Good Vs. Bad Horse Conformation

Jessica McDaniel
Written by
Last update:

What is Horse Conformation?

Conformation is the combination of physical attributes that give a horse its overall appearance, which is then judged against some standard to determine that horses overall quality.

Conformation is a term used to describe how well a horse scores with respect to 33 different points in two parts of its body: The front parts, which is often referred to as “forehand conformation” (or simply “the forehand”), and the hind parts, which is often referred to as “hindquarter conformation,” (or simply “the hindquarters”).

Horses are judged on the following factors in each part:

{1}. Head: Conformation is the first thing to be assessed in the forehand conformation, and it's the last thing to be assessed in the hindquarter conformation. The head should be in proportion to the body; it should be wide and full at the poll and tapering towards the nostrils, but not be in proportion to the body and neck.
{2}. Neck: The neck should be of medium length, muscular, flexible, and of great strength. It should be well set on, and of good texture.

Conformation by Discipline

Each discipline, or breed, of horse has different, very specific fitness needs. Compelling arguments could be made for horses that fit each height range being considered appropriate for each of the disciplines. And many of the world’s top horses do not fit a specific conformation type.

With that said, the typical warmblood type is the most commonly seen conformation in modern performance horse sports. It serves the horse well in nearly every discipline.

When you do an internet search for breed descriptions, you will find many generalizations such as "Arabians are fast, but their conformation is not suited to the jumping disciplines."

These statements are over-generalizations and are misleading. There are exceptionalArabian show jumpers and draft crosses that perform very well in some of the sport horse disciplines. Each horse as an individual has his own unique conformation and ability. To say that all "Arabians" or "draft horses" cannot perform well in some of the athletic disciplines is false.

Conformation by Horse

When looking at a horse, you always start with the head, which is like a sculpture. The eye is the most important feature of their face. You want a kind eye that reflects intelligence. Look closely at the eye from different angles to check for a clean, straight bone between the eyes. Then you look at the cheek bones, the jaw line, and the ears to check for flatness or concavity, and to make sure they are held upright.

While looking at the jaw, look for a big, well-defined upper jaw, with a clean throatlatch. Check for over or underbites as well as over or under noses.

Next, look at the bridge of the nose, the nostrils, and the nostril shape. You'll also want to check the air passages, which should be open.

The ideal muzzle should be even and have a large nostril. Take a look at the nostrils from multiple angles to make sure they are open. You'll also want to check that the muzzle isn't turned out.

Check the amount of white on the horse. White is the best for performance because horses with white on their feet can travel over the edges of the track, where horses without white may find it difficult to balance themselves.

Common Horse Conformation Issues

The horse has powerful and fast muscles that allow for adaptation to any kind of activity. They are able to gallop at speeds of up to 45-48 mi/h. That is why the breed of horses has evolved in a manner that enables them to be calm and patient, yet powerful.

However, there are traits in certain types of horses that have been breed over the years that make them more suitable for specific activities. Their muscles and height also determine their ability to perform. But there are certain shape and size issues that decrease their overall performance.

As a beginner, you may not be aware of the specifics, but you will be able to identify the signs of suboptimal conformation in other horses. It is all about learning the basics by observing the body shapes of different horses and then also by becoming a more experienced rider.

In this article, we’ll be taking a look at the characteristics of good, bad and ugly conformation in horses.

Knock Knees

Horse feet are designed to handle the tough terrain and demands of the equine lifestyle. Every once in a while, a horse will develop abnormal conformation, causing that single hoof to outwardly angle or point down.

This causes him/her to have to compensate for that abnormality by shifting to the opposite limb and can lead to lameness and other health problems.

“Pigeon Toes” are caused by a crack in the coffin bone. This is the projection of bone on the top of the foot that the hoof capsule is attached to. It is often hereditary, but can also be caused by injury, or by conformation that brings too much stress to a particular part of the hoof. When the foot is made of a white color or white with part of a different color, you can often see the crack.

Your horse may experience pain in his front or back feet. Horses will often walk with their front or back feet balanced on top of each other resulting in lameness.

Knees or pigeon toes, combined with a horse walking or standing with his front or back feet balanced on top of each other, could indicate that he is experiencing pain and is looking for a way to deal with it.

Club Foot

Horses that suffer from club foot are unable to move their hoof upwards and straighten out their hoof properly. This makes it a challenge for them to walk and run normally.

Club foot occurs when a horse is still young and rarely seen in adults. They occur more frequently in horses with genetics (16% of the population) but also independent of genetics, among other environmental conditions.

Club foot is normally treated early in life, before the horse is 6 months old. A corrective shoe is placed on the hoof and the horse is exercised to develop the muscles and to make the hoof more flexible.


This one might be self-explanatory, but is usually seen in draft or draft cross horses. Both of these are undesirable traits, and where one stems from the other, it is impossible to know without DNA testing the parents. Pigeon toed horses can either be short jointed behinds or a straight-legged horse. This is correctable through the initial training of a horse and throughout the life of the horse. As a matter of fact, having correctly assessed a horse’s conformation can result in a longer and healthier life for the horse.

You’ll want to check the legs for what is called pigeon-toes. To check this, cross your fingers, and look for a bump on the inside of the hock of the horse. This results in the horse having a closed hock. This is a breed trait, especially for some draft breeds. It is not a trait that can be corrected in a horse.

A pigeon-toed horse is usually related to a club foot. A club foot is also called a rocker toe. This means the horse, though it may not have the actual club foot, still has the muscle atrophy and is more likely to have the club foot as the horse ages. This is also something that can’t be corrected in a horse either.


Ed or Club Footed Horse?

The splay-footed horse is a much maligned conformation. A problem in just about all breeds, the classic splay foot can be created by malformed hoof wall, contracted tendons, and even injury to the foot structure.

A horse with a splay foot can have hoof imbalances due to the shape of the hoof. There is a significantly higher chance of developing hoof imbalances in the paddock. The splay-footing stemming from contracture of the tendons prevents the weight being pushed to the center, and the sole of the hoof is flattened where they distribute the weight of the horse.

If your horse candidate has a splay foot, it is essential to default to a barefoot trim while you are treating the imbalance in their feet. Once the foot is corrected and the horse can distribute their weight evenly on all four hooves, you may try shoes.

Straight Hind Limb

This is a horse whose hind leg is at 90 degrees with the hip joint. This results in an exaggerated joint appearance, as the leg bone (femur) is in line with the top of the hip.

The horse will be able to accommodate large loads, but has limited athletic ability, and is not as fluid moving, as the angulation is more angular. This conformation is most often found in draft types.

This is often referred to as a square horse.


A good horse conformation makes for a happy and healthy horse.

Your horse will be happier, able to carry more weight, and do his/her job better, and because of this, he/she will need less veterinary attention. If you see a horse that's obviously not built right, that's potentially a problem. We don't want to see that in the horse world.