🐴 The Ultimate Horse Conformation Guide

What is conformation?

Conformation is a term that is used to describe how a horse is constructed or put together.  Every horse is likely to have all of the necessary “parts” allowing it to trot, pace, canter and gallop.  The way in which the parts are assembled and aligned determine whether the horse will stand up to the work for which it is used.

Think of it this way: an automobile may be constructed with all the required parts which allow it to operate.  If the parts are misaligned or otherwise poorly assembled, the vehicle may still operate adequately on city streets and on expressways.  If it is taken to the racetrack where it is driven for long distances at full throttle, placed under the stress of cornering at high speeds and maneuvered in and out of racing traffic, it is likely to vibrate, rattle and quickly fall apart.  It is no different with horses.

When assessing conformation, the first items one looks for are those factors which limit a horse’s potential.  Limiting factors are those conformation flaws which predispose a horse to lameness or some other unsoundness.  To a lesser degree, the second items one looks for are those which will enhance performance.  Limiting factors are better known and more easily identified than performance enhancing factors.

Does conformation affect performance?

One of the best ways to evaluate a horse’s conformation is to stand it ‘squared up’ that is, at rest with all four legs underneath itself.  You can then examine all of the angles and proportions relative to itself and an ideal standard.  There are certain points of conformation that all breed experts agree should be within certain specifications.

An important aspect of performance ability is how the horse moves and how it carries out the intended task.  As riders, we desire that the horse move with agility, smoothness and perhaps elegance.  For some tasks, power is the most desirable characteristic, for others, speed is the most important quality.  

For example, in racing Quarter Horses, strong hindquarters and sturdy, straight legs outweigh a less than ideal head and neck.

A horse can be a tremendous athlete despite its structural shortcomings.  A horse’s standing conformation may not have much to do with it’s performance ability.  There is often more to performance success than conformation.  A horse must be fit and in good condition, with a sound mind and body.  The horse’s willingness and ‘heart’ attitude may overcome a conformation flaw.

A horse with a particular conformation flaw in one area may have another area that compensates for that area.  For example, if a horse has upright shoulders – which makes for a rough gait because an upright shoulder won’t absorb much impact – might have long pasterns which will absorb more shock than shorter pasterns and give a smoother ride.

A horse that travels light on its front end and participates in sports that require more power and strength from its hindquarters may never be affected by a slightly crooked front leg.

Performance conformation has more to do with how the horse moves overall and for what task the horse will be used.  It is important to consider these factors when selecting a horse for a specific performance or use.  Generally, most horses can be trained to do anything.  However, a particular conformation predisposes a horse to be better suited for specific types of disciplines or work.  Conversely, a  horse may have a particular flaw and still be used for a certain task.  In that case, the horse may develop a lameness issue because of that flaw.

Is there an ideal conformation?

The horse should show balance and symmetry.  It should be roughly as long as it is tall.  The height of the withers, the height at the hip and the length of the body should all be approximately the same.

While there are no absolutes, most breed registries will agree on the following conformational traits:

  • the neck should be long for grace and flexibility; long, sloping shoulders and high withers contribute to reach and length of stride; steep angles in the shoulder and pastern will increase concussion and unsoundness; too low of an angle will increase tendon and ligament strain;
  • the peak of the withers and the point of the croup should be the same or the withers should be at least higher than the croup;
  • the cannon bones should be short in relation to the forearm; short cannons increase length of stride; the forelegs, measured from elbow to fetlock should be about the same length as the depth of the body, measured from girth area to withers; the heart-girth area should be deep providing ample room for lungs and heart; the back should be short and the loin well-muscled;
  • the pastern and hoof wall should slope toward the ground at the same angle as the shoulder in order to absorb shock;
  • the hindquarters should be well-muscled and long; hips should be level when viewed from behind; the hocks should be clean and straight; the stifle, gaskin and thigh should be heavily muscled to provide the power for the stride;
  • the feet should be proportional to the horse’s body size and round at the toes and broad at the heels with the coronet even all the way around; the hoof wall should slope at the same angle as the pastern.

