Whether I'm judging a halter class or evaluating a prospect for myself, the qualities I look for in a horse are balance, correct leg structure, breed/gender characteristics, and evenly distributed muscling.
Balance is a key characteristic in any breed. To check for balance, I divide a horse's body into three sections: from poll to point of withers, from point of withers to loins, and from loins to point of buttocks. If these sections are equal in length and muscling, the horse has balance and evenly distributed muscling. I also want a horse's withers to be level with--or higher than--his hips for hindquarters propulsion.
As for correct structure, I look for properly aligned front legs; well-sloped pasterns; and well-angled, lowset hocks. When a horse possesses both balance and correct leg structure, his conformation meets the form-to-function standard. That means he should be a good mover and able to withstand demanding events without developing soundness problems.
When evaluating mares, I expect them to have a feminine look. I look for a typey head--short from eye to muzzle, with small ears; big, kind eyes; and a refined muzzle.
Click "Next" below to find out how I placed these three mares.
First: Mare B
This mare shows the most overall balance of the three. She has a good topline, prominent withers and a nice, clean neck that ties in well. She also has the most structurally correct hocks. She has a strong loin, a good gaskin muscle and a good stifle, which tell me she'll be able to lift and round her back and drive her hind legs beneath her. She's strong in her hip with a good length, and her knees and hocks are pretty level, which shows balance--all of which tell me she'll move athletically.
I also like this mare's pretty head. She looks like a mare--she has wide-set, soft eyes, a short ear and a very feminine-looking head. She's also well-fit and nicely presented. She does appear to have wind puffs (soft, painless, fluid-filled swellings commonly found near the fetlock joint), but those are a cosmetic blemish and shouldn't hinder her in any way.
On the negative side, she's a little weak in her underline, but as an aged mare, it could be that she's had a foal. She's also light in forearm muscle, and--while it could be how she's set up--it looks like her front legs are set a little underneath her. Typically, a horse with a sloping shoulder will have forelegs set correctly beneath them, which makes me think that she's not set up correctly, since she has a nice slope to her shoulder. Overall she's a well-balanced mare, and I wouldn't be afraid to breed her.
Second: Mare C
While this mare is well-balanced and shows some qualities I like, she isn't as strong behind as the first mare. She has a good slope to her shoulder, which tells me that she'll offer a smooth ride.
I like how her neck ties in to her wither--she should make a good riding horse because she'll carry her neck in a balanced way. She has a good throatlatch, which will help her flex in her poll and come into collection. She also has an acceptable bottom line.
Her head isn't as feminine as the first-place horse's head, which takes away from her overall appearance, and her hocks aren't in
good position for a riding horse. If they were set a little lower, she'd be able to carry herself and move more athletically. She looks like she's weak in her stifle, and she has a shorter croup. She also appears a little calf-kneed (a backward deviation of the knees), which may be a result of how she's set, but she's more balanced than the third-place horse.
Overall, her weak back end and plain head keep her in second, and she'll have to work harder than the first-place horse to engage and use her hindquarters.
Third: Mare A
I placed this mare third in the group because she lacks balance and doesn't have a feminine appearance. Her hip is higher than her wither, and her hocks are higher than her knee, which contributes to a lack of balance and tells me she'll have a much harder time getting her hind end working underneath her. Her neck ties in low to her shoulder, which also makes her heavy on the forehand and indicates she'll have a harder time moving with impulsion and a light front end. She has an adequate throatlatch, which will aid her in flexing at the poll. She's calf-kneed, which is a major fault because it puts her at risk for injury and soundness issues. She has a weak underline, which detracts from balance. Her hip is OK, but her hock is weak and her gaskin looks very long--which may mean this mare has to work a lot harder than the first two horses to carry herself well and drive from behind.
Overall she lacks the balance and femininity of the first two mares, but she has a kind expression and may make a pleasant mount for light riding.
Patti Carter was AQHA's 2005 Professional Horsewoman of the Year. Her horse judging assignments have included the American Quarter Horse Association World Show, the American Junior Quarter Horse Association World Show, the All American Quarter Horse Congress and the National Reining Horse Association Futurity. A lifelong horsewoman, Patti specializes in all-around competition on the Quarter Horse circuit. She also coaches youth and amateurs, and trains futurity prospects from her St. George, Ontario, facility.
This article originally appeared in the July 2006 issue of Horse & Rider magazine.
Enter Your Horse in Conformation Clinic!
To submit a photo of your horse to be evaluated in our Conformation Clinic, send us a left-side view photo of your horse (for digital phots: high-resolution, 300 dpi, in at least 3" x 5"). Make sure he's well-groomed, looking straight ahead and standing on level ground--and try to avoid distracting backgrounds.