BASIC HORSE CONFORMATION
Ellawin of Eaglewood, Hippatrian
Conformation, or the way a horse is built, can be an important indication of a horse's soundness and ability. By analyzing a horse point by point, one can avoid becoming overwhelmed by the 'big picture', or side-tracked because 'he looks sweet' or color. Judging a horse is a good way to practice your skills.
To begin to look a horse over, we'll discuss the main points of the horse, evaluating them as they pertain to four qualities; symmetry, smoothness, substance and definition. Symmetry, the harmony of parts, may be illustrated by the example of nicely proportionate fore and hindquarters. The smooth blending together of the various features is assessed along with the substance (or the appearance of strength, but not coarseness). Each part should be definite, without lumps, doughiness or lack of distinction.
To start looking a horse over, take an overall view by comparing how all the parts fit together. Now go to specifics, beginning at the head and neck, then working clockwise around from the front to assess the forehand, withers, back, belly and flank. Next, evaluate the hind-quarters from the off-side, back and near-side. Continue on checking point by point, observing these general guidelines.
Head; The head should be well proportioned to the rest of the body and refined, with a broad forehead and eyes set wide apart. The eyes should be large, clear and prominent to give them a broad field of vision, and should have a kind look about them. Ears should be of medium size, pointed finely and carried pricked forward. The line of the face should be straight unless breed traits with a convex line (Roman nose) or dished (concave) lines are present, as in draft-horses and Arabians, respectively. The nostrils should be large for adequate air intake with exertion. The lips which are as sensitive as human fingers should be fine and meet evenly.
Neck; The neck should join the head cleanly at the throatlatch, be muscular and fairly long, meeting at the shoulder neatly. There should be a slight concave curve to the crest, as opposed to the 'ewe-neck', which curves convexly, or a 'bull neck', which is short, thick and straight.
Forehand; The withers is the bony ridge where the shoulder blades meet and should be smooth and well-rounded. It is the highest point on the back line and that's where a horse's height is measured in 'hands' (1 hand = 4 inches). Having withers of a good height means a better saddle fit and a smoother ride. The shoulders should be deep and slope back at an oblique angle to allow greater movement. The chest, or the region between the forelegs and the barrel of the horse, must be deep to allow adequate room for vital organs. Front legs should drop at a straight line from the arm to the foot, with plenty of bone right beneath the knee. The forearm should be long and well-muscled and the knees wide, deep and flat. Cannon bones are best short, straight and have heavy bones. The fetlock is the equivalent of our knuckles, while the pastern is like the middle part of our fingers having two bones with a joint, and should be of medium length and slope (they act as shock absorbers). The hoof should be smooth, bell-shaped, large and tough on the outside. On the concave underside, the frog is a V-shaped tissue that acts as a cushion with every step. Remember, "No foot, no horse", so problems with alignment can lead to unsoundness because of stress.
Back; The back should have some length for swiftness and be gently concave. Too much and you have a swayback, a convex curve is a 'roach' back. The loins need to be deep, muscular, broad and firm to help with galloping and jumping.
Hindquarters; The croup is the highest point of the hindquarters and with the quarters should be well-developed especially in the gaskin and the thigh, with the point of the buttock directly above the hock (which should be large, deep and wide, with good length above and good bones below) to the ground.
Again, this is an overview on conformation, which is a book in itself. When buying a horse, good conformation makes for a sound horse for long-term use.
British Horse Society, The Manual of Horsemanship; England, UK 9th Edition (1991).
Burt, Don; The Complete Book of Riding; Gallery Books (1989).
Coggins, Jack; The Horseman's Bible; Doubleday (1966).
Ensinger, M.E.; Horses and Horsemanship; Interstate Pub. ILL. 4th Ed.(1969).
Gurney, Hilda, et al.; Commonsense Guide to Conformation; pp.42-61 of Practical Horse- man, March 1992.