Front Leg Conformation

Ideally, when viewed from the side, you should be able to draw a straight line through the center of the bones of the forearm, knee, cannon and bulb of the heel.

The front legs support 60-65% of the horse’s weight.  They are more prone to stress and injury than the hind legs.  Therefore, it is important to have a well-muscled forearm and a straight limb.

The elbow is where the top of the leg joins the shoulder/girth area.  A hand should be able to slide in between the elbow and the horse’s body.

Viewed from the side, the forearm should be wide and well-muscled.  It’s length will indicate length of stride.

The knee should be large, flat and straight.  The cannon bones should be short, compared to the forearm.  This increases stability and the length of stride.

The tendons should be well defined and broad from the knee to the fetlock.  Tendons that are too light for the size of the horse are “tied in” and appear cut in at the back of the knee.

The angle of the pastern should match that of the should angle.  the angle of the front of the hoof should march the pastern angle.

There are conformation faults which can affect the soundness of the horse.  When viewed from the side, the legs can be:

Camped out 

 The front leg, from body to the ground, is set too far forward.  May be an indication of Navicular disease or laminitis.

Camped under

The front leg is angled back. The horse carries too much weight on the forehand. Results in shorter stride with tendency to stumble.

Over at the knee

The knee appears to be buckled forward. Produces greater strain on tendons and suspensory ligaments. Slightly over at knee is not as serious as back at knee.

Calf kneed (back at knee)

The knee curves backward. Produces strain on tendons, bones and ligaments. Knee chips and bowed tendons are the result of calf knees.

Tied In

The cannon should appear to be the same width from just below the knee to just above the pastern.  The tied-in leg shows the tendon slanting in toward the knee.  The flexor tendons are too close to the cannon just below the knee.

Splints

Abnormal bony growths on the inside of the cannon or splint bones. Caused by stress or injury.  commonly caused by overworking young horses.  Fast work, hard stops, fast turns, jumping on hard ground.  Horses with bench knees are especially prone to splints.

Bowed tendons

A bowed tendon is a tear or rupture of the flexor tendon. The bowed appearance is the result of the scar tissue that forms.  Caused by long, weak pasterns, long toes, fatigue, overexertion, improper shoeing or conformation defects.

When viewed from the front, the front legs should be straight.  A vertical line drawn from the point of the shoulder should fall in the center of the knee, cannon, pastern and hoof.  The front legs are parallel with the feet pointing straight ahead.  Deviations from this standard are faults which affect gait, soundness and performance.

Look for these conformation faults when viewing the front legs:

Base wide

The distance between feet on ground is wider than between legs at chest.  Horse places more weight on inside of foot.  The inside of the leg is under more strain.  Gait shows “winging” inward.

Base narrow

The distance between the feet at ground is narrower that between the legs at chest level.  Horse places more weight on outside of foot causing fetlock and pastern strain.

Toes out

The hooves turn out from center line.  Fault may start at forearm, knee or fetlock.

Bow legged

 Usually associated with base narrow, toe in faults.  Places excess strain on knees.

Base narrow – toes out

Closely placed feet and winging gait will cause interference and plaiting. Plaiting gait can cause horse to stumble.  This is weak conformation that compromises the ability for heavy work.

Bench knee (offset knee)

The cannon bone is not centered in the knee.  A congenital fault.

Pigeon-toed (toes in) 

The hooves point inward.  Found in base narrow horses.  Horses will paddle.  May cause interference and puts strain on the fetlock joint.  Base narrow-toes in conformation can cause windpuffs, ringbone and sidebone.

Knock kneed

A deviation of the knee caused by growth plate abnormalities.  Causes excessive knee strain.  Outward rotation of cannon bone, fetlock and foot usually are present.

