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The ideal conformation of a young horse for any competition or sound family mount.

Good conformation
Desirable conformation

The head should be in proportion to the rest of the horse. If it is on the large side, the horse will be very difficult to raise off the forehand. A slightly roman nose may indicate some common blood such as that of a cob, whereas a dished face will indicate the presence of Arab or welsh blood Depending on the size of the animal. The teeth in the front of the mouth should meet evenly. If the upper teeth protrude over the lower teeth, it is called parrot mouth. If the lower teeth protrude from the upper teeth, it is called sow mouthed or undershot jaw. Both of these faults are an unsoundness, it only effects the ability to bite food such as grass but not the ability to chew.

The eyes should be well set on either side of the head, and through experience a small eye tends to suggest a mean streak or stubbornness. They should be clear and shiny. Any excess of white round the colouring may suggest a streak of wildness or ill temper. Large ears are not a fault and some people even consider them to be a sign of generosity although some horses with larger ears tend to need a bit more encouragement.

Look for how the head is set onto the neck. There should not be a great amount of flesh through the jowl area of the horse. Horses with jowl’s that are thicker set will find working correctly very difficult. The nostrils should be large and clear of any excess fatty tissue to enable the horse to breathe when working hard.

The neck should be as you would expect for the type of work you want the horse to do. A short thicker neck would indicate a lot of power whereas a longer arched neck would indicate elegance. If the neck dips in front of the withers, it will tend to make the horse quite ewe necked, this will make it difficult to achieve the correct outline in ridden work and also give the horse a more hollow back when ridden and especially jumped. You should look for a good length of rein, ideally you do not want the horses head in your lap when you are riding it. Look at the horse, where would your saddle sit? If the distance from the front of the saddle to the bit looks short then there will be a tendency to have a lot of rein not in use. I like to have about 6” of rein hanging behind my hands when the horse is relaxed. Personal taste varies. There should be an unbroken curve from the poll to the withers.

The shoulder should not appear to have too straight a line at the front of it. A straight shoulder often gives a choppy up and down movement from the paces, this is quite uncomfortable to ride on. However it is quite desirable in a number of driving breeds. The whole shoulder should be well muscled without being too heavy in appearance.

Undesirable conformation
Undesirable conformation

The front legs should be well muscled through the forearm and a good length of the upper front leg is essential for speed. Knees should be broad and flat with no puffiness or lumps. Any scars on the knees suggest that the horse isn’t careful over a fence or has a tendency to slip or trip on roads. It could be caused by an accident however but ask the owner if you are in any doubt. The leg below the knee should not look like it has a tight pair of socks on. It should be a relatively straight line from the top of the tendon down to the fetlock. Look at the leg from the side, if the legs look to have a slight bend towards the hind legs, this is called “back at the knee” it is a conformation fault. In a top level jumping horse it will cause a lot of problems as the tendons will be under a great deal more strain. Ideally I go for a horse who looks as if it’s knees are bending ever so slightly forwards, this allows a lot more flexibility when landing over a fence or when riding at speed. However you don’t want too much forward bend as this will again indicate a possible stumbler. The cannon bones should be flat at the front and on the short side is better than longer ones. This ensures that the tendons are short and therefore less likely to damage. The slope of the pastern is important also. Too much slope and the tendons will be under constant pressure, too little slope and the concussive effects on the foot will be very great. This can lead to serious problems in the foot.

The feet must be of good quality. Upright small feet are called “boxy” and are to be avoided. Big Flat feet are also to be avoided as they will have a tendency to get bruised very easily. The angle of the hoof wall should be a continued line from the slope of the pastern. There should be a good quality, clean frog on the underside of the foot, and the bars of the foot should be wide and deep. Look at the horse from the front, if it’s knees bend inwards or outwards, these are called “knock kneed” and “bow legged” respectively, the horse’s action will suffer and the horse will not move straight. Also look what the feet do, they should stand squarely and evenly on the floor, if the toes point in, “pigeon toed” the horse will probably not move straight as they will not if their toes point out, “splay footed”.

