We all love horses - otherwise you wouldn't be reading my blog - so it is often difficult to look at an individual horse critically. However, if you are looking to ride, buy or loan a horse it can be useful to have an understanding of conformation and how it can impact on a horse's way of going. Have a look at my horse anatomy video to guide you.
Different people may prefer slightly different proportions and also different proportions may be ideal for different disciplines. So please use this blog as a guide.
Conformation is the way a horse is put together, basically his bone structure!
Initially it is best to stand back and have an overall look at the horse. The best way to do this is to either tie the horse up or ask someone to hold him out of the stable. This is because the light is better outside and stable shadows can alter your observations.
This initial impression should show you that the horse is in proportion. Does the head look as though it 'fits' with the body. Is the horse's top line smooth and well developed?
The shoulder should be strong and sloping. The back should be short and all 4 legs set well under the body, the front and hind feet should be matching pairs.
Once you have an overall impression you can look at the individual parts.
As I have already said this should be in proportion to the rest of the horse. Ideally you want the horse's head to be set on the neck so that you can get at least 2 fingers between the lower edge of the mandible and the atlas vertebra. A smaller gap will mean the horse has difficulty flexing. Also being able to get a clenched fist between the 2 branches of the lower jaw is ideal.
These should be relaxed and mobile and in proportion to the size of the head! Hearing is a horses' most important sense.
These should be set wide apart to ensure the horse has good vision. The eyes should be of a good size and have a 'kind' expression. Large soft eyes tend to mean a kind and generous horse.
Again these should be big and wide to allow the easy intake of air.
The upper and lower jaw should meet with the upper and lower teeth level. An overshot or undershot jaw will cause problems with the horse's teeth and may also cause biting problems.
Overshot Jaw or Parrot Mouth
This again should be in proportion to the horse's body and should come 'up' from the withers. A horse with a low neck can tend to move 'on his forehand'. Unfortunately, a horse whose neck is too high can make it difficult for them to flex and bend correctly. The topline should also be concave and the muscles under the neck should not be over developed as this will also cause difficulties with flexion.
The ideal angle of the shoulder is between 45 and 50 degrees from the withers to the point of shoulder! If the shoulder is too upright the horse will have a short and choppy stride. The shoulder should be strong but not overly muscled.
The chest houses the heart. If the chest is too wide the horse feels as though he is 'rolling' in canter. However, a horse with a narrow chest will have forelegs that are too close together and therefore brush against each other!
Again, this must be in proportion. A long back can mean a weak back but in a mare this will allow more room for the foal. Short backs are strong but too short will often mean an un-comfy ride and difficulty with fitting a saddle. The picture below gives an idea of the 'ideal' back and shows some conformational 'faults'.
These are ideally broad and muscular.
The Front Legs.
When viewing from the front these should be straight from the top of the leg to the middle of the foot. If the legs are not straight there may be extra strain on the tendons, ligaments and joints. The forearm should be longer than the leg below the knee and the shorter the leg below the knee the stronger it will be.
These should be flat, broad and appear strong. If the leg looks concave (ie: back at the knee) there can be extra strain on the tendons. If the horse appears over at the knee (ie: the knee appears further forward than the leg) there is not likely to be extra strain.
The Cannon Bones.
As mentioned above these (and the lower leg) should be short and strong. They should not be narrower at the knee than the fetlock, which is called 'tied in at the knee' because this indicates that there is less room for tendons and ligaments.
These should appear to be large and flat.
The Front Pasterns.
These should look to be the same angle as the shoulder angle (mentioned above). Long pasterns are liable to strain but will help the horse give a comfortable ride. Shorter pasterns are more likely to be concussed and can make the horse more uncomfortable to ride.
The Hind Legs .
As with the front legs, when viewed from behind these should show a straight line from the point of the buttock through the centre of the hock and cannon bone. The picture below shows the ideal line and the name given to the conformation 'faults' if the line is not straight.
These should be large and have a prominent point. The distance between the hock and fetlock should be short. There should again be a straight line from the point of buttock down the back of the hock and lower leg to the ground (see picture below).
Again, as with the front legs these should be flat but have an angle of 50 - 55 degrees.
The hind feet should be more oval than the front and this helps with pushing the horse forward.
No horse is perfect and a conformation fault does not mean you should write the horse off. Many of the top 3 day event horses have faults but have reached the pinnacle of their sport. My horses are by no means perfect, consider the faults realistically and in conjunction with all the other things you know about the horse; their temperament, history etc...
Did you see this week's video? 'What's in my Tack Cleaning Kit'
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Until next time!