A Conformation Judge's Philosophy

Sporthorse breeder and judge Julie Winkel, who critiques readers' horses in the Practical Horseman Conformation Clinic each month, explains her 'Fits In a Box' Judging System.

Whether judging a model class, evaluating a prospect for a client or sizing up the yearlings at home, I look first for an overall impression of balance and symmetry. I like to stand back for a first impression. My ideal horse fits in a square box. By that, I mean a horse defined by matching and equal parts both front to back and side to side. This allows for athletic ability, soundness, trainability and longevity in the job.

A horse that “fits in a box” will have a body made up of one-third shoulder, one-third back and one-third hindquarters. I like to see the withers and hips at the same level. The horse’s stance, from the point of shoulder to the buttocks, should equal the distance from the height of the withers to the ground.

I also always look at the eyes–not as a vet, but I want to see a horse with clear alert vision. From the head, I move down the neck to the shoulders, along the back to the hind end and leg construction.

For hunters, the emphasis should be a level topline from ears to tail, a well-sloped shoulder for fluid movement and ability to lift in the air as well as quality and typiness. For jumpers, the emphasis should be on hindquarters with a good length from the hip bone to the point of the buttock for power off the ground. I look for correct angles from hip to buttocks to stifle to hip. This triangle should have sides of similar lengths. A long, more level quarter equals more rear-wheel drive. The length from stifle to hock should be similar to the length from the point of the hock to the ground. Longer-backed horses often have more scope.

For dressage, a more upright build and a shorter neck are desired. I look for a strong back end with a forward sloping femur for impulsion, a more compact back for collection and structural balance with the feet standing squarely under the horse for ease with repetition and cadence in the movement.

For event horses, the emphasis is on an athletic, sturdy build, a deeper chest for ample lung capacity, and substantial bone for durability.

Julie Winkel, owner and founder of Maplewood Stables in Reno, Nev., is a U.S. Equestrian Federation “R” hunter breeding judge and Canadian Equestrian Federation “S” judge. Her Conformation Clinic appears monthly in Practical Horseman magazine.

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