Hind Leg Conformation

The hindquarters produce the power and propulsion of the stride.  The hindquarters should have long, well-developed muscles.  The croup should be slightly rounded, neither too flat nor too sloped.  Length and width of the croup are important since the length of muscle provides speed and the width is associated with power.  The thigh and stifle should have long, well-developed muscles.  The gaskin is to be long and muscled on both the inside and outside.  A long gaskin increases the length of leg from hip to hock, allowing for maximum range of motion.  A short gaskin indicates a short strided horse.

The hock should be wide and smooth, free from puffy swelling or bony enlargements.  The angle of the hock is extremely important.  Too wide an angle leads to a hind leg too straight.  Too small of an angle results in a sickle-hocked conformation.

The cannon bone should be short, wide and flat.  Fetlocks are large and wide, free from swelling or windpuffs.  The pasterns are of moderate length with an angle of 50-55 degrees.

Look for the following conformation faults and unsoundnesses when viewing the hind legs from the side:

Sickle hocks

The hocks are severely angled from the point of the hock to the fetlock. The horse appears to stand under from the hock down. Subjects horse to strain in hocks – causes curb, throughpin, and bog spavin. Sickle hocked horses tend to interfere at the trot. They are often cow-hocked, making for a severe hind leg deficit.

Camped out

The hind leg is carried behind the vertical line from buttock to ground. This prevents the horse from getting its legs under itself for collection. Hunters and jumpers will have trouble pushing off over jumps.  Often associated with upright pasterns.

Post legged

The hock is too straight.  Places increased stress on tendons and ligaments.  Bog spavin and patella injuries result.  The leg is easily injured by heavy work.

Goose rumped

There is a lack of muscling on the croup.  Indicates lack of power and endurance.

Flat Croup

Associated with low striding action.  If too flat, the legs are carried too far back, limiting stride and power

Curb

This is a firm swelling abut 4″ below the point of the hock at the back of the leg.  This is a strain of the ligament connecting the hind cannon to the hock.  Does not cause permanent lameness.

Bog Spavin

Bog Spavin is pictured as #1 on the image.

This is a soft swelling located in front and to the inside of the hock.  Caused by injury to the hock or upright conformation of the hock.  Usually does not cause permanent lameness.

Capped Hock

Capped Hock is pictured as #2 on the image.

This is a swelling on the point of the hock caused by stall kicking or other injury.  Usually does not cause permanent lameness.

Conformation of the hind legs when viewed from the back:

You should be able to draw a straight line through the hocks, cannon bones and fetlocks from the point of the buttock to the ground.

Look for these conformation flaws when viewing the hind legs from the back:

Base Wide

This is not seen as often in the hind legs as it is the front legs.  Often associated with cow-hocked conformation.

Base Narrow

Most of the horse’s weight is carried on the outside of the hooves.  The hocks bow outward during stride.  Horse will interfere.

Bow Legged

The hocks rotate outward.  Horse moves stiffly due to inflexible hock action.  Hindquarters are weak and the horse tires easily.

Cow Hocked

The hocks are pointed inward – feet pointed outward.  Places strain on inside of the leg and causes bone spavin.  Hind leg moves upward and outward – not straight ahead.  This is weak conformation.

Hip Down

This is a serious fault.  This usually indicates a fracture or other injury and will result in almost immediate lameness when the horse is put into training.

Throughpin

Throughpin is labeled as #1 on the picture.

This is a soft swelling on the upper back portion of the hock at the back of the hind leg.  The ligament connecting the hind cannon to the hock is strained.  Does not usually cause permanent lameness.

Bone Spavin

Bone spavin is labeled as #1 on the picture.

This is a bone growth on the hock and causes arthritis in the hock.  Sickle hocked horses are susceptible to bone spavin.  Horses experience pain when flexing the hock and permanent lameness usually results.

Pastern and Foot Conformation

The pastern is the shock absorber for the fetlock, knee and body of the horse, thus, the length and angle of the pastern are critical to the soundness and stride of the horse.  Both affect the absorption of concussion and the arc of the stride.  The normal front pastern angle is 45 to 51 degrees.  The normal hind pastern angle is 50 to 55 degrees.  A short, upright pastern increases the concussion of the stride, leading to ring bone, side bone and navicular problems.  A pastern that is too long is weak and will increase stress on the tendons and ligaments of the leg.

