Conformation and Type


Horses and ponies come in all shapes and sizes. It’s obvious to see how a heavy draught horse isn’t designed to make his mark on the race track; on the other hand it’s fair to say that a thoroughbred isn’t really built to do an effective job between the shafts! While most of us love the look of a finely bred horse with perfect conformation, the reality is that most of our favourite horses and ponies will never be show stoppers. Yet they are perfect for the job we ask of them – whether it’s as a competition horse, hack or companion. Indeed it is much more important that horses should be able to ‘do the job’ than meet show standards. Recent adverse publicity surrounding dog breeding has highlighted the danger of looking for ‘beauty’ rather than ‘function’.

Lichfield equine vet Richard Stephenson, who is Rolleston centre’s local vet, takes us through the key points of conformation, how they can affect our horse’s talents and ability and how we can keep our horses in good shape for their jobs, whatever their build.

The basics

There is no such thing as the perfect horse and experienced breeders will each have their own firmly held opinion as to what is ‘correct’. Mild variation from what we consider ‘normal’ is to be expected, many top performing animals have conformation faults so it is important not to be too critical when appraising a new horse. When buying a horse it is often necessary to offset some ‘negative’ features against ‘positive’ ones.

There are some features of good conformation that are common to all breeds. One of the most important areas to look at is the feet. The old adage ‘no foot no horse’ is as true today as it ever was. The fore feet are particularly important as these act as the horse’s ‘shock absorbers’ enabling it to work on firm ground. Poor front foot conformation can lead to abnormal force distribution and potentially lameness in later life. The soles of the front feet should be almost circular and symmetrical.

You should be able to draw a straight line parallel to the hoof wall through the pastern and fetlock joint – this is called the hoof pastern axis but make sure that the horse is standing with the limb directly under it to get a true impression. A long sloping pastern causing a broken forward hoof pastern axis can result in increased pressure on the tendons and is not appropriate in horses required to do fast work.

A common question is should the front feet always be an identical pair. In the ideal world the answer is yes – but in reality over 60% of horses have front feet that vary in size and shape. Therefore a slight difference between the fore feet should not be considered either abnormal or alarming. When buying a new horse look at the feet first. It doesn’t matter what you intend to do with it if it has poor quality feet you will not be successful.

Next consider the limbs. Are the front legs straight when looked at from both the side and from the front?

Foals and conformation.

Although conformation is largely inherited there can be developmental influences as well. Monitoring foals as they grow ensuring good foot balance is essential to producing a useful working or show animal. Sometimes young foals can have alarmingly bent legs – usually careful management, patience and good farriery will result in a ‘straight’ limbed adult.

In summary no horse is perfect. Good strong feet are the most important aspect of any horse. Choosing the right type of horse for what you want to do is vital. At blue Cross rehoming centres we see a high proportion of Shetland ponies. This is probably because many inexperienced owners fall in love with them but have little idea about the sort of life long commitment they are making when they buy one. In reality the useful applications for Shetlands are very limited (although they can be used in teams to pull small carts) and so many end up as glorified lawn mowers. It can be equally easy to be ‘over horsed’, a cob or native pony might be more suited for use as an everyday riding animal rather than a 16 h.h. thoroughbred. A specialist breed such as the Ardennes or Shire are really only suitable for enthusiasts and will disappoint if put to unsuitable tasks. It is best to avoid fashion and buy a horse that suits your needs.


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