same. These proportions would be very desirable for a riding horse but may vary depending on what you want the horse to do. For example, do you want large lung capacity, do you want pushing strength, agility and quick turns or the ability to lengthen and collect.
Generally a well-proportioned horse divides into three sections of equal length. In other words the neck, torso and hindquarters should all be of equal length. (Personally, I have never seen a ‘perfectly proportioned’ horse. Some get very, very close and are extremely pleasing, however all horses have faults and what we wish to do is minimise the faults – and certainly stay right away from major defects!)
Assessing a Horse
When assessing a horse start at the head. It should be in proportion with the overall size of the horse… a big heavy head will make the horse unbalanced and put too much weight on its front legs (remember a horse already carries 60% of its weight on its front legs).
The upper (maxilla) and lower (mandible) jaw should meet evenly at the front. If they don’t, the horse will have trouble biting off grass. In a riding horse, the neck should be longer with some room between the mandible (lower jaw) and the first bone of the neck. This will allow the horse to curve at the poll. A shorter neck is associated with strength, so it is more desirable in Draught horses.
A riding horse should have a sloping shoulder, not an upright one. The slope of the shoulder comes from the scapular (shoulder blade). A sloping shoulder will give a smoother ride with longer strides rather than a short, jarring movement.
The withers should be well defined (not too high or too low). Low or flat withers are not important for a Draught horse that wears a collar and is being asked for strength rather than extended paces.
The chest and body should be well developed. Narrow chests mean that the front legs are close together and the foreleg joints may brush against each other. This is a serious fault.
The back should rise slightly to the croup and the lumbar and hindquarters should be well muscled. The croup of an adult horse should be the same height as the withers. If the croup is higher than the wither too much weight will be pushed onto the front of the horse. It is also uncomfortable to ride a horse that pushes you onto the front of the saddle. A croup that is lower than the withers may be desirable in a horse that is used at higher levels of Dressage. (An exception to this is the Quarter Horse, where the croup is slightly higher than the withers. They compensate by dropping their backend to work – Reining, Cutting, etc.)
The hind legs should not be stretched out behind or sit too far under the horse. If you dropped a piece of string from the point of the buttock to the ground it should touch the point of the hock and continue down the back of the cannon bone.
The front hooves should be round and match each other. The hooves on the hind legs should be more oval shaped and matching.
The pasterns should be of medium length and sloping. When viewed from the side, the slope of both the front and back hooves should continue the slope of the pastern. The sole of the hoof should be concave not flat so that you can avoid stone bruising and corns. This may not be possible in heavy draught type breeds as they usually have flatter feet.
One of the most important things to look for is symmetry. If you look at the front of a hoof and draw a line down the centre the hoof should be the same both sides. If you look at both hooves they should be the same. If you look at both front cannons, or the rump, or shoulders they should be a mirror image – symmetrical.
Some common defects in a horse’s conformation are:
When the top incisor teeth do not meet the bottom incisors. Also called buck teeth.
Where the top of the neck is concave and the bottom of the neck is convex
The neck is set at a high upward angle with the upper curve arched. A dip remains in front of the withers and the muscles bulge on the underside.
A long skinny neck, with poor muscle development on the top and the bottom. It can be improved with skilful riding to develop muscle.
Back at the knees:
From a side view the knee extends backwards
Knees which are shallow from front to back
When viewed from the back the hocks turn inwards like a cow
Over at the knee:
Where the knees protrude forward
Toes turn inwards
Toes turn outwards
The spine has an exaggerated upward curve
When viewed from the side the hocks have a concave line at the front of the hock and the cannon bone slants forward
Ribs are flat on the side not rounded (sprung)
The back has an exaggerated hollow
Tied in below the knee:
Where the measurement of the bone below the knee is less than further down the cannon bone.
So when you are assessing a horse you should know what the horse will be used for and the environment it will live and work in. Then you should look at its proportions and symmetry and, of course, avoid any obvious defects in its conformation.
Note: Temperament or personality is just as important as conformation when selecting a horse. This is particularly important when the rider is young and/or inexperienced.
My Horse University videos:
More About Conformation:
2007 Equestrian Academy, University of Nebraska Lincoln.
The Pre-Purchase Examination: