When examining horses for conformation, either when considering a purchase or competing in horse judging contests, it is important to break things down into key principles to avoid becoming overwhelmed when putting the overall picture together. There are five main criteria to evaluate when examining a horse’s conformation: balance, structural correctness, way of going, muscling, and breed/sex character (also known as type).
Balance is arguably the most critical aspect to evaluate when examining the horse. Balance is essential for both quality of movement and performance in any event, and is determined by the horse’s bone structure. Balance refers to equal distribution of muscling and weight from the front of the horse to the back of the horse, from its top to its bottom and from side to side. However, balance is not determined by the horse’s weight but instead by proper angles and proportions of different parts of the body. In other words, a horse can be light bodied or heavy bodied and still be balanced if its bone structure allows for equal distribution of that weight. Proper balance enables the horse to carry itself in a manner to allow for easy maneuverability, greater power and smoother movement.
The first priority when looking at a horse is to determine if it is balanced. To begin with, the horse should carry equal weight on his front end and back end and on his topline and underline. This is determined by the skeletal structure of the horse allowing for correct proportion of the horse’s parts. The neck, shoulder, back and hip should all be approximately equal lengths and the horse’s topline should be shorter than its underline (Figure 1). A common flaw that negatively affects the horse’s balance is a back that is long in relation to the neck and hip. An important ratio to consider when analyzing balance is the ratio of the topline to the underline. The topline is measured from the withers to the point of coupling. The underline is measured from a point under the belly between the horse’s front legs to a point roughly even with the stifle (Figure 2). The topline should always be shorter than the underline in a balanced horse. A longer topline indicates that the horse has a long, weak back, which is often problematic due to long backs having weaker muscling.
Structural correctness is critical for soundness as well as correct and clean movement. This is determined by proper structure and alignment of bone, particularly pertaining to the legs. Structural correctness is tied very closely to balance and influences the way a horse moves. After examining the horse for balance, a close second in importance is structural correctness. A horse’s structural correctness is mainly determined by the structure and position of the bones in the legs. This is critical because the horse’s legs take incredible impact in most riding disciplines. Any conformational flaw causes deviations in where the horse absorbs concussion. Conformational defects affect the horse’s way of moving and can also lead to future lameness due to excessive stress placed on certain areas of the body during athletic movements. A horse carries approximately 65 percent of its weight on its front legs, thereby making the front legs the most likely area for injuries resulting from trauma or concussion. Conformational defects cause deviations in the way the horse moves and places its hooves on the ground, and therefore affects the way impact travels up the leg. The more structurally correct the horse’s legs are, the more evenly distributed the impact will be and the less likely the horse will be to have chronic or acute injuries.
Way of Going
Leg conformation significantly impacts the way the horse moves. A horse with straight, correct legs has maximum range of motion and moves cleanly and correctly without any interference (hitting one leg against another). Horses with structural deviations in their legs do not generally move their legs straight forward when traveling. Horses with pigeon toes typically “wing out” when they move. As the horse has its knee bent and its leg brought back behind it, it must swing its lower leg to the outside of a straight line to place it back in front of itself. This is due to the natural angle that the horse’s legs are set at due to the pigeon toes. It is not, however, as serious a problem as the mature horse that toes out. These horses will “wing in” as they move forward. This causes the horse to potentially interfere and hit its other leg as it is moving one leg forward. (Side note—toeing out slightly in foals will often not persist into adulthood as the foal ages and fills out muscularly). Horses that are base narrow tend to “rope walk,” or cross one front leg over the other when moving, and also have a tendency to interfere. In addition to watching the horse from the front and rear to determine its footfall, it is also important to watch the horse move from the side to determine stride length and quality. In some disciplines and breeds, such as Quarter Horses and Thoroughbreds, the horse should have a long, smooth stride that is very flat with very little knee action (Figure 19a). For certain breeds such as Arabians, Morgans and Saddlebreds, the horse should have more knee flexion and raise its legs higher (Figure 19b). It is important for all horses to bring their hind legs well underneath themselves to power their movement. It is also important when watching the horse move from all angles to be sure that the horse does not “interfere” or hit its legs together at any point in its stride.
Quantity and quality of muscling can be another important consideration when evaluating conformation, though not to the same extent as balance, structural correctness and way of going. It is important to recognize that degree of muscling is largely determined by breed, with some breeds naturally being more heavily muscled (e.g., American Quarter Horse) than others (e.g., Thoroughbred). Points on the horse to evaluate muscling include the chest and forearm, loin, stifle and gaskin. In these areas, quantity and quality of muscling can be evaluated. A deep pectoral “V” is desirable in the chest (Figure 20). It is also desirable for the forearm and gaskin muscling to have definition and be long and smooth versus short and bunchy. When examining the horse from the side, the muscling over the back and loin area should be smooth and defined rather than weak. The back should tie smoothly into the hip without severe angles or bumps. The muscling over the entire topline should be smooth and flow together seamlessly (Figure 21). On the hindquarters, the muscling over the stifle and gaskin should also be well defined but not bunchy. The muscling around the stifle should be the widest part of the horse when viewed from behind (Figure 22). The muscling around the inner and outer gaskin should also be wide and well defined. In general, it is desirable to have a smooth, well-defined muscle pattern over the entire horse.
Evaluating conformation involves analyzing a particular breed and type of horse for balance, structural correctness, way of going, muscling and perhaps breed and sex character. Breed and sex character were not discussed in this publication, as they are typically the least important consideration in evaluating conformation and can vary greatly between breeds. Essentially, breed character simply refers to how well an individual horse represents the ideal standard for its breed. Pictures of ideal breed individuals can typically be found on breed organization websites or brochures. Breed characteristics should not take precedence over balance, structural correctness or way of going. Proper conformation is important to allow the horse to be balanced, powerful and maneuverable as well as to maintain soundness over its lifespan. Evaluating a horse based on its conformation should give an idea of how the horse might perform a given task and how sound it will stay. There are exceptions to every rule, and there are definitely horses with poor conformation that go on to be great performers, and horses with crooked legs that never take a lame step. However, looking at conformation is one of the most reliable predictors of both athletic ability and soundness in the majority of horses. It is a useful skill to develop an educated “eye” and be able to knowledgeably assess conformation. In youth and collegiate horse judging competitions, it is critical to be able to place classes and give reasons using the five main criteria of balance, structural correctness, way of going, muscling and breed/sex character.
Excerpts from UGA Bulletin 1400 by Dr. Kylee Jo Duberstein