Both front feet should point straight ahead and be of the same size and shape.  The feet should be large and in proportion to the body.  Small feet can lead to unsoundness.  The wall of the hoof should be thick and smooth, showing no rings or cracks.  The heels should be deep and open.  The frog is to be smooth and elastic, dividing the sole of the foot in half.  It should touch the ground.  The sole of the foot should be slightly concave and not touch the ground.  The hoof should show signs of even wear, indicating straightness of gait.

Look for these unsoundnesses and blemishes when viewing the pastern and foot:

Broken Axis or Coon Footed

The angle of the hoof does not match the pastern.  This is weak conformation that causes strain on tendons and ligaments

Too Much Slope

The long, excessively sloped pastern is weak.  A long pastern causes strain on the sesamoids when the horse runs at great speed.  Long pasterns also put greater pressure on the tendons and contribute to bowed tendons.

Too Straight

Straight pasterns do not absorb the concussion of the stride resulting in wind-galls.  Excessive pounding of the stride causes friction at the joint and development of side bones and calcification of the joint.

Long Toe-Heel Low

Long toes, low heel configuration results in excess strain to the tendons and ligaments.

Long Heels

Misalignment of foot and pastern angles strain tendons and ligaments.

Side Bone

This is found in horses that toe-in or toe-out, are bow-legged or knock kneed.  It is a calcification of the cartilage on either or both sides of the coffin bone.  Lameness may be present until the bone is set.

Ring Bone

This is a bony growth in the area of the pastern joints.  Upright pasterns are a cause, along with over-training young horses.  High ringbone occurs at the junction of the long and short pastern bones.  Low ringbone is found at the coronary band.  Can cause permanent lameness.

Common Gait Defects or Interferences

When one front leg strikes the other, some common interferences include ankle hitting, shin hitting, knee hitting, forearm hitting.  This is common in horses that toe-out.

When viewing trotting or pacing gaits from the side, look for scalping, speedy cutting, shin hitting or hock hitting, cross-firing or forging.

When viewing movement from the front or rear, look for paddling, which results from toe-in conformation or winging inward, which results from toe-out conformation.  In the example below, paddling is on the left, winging inward is on the right.

The ideal way of going is in a straight line.

Can poor conformation cause lameness?

Conformation is an excellent way to determine the potential soundness of a horse.  A casual observation of the horse while it is standing still will not always reveal a propensity for lameness; some conformational defects are not always obvious.

Stress, strain and concussion forces usually cause lameness. Poor conformation is a factor when stress is placed on a specific area of a leg.  For example, a base wide horse will have more stress and strain on the inside of its legs.  They are then more prone to injuries on the inside of their legs.

It is important to judge the horse while it is moving – at the walk and trot; canter the horse on a lunge line if possible.  Some minor conformational flaws may not affect the performance of the horse.  Look at the horse from all angles and run your hands down each leg to check for bumps and swelling.

It is very important to have a vet perform a pre-purchase exam on the horse.  A vet can do a lameness exam which involves flexion tests on the legs. A vet can determine the extent of the flaw and how it will affect the horse for the work it will perform.  

What is the best way to analyze conformation?

Looks can be deceiving!  When you first look at a horse, it may appear to be acceptable.  However, some conformational flaw may hinder its performance in a given discipline.  

It is wise to have a vet conduct a pre-purchase exam which will usually uncover hidden defects.  

When examining a horse for conformation, have the horse stand squared up on a flat surface.  Look at the horse from all angles and run your hands down its legs to check for bumps, lumps or swelling. Run your hands over its entire body.   It helps to look at the horse from a distance as well as up close.

Next, look at the horse while it is in motion.  Have the horse walked and trotted and view it going away from you and coming toward you.  If possible, have the horse canter also.

Sometimes there are minor conformational flaws that do not hinder the horse’s performance. Determining suitable conformation depends on the work the horse will be expected to perform.