The chest and body should be well proportioned to the rest of the horse. The chest should be deep and enough room to get a pair of clippers through easily. The ribs should be well sprung, this is important to provide adequate space for the lungs to expand when exercising hard. If the chest is too wide it may produce a rolling action when ridden. The back should be well proportioned. Too much dip sway backed and you find great difficulty fitting a saddle Too flat and the saddle will slide about on the horse. A roached back is one that curves up behind the saddle, this often indicates a comfortable ride and good jump, but it is a conformation weakness and should really be avoided. You should also check, by putting a saddle on the horse, girthing it up and getting on it too see if it is cold backed. If it is it will sink away from you as you get on or in severe cases when the saddle is tightened up. The horse should not appear too long in the body. Horses that appear to be this way are often quite weak over their backs and require special attention from a chiropractor. The underside of the horse should not appear to be like that of a greyhound, herring gutted, This indicates a general weakness and as such should be avoided. It will also cause the girth to slip back. A young horse may well be up on its back end meaning that the hind quarters are higher than the front. This is perfectly fine as horses grow in fits and starts, the front end should catch up. However in an older horse this is undesirable as it will make the horse very difficult to bring up off the forehand.

The hindquarters should be well muscled, The tail should be set on fairly high. If the tail is set on low and the horse has a definite slope from the point of the hip to the tail, this is defined as goose rump and in many horses denotes a lack of speed. If however the horse has a bump over its pelvis and a well set on tail, this is called jumpers bump and tells you that the horse has probably got a good jump that is well rounded. The thigh muscles on the inside of the legs should be well developed and not make the horse appear to be split up the middle. You are looking for a reasonable amount of length from the point of hip to the point of hock and again short cannon bones. Hocks should not point towards each other, cow hocked, nor must they be bowed out, sickle hocked The hock joint should be large but not fleshy and the line from the point of the hock should be straight with no bulges out from the hock joint. This is called a curb and can be caused by strain on the tendon. The bulge could also be caused by the heads of the splint bones becoming enlarged, this is called a false curb. Curbs are a sign of weakness but generally give little trouble once they have formed on a young horse. The vertical line below the hock should line up with the rearmost part of the quarters (point of buttock) when the horse is standing squarely. The statements concerning the lower forelimbs of the horse apply equally to the hind limbs.

Dynamic conformation.

The walk and trot should be checked both under saddle and in hand.

The walk should have a 4 time beat and the strides be of even length. The footprint of the front foot should be studied to see whether the hind foot lands in front of where the front foot has come from. A good walker is a horse that looks like it is going somewhere in a purposeful manner. The walk is a difficult pace to improve, so a horse with a naturally good walk is a bonus. I good walker is generally a good galloper. Also take a look at how the shoes are worn, this will give a good general picture as to how the horse moves.

The trot is a 2 time movement and when there is any extension there should be a moment of suspension between beats. The horse should be trotted towards you so that you can see that it moves straight. A movement where the horse is swinging its legs round from the knee is called dishing and is a waste of energy and unsightly but not harmful. Any action that brings the feet close to the legs is called brushing and is to be avoided if you do not want a horse that will injure itself. The hind feet often pass very close a good check for this is to look at the hair on the hind pasterns, if it has been rubbed then the horse could well require boots of some sort. When the horse is trotted up listen for sounds that indicate forging you will hear the hind shoes clipping the front shoes. This can be helped by shoeing. Watch the horse from the side. Look for even strides from both pairs of diagonals and a good ground covering technique. A good horse will flick its toes out without any effort and will use its shoulders, back and hindquarters actively.

The Wind is easily checked by getting the horse to gallop as far as it is fit enough to and listening to its wind when it is on the move as well as when stationary. You should be listening for any signs of noise other than that which you would expect the horse to make. These could be anything from a slight whistle to a roar depending on the problem. If you hear any of these noises ask the owner if they have heard them, also it would be advisable to get a vet to have a listen.

Ask the handler to get the horse to step back and to turn the horse around them, making the hind legs cross if possible, these exercises will show any unsoundness due to stiffness or wobblers syndrome (a problem with the nerves in the back)

MK Equestrian This article and the accompanying illustrations were kindly compiled by Heiress.
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