“That horse has great conformation!” Every equestrian has heard this phrase, but what exactly does it mean? A horse looks nice, does that mean it has good conformation? Horse conformation is a very misunderstood concept in the equestrian world, and in this article, I hope to help debunk it for you.
Good vs. bad conformation isn’t as simple as black vs. white. Conformation is subjective and often depends on the eye and experience of the trainer or buyer. “Good conformation” depends on what the horse’s intended purpose is, and it depends on the way the horse is built as a whole. There are also some objective conformation flaws that horses may possess, although the importance and severity of these flaws will be dictated by the horse’s intended occupation
What is Horse Conformation?
Conformation is a fancy term to describe the way a horse is built anatomically. It is the way a horse’s bones are shaped, bent, and structured. A horse with “good conformation” has few anatomical flaws; its body is shaped the way one would expect. A horse with “bad conformation” has some kind of a significant flaw.
Again, good and bad conformation are highly subjective. But, generally speaking, good conformation indicates a horse has a fairly regular bone structure, and bad conformation indicates that a horse has some kind of objective flaw in its skeletal structure.
Conformation by Discipline
The quality of a horse’s conformation depends on what you expect the horse to do. Broadly speaking, certain horse types are built for specific jobs; not all horses are created equal, and not all horses can perform in all disciplines.
For example, the anatomical structure of a Draft horse is different from that of an Arabian. But, Arabians can’t haul carriages up and down hills and draft horses can’t compete in endurance competitions. The conformation of the horses is very different, but each can excel in different disciplines.
Horses are bred with conformation in mind. Certain anatomical qualities are desired in certain breeds, and horses are bred that are expected to produce horses with these qualities. But, these qualities will vary from breed to breed and from owner to owner.
Conformation by Horse
As famous showjumper John Madden says in his interview with the Practical Horseman magazine, conformation is best judged by looking at each horse individually. Yes, there are some objective conformation flaws that will always be considered “bad,” but many abnormalities can be nonissues due to a horse’s overall conformation.
For example, the angles of a horse’s hocks may be slightly abnormal. Taken by itself, the hocks may be considered to have bad conformation. But, maybe that same horse’s feet may have a slightly abnormal angle that, coupled with the abnormal hock angle, makes the leg angles as a whole correct.
This is just a hypothetical example, but situations like this occur all the time in judging a horse’s conformation. That is why it’s important to examine the entire horse before making a judgment call on whether its conformation is good or bad.
Common Horse Conformation Issues
While good or bad conformation is first dependent on intended discipline and overall body structure of a horse, there are some obvious conformation flaws that horses can have. These include, but are not limited to “knock knees,” club foot, pigeon-toes, splay foot, and straight hind leg.
“Knock Knees” occurs when a horse’s knees are skewed outward. If a horse has this condition, it is apparent from the time they are a foal. It can be fixed through surgery when a horse is a foal, and it can be remedied further by proper shoeing and farrier work.
But, if a horse doesn’t have corrective surgery as a foal, they cannot have it as a mature horse and must only be treated through corrective farrier work. Knock Knees can cause a horse to have severe muscle and ligament strain on the inside of their legs, as they are being stretched abnormally.
Club foot occurs when a horse has one foot that is abnormally sized. Club foot can come in many levels of severity; it can barely be noticeable and it can cause a horse to be lame for life. A horse’s club foot can be longer, taller, or wider than all of the others. The only way to remedy club foot is with corrective farrier care.
Pigeon-toed horses are the same as pigeon-toed people; their feet curve into each other. Again, this can happen in varying degrees of severity. Special corrective farrier care can help pigeon-toed horses, but it is important not to over-adjust a horse’s angles. Over-adjusting can lead to additional health issues and lameness.
Splay-footed horses have the opposite problem of pigeon-toed horses; their hooves point to the outside. Splay-foot is significantly less impactful on a horse’s natural gait than club foot of pigeon-toes. Corrective farrier work can help but is often not necessary.
Straight Hind Limb
Straight hind limb is exactly what it sounds like; a horse’s back legs are significantly more straight than they should be. A horse’s back legs are naturally bent inwards, and when they are not, they are hyperextending many joints and are more likely to suffer from suspensory and ligament injuries.
Workload and work type must be monitored for horses with a straight hind limb. Disciplines, where a horse’s weight must rock back onto its hind end, will be very strenuous on these horse’s hind legs and can lead to lameness and unnecessary injury. Also, keeping horses with straight hind limb shod on all four feet, all year round can help decrease injury and stress.
Horse conformation is judged very subjectively depending on the horse’s breed, the horse’s intended occupation, and the eye of the trainer or buyer. Some objective conformation flaws exist, but, for the most part, can be corrected through special care. I hope this article helped clear up some of the ambiguity around horse conformation, and the differences between good and bad conformation. If so, please share this article, and share with us your experiences with horse conformation!