Balance and structure are two important keys to his overall conformation.
Want a horse that can canter and trot soundly and smoothly, as well as trail ride, run barrels, rope, pull carts or whatever else you need him to do? Good basic conformation is the answer!
Some breeds of horse have heavier or rounder muscles than others. Some have more arch to the neck and dish to the face, or have more “action” when traveling. But correct basic conformation that promotes a sound horse works for all breeds. The various areas horses are evaluated on for overall conformation are many; they include balance, structure, muscling, travel/way of going, breed and sex characteristics. Of all these, most horsepeople agree that balance is the most important.
The Balanced Horse
Balance basically means how proportioned a horse is and how this relates to his athletic ability. Other factors such as temperament, environment and trainability certainly play into a horse’s ability to do a job, but you should look at his basic balance and conformation to start with. When looking at balance, look at the horse from the side if possible – the length of his shoulder, back and hip should all be equal. Also, his neck should be the same length or slightly longer, and the head should be the same length or slightly shorter than the shoulder, back and hip.
Remember, a horse’s back is measured from the base of his withers to the top of his hip, and the shoulder is evaluated from the point of his shoulder to the elbow. Finally, while still looking at the horse from the side, the distance from the top of the withers to the bottom of the heart girth should be equal to the length from the bottom of the heart girth to the ground. When evaluating a horse for sale, you really need to try to look at him from the side and measure how all these pieces are put together.
Two Case Studies
Take a look at the horses pictured with this article. It appears the black horse is a bit more correctly balanced than the roan. His shoulder, back, hip, neck and head appear to be more in proportion. The back of the roan horse seems to be longer than the shoulder, and the legs seem to be longer than the depth of the heart girth. The black horse’s withers are set farther back and he appears to have a longer shoulder. Also, the heart girth and leg length are more equal. All these features tend to lead to a more athletic individual.
Look at Structure
Evaluating basic balance crosses over into looking at the overall structure of a horse. Structure includes factors such as the shape of the neck (longer along the top than bottom), the angle of the shoulder and pastern (45º is ideal), the level from the withers to the top of the hip, the angle of the hock, turn to the croup, shape of the hip, etc.
For example, the black horse’s withers are set further back, allowing for a shorter back and longer shoulder. This relates to more slope to the shoulder, and a neck that ties in higher between the front legs. Furthermore, his pasterns are closer to the ideal 45º angle and his cannon bones are shorter than the forearm. Generally, these conformational attributes lead to a horse with a longer, smoother stride in front. These horses tend to have fewer soundness issues in their front feet than those with straight shoulders and upright pasterns, like the roan horse appears to have.
Hip to Hock
Also look at the shape of the black horse’s hip and the set of his hocks. His hip is slightly steep and it appears the hocks are set out behind him a little (although this can be difficult to evaluate from a still photo). The roan horse appears to be a bit longer in the hip and may have a more desirable set to his hock. This results in a horse that strides up deeper with his hind legs, lopes more easily, and is able to turn or pull more strongly than a horse with his hocks out behind him.
Form to Function
Form to function is a phrase that combines all the conformation factors and relates them to how a horse should travel. In general, a horse with a short back, long shoulder, a neck that ties high between the chest, a good angle to the pastern, and correct set to the hock, will tend to have longer strides, move with a flatter knee, and have hocks that stride up under the horse, ideally reaching up to or past the flank area.
However, just because a horse is very well balanced and has the very best conformation and structure, does not mean he will be the very best at whatever his job is. Temperament and “trainability” are also very important.
Understanding basic conformation is essential, but remember that every horse is an individual. He may look perfect for your purpose, but still not perform to your expectations. Conversely, he may not seem to have what you need, but will work out wonderfully from a behavioral standpoint. You can get an idea of a horse’s conformation from photos or videos, but having a chance to actually see, ride and interact with him is critical to deciding if he will work out for you.
Kathy Anderson has been the Extension Horse Specialist at the University of Nebraska since 1991. She oversees the youth and adult extension horse program as well as teaches Undergraduate courses in the Animal Science Department. An avid horse show judge, Kathy is carded with the AQHA, APHA, and National Snaffle Bit Association. She received her BSc in Animal Science and Agricultural Education from the University of Nebraska, Masters of Science in Physiology of Reproduction from Texas A&M University, and a PhD in Animal Science from Kansas State University.