Horse Conformation Terms

Horse Conformation Terminology

Equine conformation evaluates the degree of correctness of a horse's bone structure, musculature, and its body proportions in relation to each other. Undesirable conformation can limit the ability to perform a specific task. Although there are several universal "faults," a horse's conformation is usually judged by what its intended use may be. Every horse has good and bad points of its conformation and many horses excel even with conformation faults. Conformation that is considered undesirable in one horse breed may be a valued trait or breed standard in a different horse breed. Conformation - The overall structure of the horse. What is acceptable conformation depends on what you plan to do with the horse. Roman Nose -The horse with a roman nose has a convex profile. Convex heads are generally associated with Draft horses, Baroque horse breeds and horses from cold regions. Roman noses are considered attractive in some breeds, and ugly in others. Dished face or dished head - A horse which has a muzzle with a concave profile on top, often further emphasized by slight bulging of forehead (jibbah). Dished heads are associated with Arabians and Arabian-influenced breeds, which excel at Endurance riding and were originally bred in the arid Arabian desert. There are several theories regarding the adaptive role of the dished head. It may be an adaptation to reduce airflow resistance and increase aerobic endurance. Dished head is not considered a deformity, and is desirable in Arabian and Arabian influenced breeds. Overshot jaw (parrot mouth) or undershot jaw (“monkey jaw” or “sow mouth”) - An overshot jaw is when the upper jaw extends further out than the lower jaw, with the horse having an overbite (also called a parrot mouth). When the lower jaw extends farther out than the upper jaw, we call this an undershot jaw,with the horse having an underbite (also referred to as a monkey jaw or sow mouth).
Back at the knee or calf knee - A conformation fault where, when viewed from the side, the horse’s knee is behind an imaginary vertical line dropped down from the front and top of the foreleg. This fault tends to become more pronounced as the horse gets older and can lead to unsoundness through excessive strain on the tendons and ligaments. Over at the knee - The opposite to back at the knee and not considered too bad a conformation fault – it is believed, in moderation, to be a bonus for the hunting/racing set as it reduces the strain put on the tendons. In dressage, however, it is deemed a fault.
Butty - A short-coupled, compact horse, often a cob type or a small hunter. Condition - Some say synonymous with fat, but not necessarily the case! A horse in show condition will be round and well covered, but should not ripple with fat nor have bulges over its shoulders. Curb -A swelling at the back of the hock and just below it, often caused by a ligament strain and seen as a sign of weakness. A severe fault in showing circles. False curb - Often mistaken for a real curb, but something else entirely. There’s no soft-tissue swelling and it should disappear when the hindleg is lifted. But it’s a conformation fault, which occurs when the head of the splint bone is enlarged. Furnished/unfurnished - Young horses are said to be unfurnished because they haven’t yet filled out their frame. Lady waisted - Although this sounds deceptively charming, it actually means that the horse is nipped in at the “waist”, or herring gutted like a greyhound! Leg at each corner - An old fashioned term that means built solidly, like a table. Length of rein - The distance between the rider’s hand and the bridle – or another way of saying long or short necked. Topline - The horse’s topline includes the muscles over the neck, withers, back, loin and croup – from the side, his withers should be higher than the croup. Apple Butt - Used to describe a horse whose rear end, when viewed from the back is rounded with a low spot in the middle. Their buttocks are higher than their backs. Most often seen in draft breeds. Cow Hocks - A conformational defect of the hind legs. When looking at a horse from behind, the hocks are closer together than the fetlocks which appear to turn outward. Forging - A horse forges when his rear hoof strikes the front hoof during a gait. Gaits - The different flight patterns of the motion of the legs while traveling. There are primarily four natural gaits. The walk, trot, canter (lope) and gallop. Gaited horses - Horses that perform additional gaits which are naturally occurring or trained. Tennessee Walking horses, Saddlebreds and Paso Finos are examples of gaited breeds. Hunter - A type of horse well suited for hunting through the woods and jumping natural obstacles in the process. This is not a breed of horse, rather it is a style of horse. Ligaments - The fibrous tissues that connect bones to a joint. They are often stressed with working horses and may need special attention. Conformation flaws also stress the ligaments. Mutton withered - A horse whose withers are rounded, somewhat fatty, which prevents the saddle from staying in place properly. Pace - A lateral gait in which the two right legs (front and rear) move forward and backward together and then the two left legs (front and rear) move together. This is a natural gait for some breeds of horse and they are referred to as Pacers. Pig Eyed - A horse with an unusually small, inset eye. Not considered an attractive trait. Claimed by some to be linked to stubbornness or nervousness, and thought to decrease the horse's visual field. Pigeon Toed - A conformational default in which the front