Test Your Eye for Horse Conformation

When I’m judging or evaluating a horse, the first thing I look for is overall balance. A horse that has balanced conformation–with neck, back and hip of equal length–will generally be a good mover and that translates into good performance. A horse that exhibits correct conformation should be a natural athlete.

An overabundance of muscling is the last thing I look for. Excessive bulk can cause soundness problems. Muscle mass and conditioning don’t change a horse’s basic structure. I want to see a horse that’s structurally correct, pretty, and balanced — that’s the type of horse that can win a halter class and go on to do well in performance classes.

At first glance, I look for a pretty head — one with small ears, that’s broad between the eyes. A clean, slender throatlatch will make it easier for a horse to flex at the poll and work with his head at the proper angle. Next, my eyes go to a horse’s topline and shoulder. Everything hangs on the quality of a horse’s shoulders and back. The slope, or angle, of a horse’s shoulder determines the length of his neck and back and also the way his front legs are set onto his body. Together these attributes contribute to length of stride and balance. The back is the “hub” of a horse, and a short, strong back is essential to a horse staying sound and performing well. Distinct withers of medium height will help keep a saddle in place.

From there, I work my way back and down. I like a croup without too much angle; a steep croup can mean a weak hip and incorrect set (angulation) to the horse’s hocks. I like to see a long, strong hip with adequate muscling and low hocks. These attributes usually indicate a horse that can stop well and will naturally work off his hind end — making him a stronger athlete. And when a horse’s shoulders and hips are of equal angulation, it means he’ll be able to collect himself well and travel correctly.

Finally, I want to see clean, well-defined, straight legs that aren’t too finely boned. A small-boned horse is more likely to have soundness problems.

First: Horse A
Horse A is my choice for first place in this group. Even though there are some negative aspects to his conformation, for the most part the positives outweigh the negatives. Although he’s a little coarse in his muzzle, this horse has a pleasant expression and a nice eye and ear. He appears alert and bright. His throatlatch is slender enough that he should flex well at the poll. His neck is appropriate in length, but it ties into his shoulder much too deeply, which may make this horse travel (or carry his weight) on the forehand and could limit his overall flexibility.

This gelding has a good shoulder with nice, pronounced withers that will hold a saddle well. He also appears to have a strong back, and his neck, back and hip are of relatively equal length. While his croup is long enough, its angle is slightly steep, giving his hindquarters a pointed appearance. However, he has adequate hindquarter muscling, both in his hip and gaskin, which should give him the power to perform well. This horse is very nice and square. He has straight legs, with a good, low hock set. His conformation indicates he’s an athlete that can handle a lot of work. Overall, he’s a nice horse to look at, and despite his few problems, he should be a good performer.


Second: Horse B
Horses B and C are a bit more challenging to place, as both lack overall balance and conditioning. However, Horse B is my selection for second, as he has much better legs than Horse C. This gelding has an average head and neck, and his expression isn’t as alert as Horse A’s. His slightly thick throatlatch may restrict his flexibility at the poll. Although his neck is a decent length as far as his overall balance, like Horse A’s, it ties into his shoulder too low for correct balance and flexibility.


Horse B’s shoulder has a nice slope and overall angle, indicating he should have a decent stride. But he lacks muscling in the shoulder and forearm, some of which may be due to lack of condition; this gives him the appearance of being weak in his front end. His back is acceptable, but his croup is much too short, which makes him inadequately muscled in his hip. This will affect his performance, as he won’t have the power needed to drive from behind. When we look at his legs, he has a nice angle to his pasterns, and his legs appear good and straight. Overall, I’d like to see this horse in better condition, with more weight and muscle and less belly.

Third: Horse C
Horse C is very similar to Horse B in his head and neck. Both are average and lack overall refinement. Horse C’s neck also ties into his shoulder too low, which may make him travel with too much weight on his forehand, and will make him less flexible in his neck. His shoulder is too straight up and down, which will place even more weight on his front end while he’s performing. This, in turn, will further reduce the power from his hindquarters. His back is adequate, although it could be slightly shorter for more strength. His croup also is adequate in length and angle; however, he’s lacking hip muscle, which could limit his athleticism.


As we move to his legs, we find front pasterns that are too steep. When combined with his straight shoulder, he’ll have a shorter stride and not as much “shock absorption” as a horse with more normally sloped pasterns. Conformation such as this often leads to soundness problems. The ideal slope of the pastern and shoulder is between 45 and 50 degrees. This gelding also is too high in his hocks, which will prevent him from getting his rear legs under his body to stop well. This, combined with light hindquarter muscling, will reduce his ability to drive strongly from his hind end. Overall, I wouldn’t expect Horse C to be as good a performer as the first two horses.

Tim Finkenbinder is an accredited judge with the American Quarter Horse Association, American Paint Horse Association, Palomino Horse Breeders of America and the National Snaffle Bit Association. He has served as a judge for the AQHA World Show, the American Quarter Horse Youth Association World Show, the All American Quarter Horse Congress, the NSBA Breeders Championship Show and many major circuits and futurities. Tim has owned or exhibited world champions in Quarter Horse, Paint, Palomino and Appaloosa competition.

Could your horse be in Horse & Rider magazine’s next Conformation Clinic? To submit a photo of your horse to be evaluated in our Conformation Clinic, send us a left-side view photo of your horse (for digital phots: high-resolution, 300 dpi, in at least 3″ x 5″). Make sure he’s well-groomed, looking straight ahead and standing on level ground–and try to avoid distracting backgrounds. Send photos to: HorseandRider@EquiNetwork.com.

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