Taking “Form to Function” to the next level
To the untrained eye, a horse can most easily be described by three distinct characteristics: size, breed, and color. But did you know there is an entire system used to evaluate how each body part relates to, and interacts with, each other? This is referred to as your horse’s conformation.
Webster’s dictionary defines conformation as “the shape or proportionate dimensions especially of an animal.” Having the knowledge to properly decipher your horse’s conformation allows you to objectively evaluate your horse’s body as a whole. Translating form to function enables you to make informed decisions on the best activities for you and your horse long-term.
Whether you’re looking to purchase your heart horse or are a current owner of a precious pony, learning about conformation is extremely important.
The ability to see the intricacies of your horse’s anatomy will not only allow you to understand your horse better, but it will make you a better horseman or horsewoman.
Why does conformation matter?
Most horse owners look to conformation in terms of eye appeal, functionality, and soundness. How a horse is put together can dictate their athletic ability, ease of training, and potential structural imbalances.
Training your eye to see ideal conformation is an important step in learning and growth as an equestrian.
Let’s face it, most people prefer looking at a well put together horse. There’s just something about them that makes them pleasing to look at and watch. But what is it that makes them so special? I’ll let you in on a little secret…that “little something” is balance and symmetry.
In terms of functionality, conformation can make a horse’s ability to perform either harder or easier.
For example, a horse with a longer back will naturally have a harder time achieving collection. In contrast, a shorter backed horse may find this collection easier to maintain.
Conformation is also important in regard to the health and wellness of your horse. Certain physical traits can make lameness or injury more likely. This is especially important when deciding whether, or not, to breed for future offspring, or when purchasing a horse for competition.
What is horse judging?
So how do you do it? What is the best way to figure out how your horse’s body is put together?
If you’ve shown horses in the past, you know that most classes rely on a scoring system in order to properly judge and rank the exhibitors from first to last. Evaluating conformation also relies on a judging system. This system is broken down into how the horse scores based on their:
- basic structure,
- proper muscling, and
- breed characteristics.
For our purposes, we’ll focus on overall balance and structural correctness.
Equine Anatomy 101: The Fun (Short!) Version
Before we dive deeper into how to judge your horse’s conformation, it’s important to mention some common anatomical terms you may come across.
- Poll: Located on top of the head and between the horses ears. It makes up a bony portion on the top of the head and forms the joint between the first cervical vertebrae and the skull.
- Withers: The high ridge at the base of the neck between the shoulder blades. This ridge is formed by the top portion of the thoracic vertebrae.
- Point of Shoulder: Bony portion found at the front of shoulder. This is created by the head of the humerus (upper arm bone) of the horse.
- Elbow: Found in front of the girth/cinch area where the forelimb joins into the trunk.
- Carpus: Often referred to as the “knee,” even though it anatomically mimics a human wrist.
- Fetlock: The joint below the carpus (knee) and above the hoof.
- Pastern: The space between the hoof and the fetlock.
- Barrel: The midsection of the horse.
- Loin: Thought of as the horse’s lower back. It is the space between the last rib and pelvis.
- Point of Hip: Bony point of the pelvis at the topmost part of the flank swirl.
- Point of Buttock: The most outermost portion of the horse’s hindquarters
- Stifle: Most similar to the human knee joint. It can be found about a hand’s distance down and back from the flank swirl. It is most commonly distinguishable by its dimple.
- Hock: Pointed joint of the hindlimb between the stifle and the fetlock.
Balance Related to Conformation
So what makes a horse pleasing to look at? If we take away breed preference and coat color, you’re left with general body shape, proportions, and symmetry. Each of these characteristics combined equals balance.
What does balance mean?
By simple definition, balance refers to items being even in distribution and proportion. Within your horse, balance can relate to the proportions of their body and if they are built uphill or downhill.
Depending on your horse’s discipline and goals for the future, finding a horse that is balanced through their body will make training and riding easier and more enjoyable.
How do you evaluate balance?
Balance is most commonly evaluated by three different ways:
- horizontal balance test
- circle test
- height & length test
To begin, you will want to stand to the side of your horse so that you have a lateral view of their body. To get the best reading, you will want to ensure your horse is standing square or as close to square as possible.
Standing square means a horse has all four feet evenly under their body in a square shape (technically, it is more of a rectangle than a square, but you get the point).
The Horizontal Balance Test:
From the side, draw a line with your eye from the height of the withers to the top of the croup. A horse that has horizontal balance will have a straight line from withers to croup. If your horse’s withers are higher, your horse has uphill balance. If your horse’s croup is higher, then your horse is built more downhill.