hooves point inward toward each other. Pointing - A horse who has a sore foot will often rest his foot forward, avoiding putting weight on the foot and this is called pointing. Sound - This is the term to describe a healthy horse. It most often refers to his physical health and more specifically his legs and hooves. It can, however, refer to a "sound minded" horse who is easy to train. Unsound - A horse with health problems or lameness. Small nostrils or small nares  - Can be found in any breed and often accompanies a narrow jaw and muzzle. Small nostrils limit the horse's ability to breathe hard while exerting itself. This especially affects horses in high-speed activities (polo, racing, eventing, steeplechase) or those that need to sustain effort over long duration (endurance, competitive trial, combined driving). Horses with small nostrils are therefore best used for pleasure riding or non-speed sports. Horizontal neck - An ideally placed neck is called a horizontal neck. It is set on the chest neither too high nor too low, with its weight and balance aligned with the forward movement of the body. The horse is easy to supple, develop strength, and to control with hand and legs aids. Although relatively uncommon, it is usually seen in Thoroughbreds, American Quarter Horses, and some Warmbloods. Horizontal neck is advantageous to every sport, as the neck is flexible and works well for balancing. Short neck - A neck that is less than 1/3 the length of the horse. Short necks are common, and found in any breed. Bull neck - A short, thick, and beefy neck with short upper curve, with attachment to its body beneath the half-way point down the length of shoulder. Bull neck is fairly common, especially in draft breeds, Quarter Horses, and Morgans. Bull neck makes it more difficult to maintain balance if the rider is large and heavy or out of balance, which causes the horse to fall onto its forehand. Without a rider, the horse usually balances well. A bull neck is desirable for draft or carriage horses, to provide comfort for the neck collar. The muscles of the neck also generate pulling power. A horse with a bull neck is best for non-speed sports. Long neck - One that is more than one third the length of the horse. Long necks are common, especially in Thoroughbreds, Saddlebreds, and Gaited Horses. Arched Neck or Turned-Over Neck - The crest is convex or arched with proportional development of all muscles. The line of the neck flows into that of the back, making for a good appearance and an efficient lever for maneuvering. The strength of the neck with proportional development of all muscles improves the swing of shoulder, elevates the shoulder and body, and aids the horse in engaging its hindquarters through activation of the back.  An arched neck is desirable in a horse for any sport. Ewe neck - A conformational defect in which the underline of the horse's neck looks slightly bulging out, instead of arching up. It has a "U' shape appearance. An animal with a true ewe neck is physically incapable of working properly over its topline and will always carry his head too high and hollow his back. A dip remains in front of the withers and the muscles bulge on the underside. Stargazing - A horse that holds his neck high. Stargazing makes it difficult for a rider to control the horse, who then braces on the bit and is hard-mouthed.  Often seen in Ewe Necked horses. Swan neck - The opposite of a ewe neck, with a pronounced curve on the topline, but still a conformation fault, as the horse will not go correctly and may hollow his back. Knife neck - A long, skinny neck with poor muscular development on both the top and bottom. It has the appearance of a straight crest without much substance below. A knife neck is relatively common in older horses of any breed. It is sometimes seen in young, green horses. It is usually associated with poor development of back, neck, abdominal and haunch muscles, allowing a horse to go in a strung-out frame with no collection and on its forehand. Knife neck is often rider-induced, and usually indicates lack of athletic ability. Knife neck can be improved through skillful riding and the careful use of side reins to develop more muscle and stability. A knife necked horse is best used for light pleasure riding until its strength is developed. Large crest - Is most often seen in stallions, ponies, and draft breeds. There may be a link to the animal being an easy keeper. An excessively large crest puts more weight on the forehand. A large crest is usually caused by large fat deposits above the nuchal ligament. An excessive crest due to obesity or insulin resistance can be treated with a reduced diet. Upright shoulders or Vertical Shoulder - The shoulder blade, measured from the top of the withers to the point of shoulder, lies in an upright position, particularly as it follows the scapular spine. Laid-back or sloping shoulder - The horse has an oblique angle of shoulder (measured from the top of the withers to the point of shoulder) with the withers set well behind the elbow. Standing Under - This means that the horses legs are too far under his body and his chest sticks out. This can affect his balance, giving him a tendency to be clumsy. Turned in / Tied in Elbow - A turned in or tied in elbow is one that is too close to the body and twists the leg. This conformation will make the horse toe-out. They tend to wing in when the knee is flexed. Out-Turned Elbow - An out-turned elbow is usually associated with base-narrow and pigeon-toed conformation. The legs are too wide at the chest and too close at the feet. This makes the horse paddle out when they flex the knee.