KNOW HOW TO ASSESS CONFORMATIONAL FEATURES
Although horses vary in size and characteristics, some aspects of good conformation are common to every horse. Conformation refers to the degree of correctness of a horse’s bone structure, musculature, and its body proportions in relation to each other. Conformation will vary by breed. For example, Thoroughbreds have naturally more prominent withers and back, compared to pony or draft breeds. Conformation affects the horse’s movement, biomechanics and performance. Horses with poor conformation may be at greater risk for experiencing physical stresses, injury and lameness, which is a welfare concern.
- The head should be in proportion with the rest of the horse. The distance from A to B is equal to the distance from C to D and one-half the distance from D to E.
- The eyes should be large, bright, and wide set.
- The nostrils should be large and able to flare to allow increased airflow in and out of the lungs. The lips and front teeth should meet evenly. A horse with an overshot upper jaw, or when the front top teeth extend out past the lower teeth, is said to have a parrot mouth. A horse with an overshot lower jaw, or when the lower jaw is longer than the upper, is said to have a monkey mouth. Both of these traits are undesirable because they can make chewing difficult for horses.
- The ears should be proportionate to the rest of the head.
- Horses use their head and neck to balance. Adequate length depends on what activity the horse is used for. Generally, the neck should about one third of the horse’s total body length and the base of the neck should be relatively level with the point of the horse’s shoulder.
Conformation looks at the physical shape and balance of the horse’s body parts. It refers to the shape of a horse’s bone structure, muscles and body proportions. Conformational criteria look at how well the horse is built. This criterion can be affected by the horse’s breed or intended use.
- The chest should be relatively wide, deep and well-muscled. A chest that is too wide produces a labouring, waddling and unathletic stride. A chest that is too narrow may cause the horse to experience interference or “brushing” when it travels. Interference means that one limb contacts another limb during locomotion.
- The horse’s front leg is attached to the body only by muscle and tendons. The shoulder should be well sloped to provide greater shoulder rotation, forearm extension and length of stride. A straight, upright shoulder results in a shorter stride.
- Muscling in the shoulder should be long and well-developed for strength and absorption of concussion. Too much muscle increases the weight on the forehand which creates added stress on the forelegs.
- The size of the forearm affects its function. The forearm should be relatively long in relation to the length of the cannon bone and well-muscled. A short forearm decreases the length of the stride. Long muscling in the forearm provides greater contraction and lift of the leg. Volume of muscling provides power and support for the lower leg.
- The size of the knee affects its function. A relatively large flat knee increases the area of attachment for tendons, ligaments and muscles from the forearm. A large and flat knee also increases the area of support to reduce stress on the knee.
In an ideal front leg, a string with a weight attached or a straight stick should divide the knee, cannon and fetlock at the heel bulb.
If a horse has buck knees, the knee will be forward of the line that divides the foreleg in half. This makes the horse susceptible to bowed tendons.
If a horse has calf knees, the knee will be behind the line that divides the foreleg in half. This places excess stress on the front of the knee and strain on the tendons, making the horse susceptible to chip fractures of the knee and bowed tendons.
If a horse is tied-in at the knee, the leg will appear narrower at its base than at the fetlock. This makes the horse susceptible to tendon injuries.
When viewed from the front, two strings or straight sticks hang so that they evenly divide the knees, cannons, pasterns and hooves.
If a horse has knock knees, the knees lie inside the strings. This places excess stress on the outer knee and strains the inside ligaments of the forelegs.
If a horse has bowlegs, the knees lie outside the strings or straight sticks. This places stress on the inner knee and strain the outside ligaments of the forelegs.
If a horse has bench knees, the cannon bone is offset so that it appears on the outside of the strings or straight sticks. This places more stress on the inside splint bones, making the horse more susceptible to splints.
- The hindquarters include the croup, hip, stifle, gaskin, hock and lower hind leg. The muscling and strength of the hindquarters determines the amount of power the horse has. The structure should reflect speed, power, endurance and athletic ability, depending on the purpose of the horse.
- A longer gaskin allows greater extension of the hind leg. Long muscling provides greater contraction and lift of the leg. A greater volume of muscling provides power for impulsion to drive the horse forward.
- A strong hock that is large enough to provide room for adequate muscle and tendon attachment, while keeping in proportion to the size of the horse is desirable. The front of the hock should be reasonably smooth with no meatiness or swelling. The back of the hock should be square and well-defined.
When viewed from the side, a string or straight stick dropped from the point of buttocks should run down the back of the hock, cannon and fetlock and should hit the ground about one half a hoof’s distance behind the heel bulb.
If a horse has sickle hocks, it appears to be standing under the string or straight stick from the hock down. The hind leg has excessive angulation of the hock joint, which places strain on ligaments and makes the horse susceptible to the development of curb, which is a swelling of the lower part of the hock.
If a horse is post-legged, the entire leg appears too straight and the hind leg is set ahead of a line dropped from the point of the buttock. The pasterns are usually too upright and the hocks too straight. This places excess stress on the front of the hock and stifle joint and makes the horse susceptible to bog spavins, thoroughpins, bone spavins and stifling.
When viewed from behind, two strings or straight sticks should run through the middle of the gaskin, hock, cannon bone and fetlock of each hind leg and hit the ground between the bulbs of the heel.
If a horse has cow hocks, the hocks are closer together than the fetlocks. The feet are widely separated and point outward. This hind leg defect places excess stress on the hock joint and strain on the ligaments. This horse is susceptible to bone spavins, curb or thoroughpins.
If a horse has bowed hocks, the hocks lie outside the strings or straight sticks. This may cause the horse to move narrower at the ground than at the hock, and places excess stress on the hock joint and strain on the ligaments. The horse is susceptible to bog spavins, curb or thoroughpins.
Fore & Hind Limbs
- The front and rear legs should come under the horse’s body so that they stand square and strong.
- When viewed from the front or back, the legs should be straight with the joints lined up. A horse’s legs should stand straight under the four corners of the body without angling in or out.
- The length and angle of the pasterns are important. These short sections of the leg just above the hoof should be sloped. When the horse is standing square, the front pasterns should be at an angle of about 45 to 50 degrees and the back pasterns should be at an angle of about 50 to 55 degrees. Moderately long, sloping pasterns help to absorb concussion. If the horse is built so that its pastern is too upright, it will increase concussive impacts on the joints and reduce stride length. If it is too sloped or too steep, the horse may be susceptible to injury of the tendons, ligaments and the fetlock joint.
When viewed from the side, the front and rear legs should come directly under the body.
If a horse is standing behind, the foreleg from the elbow down is too far under the body. This places excess weight on the forelegs. If the hind leg is placed too far forward, it is standing under, which reduces the range of motion of the limb.
If a horse is standing out, the foreleg from the elbow down is too far forward, which places excess stress on the front of the knee and strain on ligaments and tendons. If the hind leg is placed too far backward, the horse is standing behind, which makes it difficult for the horse to ”collect” or shift their weight from their forehand to their hindquarters.