Is Your Horse Cow Hocked? Toed In? What Does It Mean?

An illustrated guide to some common equine conformation faults.

How did you choose your current horse?

Did you study up on horse conformation, or bring an expert with you, and draw imaginary lines to divide the horse’s body so you could analyze exactly how he was built?

Or did you look into his eyes and fall in love, and decide that the rest of it really didn’t matter?

If your method was the first one, well, bully for you, and I would venture to say you’re one of the few. I think most of us (myself included) make decisions from our heart, and so we don’t dwell much on things like conformation, even though we should. Horse conformation affects not only their gait, but their soundness.

So if you’re in the market for a new horse, or would like to learn a little bit about how yours is built, then read on, because contributing editor Jayne Wilson has a lovely guide to help you make heads or tails (sorry, I couldn’t resist) out of the conformation of your horse’s legs. It even has illustrations! Enjoy.

Equine Conformation Faults

As I wrote in one of my first online articles on equine conformation, “The legs could be said to be the most important part of the horse, for if a horse has weakness or bad conformation in his legs, his athletic ability is going to be seriously compromised.”

In this article, I have included some illustrations, showing some of the conformation faults that may be seen in the horse’s legs.

This first illustration shows a normal foreleg, as seen from the side. As you can see, the “building blocks” of the leg, appear neatly balanced on top of one another, with no deviation either backwards or forewards.


This conformation places the least amount of strain on the horse’s tendons and the horse is more likely to stay sound.


This leg is over at the knee, where the lower leg appears set back in comparison to the forearm above the knee.

In some cases, this can be so severe that the horse appears to be about to buckle over at the knee, although this won’t happen and horses with this conformation are usually able to perform quite adequately.

This foreleg is back at the knee, where the upper leg is set back in comparison to the lower leg.

This fault is more serious than over at the knee because it places additional strain on the tendons running down the back of the lower leg.

In order to further examine the conformation of the horse’s legs, stand directly in front of him and assess the straightness (or lack thereof).

In this illustration, the forelegs come out of the chest at a good width, allowing adequate heartroom. They continue straight down to the ground, with no twisting, splaying or toeing-in.

A horse with this conformation, provided his feet are properly trimmed, is unlikely to have an faults of gait, such as interfering or brushing.

This horse is base narrow, where the legs are closer together at the hoof than they are at the chest.

This sort of conformation can predispose the horse to faults of gait, such as interfering or brushing, where the horse knocks one foreleg with the other foreleg as he moves.

This horse is base wide, where the legs are further apart at the hoof than they are at the chest.

Horses with this conformation often also have feet that splay outward and exhibit faults of gait such as dishing or plaiting.

This horse is toed-in, the equine equivalent of pigeon-toed. The opposited of this (not illustrated) is toed-out, the equine equivalent of duck-footed.


Both of these conformation can cause uneven wear of shoes, as well as strain on the legs and faults of gait.

As can be seen below, some conformations that are considered faults for horses intended for general riding can actually help certain types of horses.


This illustration shows a good conformation of the hocks. The lower leg is neatly balanced under the horse’s hind quarters, without straggling out behind.

Horses with this conformation will be unlikely to have problems with engagement and collection, desirable in performance horses.


This horse is sickle-hocked, where the hind legs are carried too far in underneath the body. This conformation is actually desirable in reining horses, who have to almost sit down in their reining patterns and also in Tennessee Walkers, who take such large strides with their hind legs in the show ring.

Seen from the back, this horse is cow-hocked, where the hocks are close together.


Generally speaking, this is considered a fault, although in draft horses cow hocks are a desirable trait as it is thought this helps them pull loads.

These are the main conformation faults seen in horses’ legs. Many horses live active, productive lives with these faults and never have a problem but, as mentioned above, sometimes weakness or bad conformation can compromise the horse’s athleticism.

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