Appendix: Conformation Essentials


Body Proportions

A: Angle of the shoulder. B & C: Height is measured from a point horizontal with the highest point of withers (line B) straight down to the ground (line C). D: Proper alignment of the rear legs for most breeds should have the back of the cannon lying in a direct vertical line from the point of the buttock dropping down and perpendicular to the ground (line D).

This is the ideal conformation of a Thoroughbred-type race horse, which may not be identical to other breeds, such as a gaited breed or a draft horse. Other good riding breeds may differ from this description somewhat, but this is the general conformation common to most riding horses.

Feet: A horse’s hooves must be able to withstand a great deal of pressure. At full speed, a 1,000-pound Thoroughbred will place the equivalent of one hundred times the force of gravity on each hoof with every stride, so it is essential that the foot be shaped properly to withstand this concussion and dissipate the shock of impact. Consider the proportion, substance, and size of the hoof. The underside of the hoof should have a round, slightly oval shape, with some depth. Look for balanced feet on both sides, or symmetry. Avoid misshapen, dished, or cracked feet.

Pasterns: The pastern should be at a 45-degree angle. Its length should be proportionate; a pastern that is too long could indicate weakness and tendon strain, while if it is too short it may absorb too much concussion, thus stressing the bone structure.

Ankle: As with the pastern, the ankle joint size should be proportionate to the rest of the leg. Beware of spread or prominent sesamoids.

Cannon bones: Ideally, the cannon bone should be short and strong and have mass. The cannon bone bears the most weight of any bone in a horse’s body. The bone should exit the lower knee or hock cleanly and be well-centered. From the front, the cannon bones should appear straight and be of the same length. Keep an eye out for splints under the knee on the front of the cannon bones.

Knee: Bones in and leading to the knee should line up in a balanced manner. They should not tilt for-ward (over at the knee, or buck-kneed) or back (back at the knee, or calf-kneed), or be severely offset to one side or the other when viewed from the front. It is best if the knees are set squarely on top of the cannon bones, not off to one side or another (offset knees).



Shoulder: The shoulder should have the same slope or angle as the pastern. The ideal slope of the shoulder is approximately 45 to 50 degrees. In general, the angle of the pastern will correspond with the angle of the shoulder. Stride length is largely determined by the conformation of the shoulder. The straighter the shoulder, the shorter the stride. Also, a straight shoulder absorbs concussion instead of dispensing it and puts stress on the bones of the leg and shoulder. Look for balance, symmetry, and good muscling. A straight line from the point of the shoulder should bisect the entire front leg all the way to the toe. Also, the width of the toes on the ground should be the same width as the legs’ origin in the chest.

Neck: The neck should be sufficient in scope to provide adequate wind for the horse and be well tied in at the withers, without being too low, or “ewe necked.” A horse with a well-muscled, well-proportioned neck has a longer, more rhythmic stride and can more easily maintain its balance when running. An easy, rhythmic stride will cause less fatigue. Fatigue can increase the chances of injury. In short, does the neck fit with the rest of the body?


Head: The head should be broad enough to permit adequate air passage. Generally, the distance from the back of the jaw to where the head ties into the neck should be about the size of a fist. Nostrils should be of adequate size. When people refer to an “attractive” head, they usually mean the head is short with well-set ears and has large bold eyes, a short distance from eye to muzzle, large nostrils, and a refined muzzle with a shallow mouth. In general, there is no physiological benefit to the horse having an attractive head, as any type head functions the same.

Back: The distance from the withers to the top of the croup or hips should match the length of the horse’s neck from the poll to the withers. The length of the back is directly related to the slope of shoulder. The steeper the shoulder, the longer the back. A horse with a long back is usually not as well balanced as a short-backed one.


Hips and buttocks: The croup or hip should have a gentle slope, not too steep or flat, and good width. The gaskin should depict strength and complement the muscles of the quarters. Note that much of the horse’s athleticism and power comes from behind. Definition and development are key attributes.


Hocks: A horse’s hocks should not be straight as a post, or curved so deeply as to be “sickle-hocked,” but somewhere in between. From the rear, the hocks should appear to point straight at the viewer and should not turn in (cow hocks), turn out (open in the hocks) or be bow-legged. Ideally, if you dropped an imaginary plumb line from the point of the buttocks to the ground, it should run parallel to the cannon bone and be slightly behind the heel.



