What is horse conformation? Why is it important? How to judge it? In this article, we review basic conformation rules and provide good resources to help you understand how to evaluate a horse’s conformation. Read on to learn more.
What You'll Learn Today
Horse Conformation – Why It Is Important?
Your horse’s successful performance is closely tied in with his conformation. A horse who is not properly conformed (built right) for a particular discipline will not be able to succeed in that discipline.
This will result in them being more difficult to train and less satisfactory. Suitability for a specific discipline is not the only reason to look for good conformation in a horse.
Generally speaking, horses who have poor conformation may be injured more easily and more often and may have a greater tendency towards lameness.
How To Judge Horse Conformation
Stand Back And Look At The Horse From A Distance
When you look at a horse from the side as he is standing square (with feet evenly placed front to back and side to side), you should get an overall impression of symmetry.
You should be able to mentally draw a square from the withers to the ground from front feet to back feet up to the hips and back to the withers.
Balanced Neck And Head
You should be able to judge that his neck is about 1 1/2 times as long as his head. The length of the head should be measured from the tip of the nose to the top of the poll (the bump at the top of the head between the ears).
The length of the neck should be measured from the top of the poll to the middle of the shoulder.
Overall, a horse’s neck should be equal in length to the horses front legs. It should also be approximately a third the length of the horses entire body.
These proportions indicate a balanced neck and head. If the horse’s head is too big, he may be clumsy and move heavily on the front end.
If the horse’s head is too small he may be unbalanced and lack action and suppleness in the front end.
Other Qualities To Look For
Aside from measurements, there are other qualities to look for when you evaluate a horse’s head. Be sure his eyes are wide set, bold and bright. His nostril should be large and clean.
His ears should be set a little bit below the poll, not even with it. His lower jaw should be clearly defined, and the throat latch should not have a lot of muscling or fat around it.
A horse’s head should join with the neck at an angle so that it’s easy for the horse to flex and move in a balanced manner. Your horse’s neck should connect with his body fairly high, leaving a good, deep chest area beneath it.
The base of your horses neck should fall even with the point of his shoulder. This conformation provides for greater balance and flexibility.
The angle of a horse’s shoulders should be between 40 and 55°. The horses withers should be directly above the elbow (uppermost joint in the front leg). When a horses body is properly portioned and balanced, leg structure is sure to follow suit.
A horse who has straighter pastern and shoulder angles will have a short, choppy stride. This adds up to a rougher ride.
A horse, mare or gelding, who is proportionate can be said to be square. Proportionate horses are symmetrical front to back and side to side.
This includes symmetry in faults. Asymmetry results in stress points and can lead to problems and injury as a horse ages.
UNL Horse Judging: Conformation
Frequently Asked Questions
Balance involves the equal distribution of weight and muscle throughout the horse’s bodily structure. Good balance is important to pleasure riding and competition. A balanced horse will move forward with consistent ground contact and consistent rhythm. He will move freely through the back and will accept leg cues and instruction easily and gracefully. His overall demeanor will be relaxed and focused. A horse who is in good balance moves smoothly and efficiently.
A horse who is has balanced conformation should display equal length in four key areas of the body:
This will ensure equal weight carrying capacity in front and back, and even distribution of bodily weight.
Generally speaking, straight up and down structure of the legs and/or pasterns is a sign of trouble. Correct angle of the hocks and pasterns provides for better shock absorption and a smoother ride. If a horse’s hind legs are exceptionally straight, the outcome can be a stiff, limited stride that is uncomfortable to ride. Additionally, a horse with this sort of bone structure may be more prone to lameness. Straight or upright pasterns are also undesirable because they cannot absorb the shock of impact. A horse with straight pasterns will deliver a bumpy ride, and he or she will also be more prone to arthritis and navicular syndrome in future. On the flipside, a horse who has too much angle in his hocks (i.e. cow hocks/sickle hocks) will move with the hind hooves very far forward. This puts a lot of strain on the horse’s hocks and can cause inflammation and swelling in the joints and ligaments. Sloping pasterns are those which are almost parallel to the ground. This is also a sign of trouble. Sloping pasterns are weak and can collapse completely with weight gain, work or just the passage of time. Splints appear as small bumps under the skin of the lower legs, on the surface of the bone. Splints count as blemishes in show horses. The splint, itself, may or may not be painful. It is of concern, though, because it may be a symptom of a more serious problem, such as rotational or angular limb deformity, pigeon toes, offset knees, etc. Hooves that are uneven in size are problematic (especially in the rear) because they affect the balance of the body. Hooves that turn in or out are also problematic.
A horse who has poor conformation is simply not put together right. He or she may look odd and may be quite uncomfortable to ride. A horse who is off balance and poorly made is likely to have rough gaits. He or she may experience problems such as striking the backs of the front legs with the hind hooves. A horse with poor conformation is very likely to develop muscle and ligament problems and bone problems, such as arthritis with age.
The croup is the area just behind the point of a horse’s hips. This area helps transfer energy from the hindquarters to give power and thrust to movement. Ideally, a horse’s croup should be well rounded and muscled. It should be level with the horse’s withers. This is a key sign of balanced conformation.
Even though conformation classes are quite low key, they can carry a lot of weight in the life of a show horse. The way you present yourself and your horse and the way your horse behaves will leave an impression with judges and with onlookers who may wish to associate with you and/or your farm or ranch in future. It’s important to take proactive steps to be sure that impression is a good one.
Study the rules and pattern of the class carefully before entering the ring. You want to be able to take the right steps, at the right time, flawlessly. The pattern will vary from one show to another, but generally you will lead your horse to the judge at a walk and then turn as indicated by the prescribed pattern and lead your horse at a trot, turn and trot past the judge again. The idea is for the judge to be able to see how your horse moves. You want to be sure your horse moves through the desired pattern freely and with confidence.
Usually, a ring steward will help participants line up correctly. You may line up side-by-side or head-to-tail. Either way, line your horse up straight. If he’s at an angle, it will distort his profile.
Generally speaking, you should be sure you have six or eight feet of space between you and the nearest horse and handler. This will leave plenty of room for the judge to walk all the way around each horse without crowding or danger of being kicked.
For conformation classes, you don’t need to make a big presentation. You needn’t move from side-to-side (i.e. the quarter system) to stay out of the judge’s way. If you just stand at your horse’s head holding him or her securely in place, you’re fine.