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Conformation of the horse

Quick facts

  • Conformation refers to the shape or structure of a horse, and it can impact a horse's athletic ability.

  • Generally, a horse’s neck should be one and a half times the length of the head.

  • The neck should tie into the horse’s body fairly high to provide good chest space.

  • The shoulder and pastern angles should be between 40 and 55 degrees.

  • A horse can move best with a short back and long neck.

  • Correct legs structure can improve desired performance and reduce lameness.

Good conformation is key to the intended performance of your horse. Horses with poor conformation may be at higher risk of:

  • Injury

  • Harder training

  • Lameness

The basic conformation rules allow you to review a horse’s athletic ability for a certain performance.

Diagram of horse that points to the location of different body parts including poll, neck, withers, back, ribs, loins, point of hip, croup, quarter, points of buttocks, thigh, gaskin, hock, hoof, fetlock, cannon, belly, elbow, pastern, knee, forearm, chest, shoulder, throatlatch, muzzle and nostrils.
Parts of the horse

Head

Generally, a horse’s neck should be one and a half times the length of the head, where:

  • Head length is measured from the front of the muzzle to the top of the poll

  • Neck length is measured from the poll to the mid-shoulder

Having these traits provides a balanced head and neck.

Too big of a head will cause the horse to be clumsy and move heavy on their front. Too small of a head will cause the horse to lack counterbalance and lose suppleness and action in their front.

Look for the following when evaluating a horse's head.

  • Bright, bold, wide set eyes

  • Ears set slightly below the poll

  • A lower jaw that is clearly defined and well separated underneath the jaw

  • Large nostrils

  • A clean throatlatch without heavy fat and muscling

Neck

Neck length should be one third of the horse’s total body length and equal the length of the horse's front leg.

The head should meet the neck at an angle so the horse can flex at the pole and move in balance. The neck should tie into the horse's body fairly high with a distinct chest area below. The base of the neck should be level with the point of the horse’s shoulder. This allows the horse to be more flexible, balanced and collect more naturally.

Side view of horse with lines indicating head length, neck length, front leg length and total body length.
The head and neck should be proportionate to the body and front legs.

Shoulders

When a horse stands square, they should have a shoulder angle between 40 and 55 degrees. At this angle, the horse's elbow is directly below the front of the withers. The elbow should be parallel to the horse’s body.

Horses with straighter shoulders and pastern angles tend to have shorter strides.

Shoulder angle and pastern angle indicated on horse.
Shoulder and pastern angles of the horse should be between 40 and 55 degrees.

Body

A balanced and proportionate body is key to proper leg structure. A proportionate horse is usually square. Square means the height from the withers to ground should equal the length of body (point of shoulder to the point of the buttocks).

A proportionate horse will be symmetrical on both sides of its body. Faults in conformation should be symmetrical. Lack of symmetry will stress those points and may harm or limit the horse’s ability to perform with grace and ease.

Divide the horse into three parts.

  • Chest

  • Back

  • Hindquarters

    • Croup: from point of hip to point of buttock

    • Quarters: below the croup

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Legs

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Dawn Melbye, former instructor, University of Minnesota Crookston

Reviewed in 2018

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