No horse has perfect conformation.  The standards to measure against are guidelines which can be flexible.  Sometimes a compensatory device is built in.  One area of the horse may compensate for another to allow the horse to perform satisfactorily.  

Is conformation inherited?

Heredity plays a major role in conformation, passed down from both sire and dam.  Problems can be perpetuated in subsequent generations if the breeding program is not changed to eliminate conformational flaws. Knowing what conformational defects are likely to  produce specific unsoundnesses is the key to breeding horses with suitable conformation for the chosen discipline.

Some heritable conformational defects include:

  • ewe neck
  • parrot mouth
  • flat feet
  • base narrow/base wide
  • knock knees/bow legs
  • cow hocks/bow legs
  • bench knees
  • toed-in/toed-out
  • calf knees/buck knees
  • sickle hocks

These conformational defects are not specific to or characteristic of one breed.  All breeds are susceptible to passing on conformational flaws.

Since conformational flaws can contribute significantly to lameness, it is important to determine whether or not the lameness was acquired or inherited.  Studying pedigrees, breeding records and the conformation of close relatives will usually show whether a specific flaw is inherited.  If it is inherited, it is prudent to modify the breeding program to eliminate the flaw.

Can conditioning help to eliminate conformation flaws?

Conditioning and fitness improve overall cardiovascular, respiratory and musculoskeletal efficiency.  It is highly unlikely that conditioning would eliminate a conformational flaw; conditioning would help improve the horse’s overall performance.  With the proper conditioning, a horse should be able to perform the work for which its conformation best suited. Conformational flaws are limiting factors which predispose a horse to lameness or unsoundness.  Some conformational points enhance a horse’s performance in a particular discipline.

There are many types of conditioning exercises that target a specific area to compensate for a specific conformation point.  For example, lengthening and stretching exercises of the back and neck compensate for the reduced muscular efficiency in elevating the back of a horse with a short croup.  Conversely, minimal corrections can be made for a sway back since the ligaments are lax and unable to tighten.  Exercises should be focused on abdominal and haunch muscular development.  

Can a horse’s age be determined by its teeth?

A horse’s teeth can be used to determine a horse’s age up to about nine years.  After that, age can only be estimated.  The phrase, “long in the tooth,” probably emanated from the horse traders of long ago.

Young horses have temporary milk teeth which are smaller, whiter and smoother than permanent teeth.

By the time a horse is one year old, it has a complete set of 24 milk teeth. At two, the teeth are more fully erupted and the upper and lower sets of teeth are touching which causes wear.  At about 2 1/2 years, the milk teeth are replaced by the permanent teeth.  By age 3, the central incisors have erupted, the two middle incisors erupt by about age 3 1/2.  At age 4, the incisors are fully erupted and the canine teeth begin to appear (usually in males only).  At age 4 1/2, the corner incisors begin to erupt and are fully erupted by age 5.

After age 5, the horse’s age can be estimated by:

  • the amount of wear on the cups of the teeth
  • the shape and inclination of the incisors
  • the groove that appears in the upper corner incisors

At age 10, a groove develops on the gum line.  This is called Galvayne’s groove and as the horse ages, it extends downward.  By age 20, the groove is all the way down the surface of the tooth.  After this age, the groove gradually begins to disappear and by age 30, the groove is completely gone.

Environmental factors and habits the horse may have acquired affect the teeth and can interfere with determining the horse’s age.Β  Horses that crib or live in sandy areas are more likely to wear their teeth down making it difficult to estimate the horse’s age.

Calculating a Horse’s Weight

To calculate an any breed’s weight, simply follow this easy formula:

  • Measure girth in inches
  • Measure length in inches (point of hip to point of chest)
  • Multiply Girth X Girth X Length, Divide by 300, Add 50
  • Example 70″ x 70″ x 65″ = 318,500 / 300 = 1061.67 + 50 = 1111.67 lbs.

This formula is accurate to +/- 3%.