The conformation of the horse, that is, its physique and structure, gives an indication of the horse’s resilience and ability to perform. Understanding something about the horse’s anatomy is essential in order to judge its capabilities and potential.
How to assess your horse’s conformation
To begin with, make sure the horse is standing properly. This should be in as relaxed and natural a way as possible, while still standing squarely on four legs. The horse should not have a stretched neck or limbs, or elevated head, as in a show ring stance.
General overview: what to look for
What are your first impressions? What type of horse is it and are its proportions harmonious to the eye?
View the horse from the side about two horse lengths away. Is it standing squarely and does everything look in proportion, with nothing obviously catching the eye as a possible issue?
Now begin to construct a mental model of the horse, just as if you were drawing it. Imagine the horse within the four lines of the box with the ground line below. Does it seem long in proportion or square?
Now imagine the horizontal line 1 that passes over the high point of the withers. Ask yourself: is this horse higher on the withers or the croup (rear end)? Are the two set on the same line? Is it built more heavily on the forehand (front)?
Now imagine a vertical line running down the chest to the ground, which should align with the toe of the front hoof. Ask yourself: is the front leg correct, does it protrude, or is it backwards leaning?
Now do the same for the rear end. A perpendicular line from the buttock to the ground should touch the hock and the back of the pastern, running almost parallel to the cannon bone. Ask yourself: is the hind leg straight and aligned, is it set back from the body or is it clearly set under the body?
Finally, draw an imaginary line parallel to the floor through the elbow joint. Ask yourself: does this line divide the square into almost equal parts? Is the horse’s barrel (body behind the front legs) deep enough, or does it look narrow with long legs?
Alternatively, is this horse short-legged and stocky? Horses with a square frame and a short back can find it difficult to obtain the fluidity that is required for some equestrian activities.
A word about size: the height of the horse should be appropriate for the height and size of the rider. However, it’s worth bearing in mind that smaller horses are frequently hardier than big horses and much easier to keep. They are often more sound, sturdy and healthy.
Viewing the horse from the front and back
As well as viewing the horse from the side, assess it from all angles, but particularly from the front and rear.
From the front, use your imaginary plumb line to check the straightness of each leg. Look for a distance of about one hoof width between the front feet. The front legs should not be too close together nor too far apart. The toe of the hoof should point straight forward, not be turned in or out. The most common conformation faults are shown in the figure below.
When viewing the hind limbs from the rear, use your imaginary plumb line to draw a line from the point of buttock down the back leg. This should pass straight through the hock, down to the fetlock joint and align with the centre of the heel. Again, the distance between the rear hooves should be about one hoof width. The most common conformation faults are shown in the figure below.
Any variation from the standard can lead to stress on the limbs and back. However, historically cow hocks (d) were sometimes bred into draught horses as they were seen as beneficial in getting heavy loads started. Any of the following deviations would be very undesirable in a modern sport horse, though. Buyers should avoid them, and breeders definitely should not produce horses with these faults!