The Circle Test:
Starting from the side, imagine three equal circles drawn around the shoulder, barrel, and hindquarters. To have ideal balance, each circle should overlap by approximately one-third. If you’re having a hard time with imagining the circles, you can also draw a vertical line down from behind the elbow and another vertical line down from in front of the stifle, to divide your horse into thirds.
Height and Length Test:
From the lateral view, with your eyes draw a vertical line (Line 1) from the top of the withers down towards the ground. Then, draw a secondary vertical line (Line 2) from the point of the buttock down. Lastly, draw a third line (Line 3), this time horizontally from the point of shoulder towards the hindquarters. Extend the horizontal line far enough that it would intersect Line 2. A horse that has good body proportions will have Line 3 be equal or slightly longer than Line 1.
If you’re having a hard time completing these tests with just your eyes (we do), take a photo and draw directly on the picture–easy peasy!
Angles Related to Conformation
Another factor of conformation to consider are the angles that are present within your horse’s joints. These angles dictate the movement and stride length within your horse’s movement patterns.
What angles should you evaluate when looking at conformation?
The two most common angles to evaluate when looking at conformation are the shoulder and hip angles.
For most disciplines, a long, sloping shoulder is highly desirable. This allows for a greater range of motion and a longer stride length.
The University of Minnesota, for example, considers an angle of 40-45 degrees ideal. This is measured by drawing an angled line from the withers to the point of shoulder, and a secondary horizontal line from the point of shoulder towards the hindquarters.
As for the hindquarters, an open hip angle is ideal. The actual degree of the angle is less important and more emphasis is placed on the slope of the hip. A steep sloping hip will have less range of movement and a shorter stride, whereas a flat hip will lead to challenges with bringing the hind leg up underneath themselves to propel forward.
Equine Conformation Faults
Now that you’re more familiar with the importance of balance and angles, well discuss common conformation faults in horses. I’ve put together a list of some of the most commonly observed faults below:
Although these qualities are considered faults and, in some cases, increase the chance of injury or lameness. Please be aware, however, that there are horses with these traits that live healthy and injury-free lives.
- Ewe neck: A thin, often underdeveloped neck that has a concave arch. A dip in front of the withers may also be found.
- Short back: The length of the back is less than one-third in length.
- Long back: The length of the back is more than one-third in length.
- Toed in: One or both front and/or hind forelimbs are rotated in towards one another. Most commonly referred to as “pigeon toed” in humans.
- Toed out: One or both front and/or hindlimb are rotated outwards.
- Knock kneed: The carpal joints come in towards one another.
- Bow-legged: The carpal joints deviate away from one another.
- Over the knee: The carpus is slightly flexed when standing so that the joint will be more forward than the fetlock.
- Sickle hocked: Excessive angle of hock joint. The horse will stand with it’s hind hooves placed further underneath themselves.
- Straight hocked: Very straight hock and stifle joint. Sometimes called “post leg.”
Conformation Effects–Understanding “Function” in “Form to Function”
Whether you show your horse competitively or prefer to take to the trails, being aware of your horse’s conformation will help you in the long run. Conformation faults can sometimes lead to injury and/or lameness which can translate to behavior and training problems.
By knowing how your horse is put together and what advantages or disadvantages they might have physically, you can better assess situations and be an advocate for your horse’s well being.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: How can you tell if a horse has a long back?
Generally, when divided into thirds, the length of the horse’s back will be longer than the other sections. Called “The Circle Test.”
Q: What is the horse’s croup?
The horse’s croup is the area of the hindquarters that begins at the hip and ends at the dock of the tail.
Q: How do you read conformation?
By assessing balance, symmetry, and structural imbalances.
Q: What is a good hip on a horse?
An ideal hip is one that is large in size and is slightly sloping. This allows for greater mobility and power for momentum.
Q: Where can I find a horse conformation chart?
With today’s technology, there are countless resources to learn equine conformation and anatomy. A simple internet search will lead to hundreds of results that will satisfy beginner students all the way to the seasoned professionals.
Q: What is horse conformation class?
A horse conformation class is commonly called Halter. During these classes, horses are judged and evaluated on balance, symmetry, breed standards, eye appeal, and movement.
Q: How do you remember that it is spelled conformation and not confirmation?
Think of conformation as “form to function” and you’ll always remember the correct spelling!
One of the most important things to remember when learning about conformation is that although “perfect” conformation is ideal, a 100% perfectly symmetrical horse does not exist.
By utilizing the tools provided, I hope you have the resources to see your current or future horses with new eyes. Owning horses is a lifelong learning journey and this information is just the beginning!
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