I consider four criteria when evaluating conformation: balance, structural correctness, quality/breed characteristics and muscling. I look for a horse that's the best combination of all four.
To assess balance, I first look to see if a horse's body ties together smoothly and proportionately. Then I mentally divide him into three sections: 1) from point of shoulder to heartgirth (behind the horse's shoulder); 2) from the heartgirth to the point of hip; and 3) from the point of hip to the tailhead. Ideally, these lengths will be equal.
I want a horse's neck to be long and lean, and I want him to have an equally sloped shoulder and hip. I also want him to have a level back, and for his withers and croup to be the same height. Structurally, he should exhibit upright, correctly aligned leg bones, and hocks with neither too little, nor too much angle.
For quality/breed characteristics, a horse's head should be short (from poll to muzzle) and proportionate, tapering at the muzzle for a chiseled appearance. His eyes should be large with a kind expression. He should also show his breed's ideal characteristics.
Then I evaluate muscling on volume (muscle amount), length (how far it extends to its connection point) and definition (tone and conditioning).
First: Gelding C
Of the three horses, this horse really has the greatest combination of balance, structural correctness, quality and adequate muscling. His biggest advantage over the second and third place horses is in his balance and the quality of his head and--especially--the quality of his neck. Compared to the other two horses, his neck is trimmer and ties in much higher at the base
of the neck (where it ties into the shoulder and chest). Trimness reflects flexibility and functionality. A horse uses his neck as a leverage point, and a trim, thin, long, high-tying neck is a conformational advantage.
This horse is also more structurally correct, especially down both front and hind legs, viewed from the side. Leg structure is the foundation for support and soundness. Viewing leg structure from the front and rear, I look for straight alignment--from point of attachment down through knee and hock, through the cannon bones, pasterns and toes. From the side, I look for a front leg with adequate angle in the arm (as it comes out of the shoulder), and extends down a straight column of bone. For cushion, shock absorption and stride, I like to see a 30- to 45-degree angle in pasterns (hopefully about the same as the shoulder angle). The hock should be properly placed so the cannon is upright and there's a correct angle in both the stifle and the hock--that'll allow for proper motion of the hind leg and a stride underneath the body.
This horse also has an overall smooth blending appearance that reflects his balance. And good balance contributes to performance capabilities. He has a desirable shape to his head, which reflects adequate quality and breed characteristics, and he has an acceptable topline which contributes to his overall balance. Ideally he could be cleaner in his throatlatch, and I'd like to see him heavier muscled.
Second: Gelding B
The second and third place horses are a really close pair, in my mind. However, with an emphasis on the advantages in balance and structural correctness in the front leg, I placed this horse second. Specifically, this horse has more slope to his shoulder and is stronger behind his withers and in his back than the third place horse. From a functional standpoint, that reflects more strength in his overall topline--a definite conformational advantage. In addition, he appears longer in his hip, and from this photo it looks like he carries more substance of hindquarter down the longer hip.
He's also somewhat trimmer in his throatlatch and neck. While neither horse ties in as high at the base of their neck as I like to see, the second place horse appears more correct down his front leg. Ideally, this horse would have a more refined head, his neck would tie in higher at the base of the neck, and he'd be straighter down his hocks when viewed from the side.
Third: Gelding A
While this horse has a nicer head and brighter appearance than the second place horse, he doesn't appear as structurally correct in his legs. He seems slightly back at the knee, which is undesirable from a conformational and functional standpoint. If you draw a plumbline down the side of his front leg, you'll see he's not as straight as the first two horses. A horse that's back at the knees can suffer from soundness issues because he can't absorb concussion as efficiently. I'd like to see him trimmer in the throatlatch, and ideally, his neck would tie into the shoulder higher. I'd also like to see a more level, stronger topline to allow for greater impulsion and collection.
The two clear advantages this horse has over the second place horse is that again, he has a more attractive head, which tapers down his face to a more refined muzzle; and he's straighter down his hock from the side than the second place horse.
John Pipkin, Ph.D., holds judges cards for the American Quarter Horse Association, American Paint Horse Association, National Reining Horse Association, National Reined Cow Horse Association, and National Snaffle Bit Association. He's judged nearly 300 shows nationally and internationally, including the AQHA Youth World Championship Show (twice), the APHA World Show, AQHA Amateur World Show (twice) and the APHA Youth World Show. Aside from judging, John is a professor at West Texas A&M University.
This article originally appeared in the March 2007 issue of Horse & Rider magazine.
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