Stance: Does the horse stand with hocks tucked up underneath the body (sickle-hocked), or behind the body like a German Shepherd? The horse should be standing balanced and straight. The same goes for the front legs.

Chest: A horse’s chest should be broad and appear powerful. Narrow chested or slab-sided horses are said to lack power.

Conformation Essentials: Walking Stride

Front and rear view: The horse should move straight toward and away from the viewer. Observe whether the horse toes in or toes out as it walks.

Side view: Check for the overstep: Do the hind feet reach beyond the front hoof prints? Observe the horse’s head. Be certain it does not bob unusually when walking, as this may indicate soreness or lameness.

Walk: Look for a smooth, long stride. Avoid yearlings that walk “wide” in front.

Unsoundness and Blemishes: Front Legs

An unsoundness is any defect in form or function that interferes with the usefulness of the horse. A blemish is an acquired physical defect that does not interfere with the usefulness of the horse, but may diminish its value.


Inbreeding is the term utilized to describe breeding in which the same ancestor appears two or more times within the first four generations of pedigree. For example, if the same ancestor appears in the third generation and again in the fourth, the horse is referred to as being “inbred 3x4.” The significance of inbreeding is that the ancestor to whom the particular horse is inbred will have greater influence, thus emphasizing certain characteristics. Most believe it is radical for a horse to be inbred closer than 3x3.

Outcross breeding is the opposite of inbreeding, in that there is no repeat presence within four or more generations. An outcross is believed to offer greater variety and avoid concentration of good or bad characteristics.

Horse Colors

There are only two base colors in all horses: black and chestnut. All other colors are the work of other dilutions, modifiers, or white patterns.

True black horses do not fade from sun or weather conditions, while fading blacks do just that—fade.

Chestnut or red is sometimes referred to as sorrel depending on the breed or particular equine organization. Genetically speaking, both chestnut and sorrel come from the same gene no matter what shade of red they are. Chestnuts can vary in many shades from light to dark, but they will never carry black hairs, and the mane/tail and legs will (almost) always have a reddish tinge to them. Points can vary from flaxen mane/tail, which can appear almost white at times, to very dark (black or dark brown).

Bay is a dominant color with many varying shades. It is a red body color with black points (mane/tail and legs). Bay is really black based, but restricts the black hairs to the points.

Buckskin is a tan color with black points.

Palomino is a golden color with a white mane and tail.

Gray is a progressive color that can begin by looking like any other color. Since gray takes away color, it is a gradual process. Many gray horses go through a dapple stage, then a flea-bit stage, then eventually turn white. Any white horse that has pigmented or black-looking skin would be a gray.

A white horse is born white and never changes. Its skin is pink (non-pigmented). Its eyes can be any color except hazel. Albino is a complete de-pigmentation of all color, including red eyes.

Dun, also referred to as dun factor, is actually a dilution of the base color while leaving the points dark. Points include outlined ears and dorsal stripe as well as the legs, mane, and tail. Other markings a dun can have include leg bars, reverse face mask, cobwebbing, tipped ears, shoulder bars, mane/tail frosting, ventral stripe, ghost smiles, and other primitive markings.

Grullo (or grulla in feminine form) is gray with a black mane and tail. It is the dun dilution on a black base coat. The dilution turns the base coat to any shade of a steel-grayish color. It can be any version from a light, silver grullo, to a dark, seemingly black color. The mane and tail can hold a dark to light frosting also—anywhere from a dark bronze to an almost white overlay of hairs in the mane and along the sides of the tail.


Sooty is a modifier that affects both black-and red-based horses by darkening the whole color or just in particular areas. It can manifest as darker-shaded dapples or uniform coat darkening, as well as a darkening in small spot or individual hair areas, or across the topline. Sooty buckskins (bay+creme+sooty) are often mistaken for grullos, especially when the sooty modifier causes a dark topline (referred to as countershading).

Creme horses look like they are off-white. Cremello is a double creme gene with a red base (chestnut), and these horses usually appear almost white, but can vary in shade to a creme color.

A double creme gene on a bay produces a perlino with the points being a few shades darker than the body. These horses appear more orange looking. On a black horse, a double creme gene will produce a smoky creme, which can appear to be a cremello. All double dilutes will have blue eyes.

Roan and appaloosa coloring are examples of white hairs mixed in with color, while pinto coloring is an example of colored spotting separated by white areas. (White patterns are super-imposed over any color on the horse.)

Credit: Michelle Clarke, Rancho Bayo


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