Conformation Clinic: Western Pleasure Prospects

Evaluate the conformation of these 3-year-old colts and place them in your order of preference for a Western pleasure prospect, then see how your choices compare with our expert judge's.

This is a conformation clinic, not a movement clinic, but conformation determines movement. Standing still, a horse has to look like he has the natural ability to perform.


Performance horses are constantly evolving. Breeders are creating specialized horses that do their jobs more naturally all the time, taking the man-made look out of the picture. Not only should these horses be great movers, but they must have the mind and willingness to go along with their talent. They need to have natural rhythm and cadence. And nowadays they have to be pretty as well. Body style also plays a role in determining how competitive a horse will be for their particular event. Their talent has to match their appearance, and pleasure horses have evolved to have a certain look.

The modern pleasure horse has to look like he can do his job effortlessly. He has to have more balance, more cadence and more rhythm than any other performance class because of the degree of difficulty at the slow speed they are going. Because they’re moving so slowly, gait imperfections and deviations become more apparent–making it even more necessary to begin with great conformation.

In evaluating these three horses I’m looking at their suitability as Western pleasure horses. Click “Next” below to find out how I placed them.

First: Colt C
I really like this horse’s overall appearance. His body style matches that of the modern pleasure horse. He’s balanced, attractive and very athletic looking. I like his pretty head and kind eye. He has a clean throatlatch that’ll help him flex at the poll. His nice, long neck comes out of his body at a good angle–which will make it easy for him to travel with his neck level naturally.


He has a good slope to his shoulder and a strong topline, which tells me he’ll be able to stay framed up like a pleasure horse needs to be. His knees are low to the ground indicating he would have little bend in his knees–most of the motion would be coming from his shoulder, not his knees.

He has short cannon bones and a good slope to his pasterns, which tells me he’ll hit the ground softly. His hocks are set low and he’s strong in the stifle, which will allow him to swing his leg forward from the hip, making it easier for him to reach deep underneath himself and stay in the air and on the ground longer, so he’ll be slow-legged. He should make a great performance horse with a lot of natural ability.


Second: Colt A
The first thing that strikes me about this horse is that his head is quite plain and his neck is a bit too short. Plus, he’s too thick in the throatlatch, making him less supple. His neck also comes out of his body too high, which will make it difficult for him to keep his neck level and his shoulders up.

He’s downhill right now–his hips are higher than his withers–but considering his age, he may even out as he matures. If he has a level topline when he matures, he’ll be better able to keep his weight on his hind end and not become heavy on his forehand. Although he has a good set to his hocks, they’re a little higher off the ground and he’s a little straighter in the pasterns than the first place horse, so he won’t be able to drive as deep underneath himself and will hit the ground a little harder.


Third: Colt B
Although this horse is very attractive overall, there are several things that bother me as far as his Western pleasure potential goes. He’s quite compact compared to Colt C, which would make him quicker-legged, and he’ll have a shorter, choppier stride. His hocks are higher off the ground than I like to see–which will cause him to pick up his back leg instead of swinging it forward smoothly. He’s too heavy-bodied, and his neck comes out too high, which indicates that he would probably not move with the natural level topline I like to see in Western pleasure prospects.

I’m not sure if it’s the ground he’s standing on, but he appears to be low in the heels, and his toes are too long–something that would cause him to have more knee in front, which is not desirable. It would encourage him to pick up his legs and bend his knees too much as he brings his legs forward. He has a beautiful head and is a very striking color.

Robin Gollehon currently owns and operates Gollehon Show Horses with her husband Roger in Trafalgar, Ind. A member of Team Horse & Rider, Robin has more than 75 world and
national championships to her credit in yearling longe line, Western pleasure, and hunter under saddle.

This conformation clinic originally appeared in the March 2006 issue of Horse & Rider magazine.

Enter Your Horse in 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 photos: 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.

What did you think of this article?

Thank you for your feedback!