Equine conformation: More than just four good legs

by Frank Gringeri

Webster defines conformation as “the shape or structure of something, especially an animal.” This is rather vague, as everyone looks at a horse with a different set of eyes. Take away color and markings and you can get down to the business of analyzing a horse’s structure for strength and longevity. I’ve had the privilege of studying horses from a mechanical point of view for over 40 years. I see weak and I see strong. The strong, well-built ones lasted the longest in their competitive lifetimes, staying sound and going the distance year after year. Here is what I noticed time and time again as I followed these horses.

I start with the side view of the horse, as there is much to see and evaluate. There are many angles to see on the side: shoulder, pasterns, hocks, stifle, etc. These are all below the trunk of the body and can give us an indication of how well built the horse is on the top. A disconnected topline will show wear and tear on the legs in a short period of time. Because riding horses must carry weight instead of pulling weight, the topline is most important as to how the pieces go together. I break the pieces down into three parts: the forehand (the head, neck and shoulders), the back (the withers, spine and loins) and the haunches (the hips, croup and everything below). How well connected these parts are makes all the difference in the world.

Starting at the front, the head can be most any shape but the attachment to the neck via the throat latch matters. The horse has to breathe freely when he comes into flexion and this flexion comes at the poll. We call this “a clean throat latch.” If he’s thick and heavy at the throat latch, he won’t be able to breathe normally. Many people are taken with the beauty of a horse’s head but it is the throat latch that is of greater importance.

Next is the neckline – the attachment of the neck to the shoulder. The neck should be set on high with no dip as it meets the withers and the shoulder. Shorter necks are stronger than long, swan-like necks and it is the neck that is between the rider’s hand and the horse’s mouth. Some bitting problems are the result of a low neckline, as the interruption of the topline reduces contact and feel. The neck is often thought of as 20% of a horse’s back. Neck problems are as severe as leg problems, just harder to pinpoint and locate.

The withers are more than a place to hang your saddle. It’s the beginning of the attachment of the forehand to the horse’s back. The wither should be teardrop-shaped, extending well into the back and gradually blending in. A wither that looks like an island sticking up and finishing short is not strong and is insufficient in its attachment. The wither should also be slightly higher than the haunches, hence the description “uphill build.” This allows some elevation of the forehand and reduces the weight on the fore legs. This is important because a horse heavy on the forehand will put undue force on the front legs and premature wear and tear will result.

The back should be straight, not swayed or dipped, with some muscular definition on either side of the spine. It can be long or short but somewhere in between is preferred. Of greater importance is the loin area, which is just back of where the saddle ends. This is really the binding glue that attaches and connects the haunches to the rest of the horse. European horses are well defined in the loins and very muscular. This will help connect all the power from the haunches and will ensure the energy gets up front to the hand. As we get to the haunches, there should be no rise in height. “Overbuilt,” meaning the haunches are a few inches higher than the rest of the topline, is grave because this downward frame puts too much weight and strain on the front legs causing excessive wear and early lameness. “Long in the hip” is greatly preferred – past the loins, the croup should not slope down to the tail but rather continue in a straight line to the end of the horse. This will be important when the horse pushes off the ground as he will get the most power. The angles of the stifle and hock working together with a good, strong hip will be the most powerful way to create forward motion.

In summary, how the three pieces blend together is as important as the shape or structure themselves. A savvy horseman will accept that there is no perfectly conformed horse. He must judge how strong the pieces are on the top and how well connected they are. Horses strongly attached move well and with almost no effort. The haunches are engaged with very little effort and it’s not arduous for these horses to track up and stay connected in all three gaits. Motion comes easily to the well-connected horse and he is much easier to ride. In my mind, poor or weak conformation is the number one cause of lameness. If all other variables are equal, proper training and conditioning, along with good nutritional levels and care, conformation plays a pivotal role in maintaining a high level, long-lasting performance from the horse. I liken conformation to a tall office building; if it’s constructed with no regard to level and plumb, then its days of standing straight are limited. Of course, we cannot build a horse from the ground up but if you understand how conformation works, how it all goes together on the top, then you can choose wisely a horse with soundness and longevity.

The problem is it takes a lifetime of study to see the horse for what he is and what he can do. If we can pick a good strong structure to begin with, then we can shape and mold the mental aspects of the horse through proper handling and training. It’s all up to you to make prudent choices.

Next time, we will discuss the conformation of the four limbs. If you don’t have good landing gear, you can find trouble in a hurry.

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