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Conformation Clinic 

Part I

Over the next six installments I would like to present a mini clinic in conformation.  Conformation refers to the way a horse’s body parts are put together.  It is a lot more than what makes a horse pretty to look at.  Conformation is a matter of form equaling function.  It will determine the athletic ability of the horse and what type of riding discipline it is best suited for.

 

 We will approach the subject as a judge would when evaluating the contestants in a halter, or conformation class.  As we consider each section of the horse, I will discuss the desired conformation, common deviations and other unsoundnesses that may affect the area.  An unsoundness is a condition that may have been caused by an injury or developed as a result of the horse’s conformation.  An unsoundness is not a temporary condition.  It will have an effect on the horse’s ability to perform or amount of care he will need for the rest of his life.  In competition a judge may also mark down a horse because of blemishes which are injuries that may leave permanent marks, but do not affect the horse’s ability to perform in any way.

 

The first thing that we notice about a horse is his head.  Therefore, I would like to begin by discussing the head and neck.  A horse’s head should be well proportioned to the rest of his body.  The profile of the face should reflect the characteristics of its breed.  The Arabian face is the most easily recognized with its deep concave dish.  Arabian bloodlines have contributed to many other breeds, and the slightly dished profile is attractive and desirable to most.  A long straight profile is conformationally correct for most other breeds.   The face should also be broad between the eyes.  A Quarter horse face has very distinct features and bone structure giving it what is referred to as a chiseled appearance.

 

Ears are another feature that is somewhat breed specific.  In general they should be properly proportioned to the rest of the head and set directly above the eye.  Of course in Mules they will be much larger, but should still be well carried.  Some gaited breeds, such as Saddlebreds, have ears that are very narrow at the top, and almost look like they will touch together when the horse has them up.  You can tell a lot about a horse’s temperament and disposition by the way he carries his ears.  Floppy ears may be sign of illness or indication that the horse has been drugged.

 

While ears are expressive, the eyes are truly the window to the soul.  A horse’s eyes should be large and wide set on the head.  Small eyes are a conformational defect referred to as “pig eyed.”  Not a nice term, but it may have originated because horses with this conformational flaw have been known to be particularly stubborn.  The eyes should not be so wide set that you can not see them when standing directly in front of the horse.  While no horse can see directly in front or behind them, eyes that are set too wide compromise the horse’s peripheral vision.  They should be clear, free from any cloudiness or discharge.  When you move your hand in front of them you should get the appropriate blinking response.  The most serious unsoundness of the eye is a condition known as Moon Blindness.  The correct term for the disease is Equine Recurrent Uveitis or Periodic Opthalmia.  Symptoms may include redness, swelling, and puss, pupil constriction in the dark, cloudiness, squinting, or sensitivity to light.  Moon blindness is considered an unsoundness because it is very difficult to treat.  Even when progression of the disease can be halted, episodes can reoccur due to dust, wind, pollen or stress and the horse’s sight is compromised with each incident until he is completely blind.  The disease can be caused by bacteria, virus, parasites or trauma.  Once the disease settles in the eye, the blood flows to the eye to fight the disease and destroys the eye in the process.

 

Another serious unsoundness to check for in the head and neck areas is Poll Evil.  At the top of the horse’s head, at the first vertebra of the neck is the area referred to as the Poll.  Poll evil is the lay term for supra-atlantal bursitis, which is an enlarged mass or inflation of the cushion (bursa) that lies over that first vertebra.  It is believed to start with a trauma to the area which becomes infected, swells and drains down the neck.  It is considered an unsoundness because it frequently defies treatment and invades nearby bone and cartilage.  The particular bacterium involved can be transmitted through the draining fluids and also cause chronic infections in humans. 

 

 Proper conformation of the nostrils, jowls and throatlatch provide clear and efficient airways for breathing.  The nostrils should be large and fluted at the tops with no signs of discharge.  A clear discharge is not uncommon and posses little concern, but a white, yellow or green discharge is a sign of illness.  The jowls should also be nice and large.  The throatlatch is the area where the neck comes into the head under the jowl.  The conformational defect known as “thick in the throatlatch” refers to poor definition and fat build up around this area.  You should be able to fit a fist between the jowls and the neck and the area should look sleek and muscular.  You can easily envision the windpipe that lies beneath the skin in this area.

 

 Inside the horse’s mouth, it is important that the teeth meet properly.  The most common conformational flaw in teeth alignment is an over-bite which is referred to as “parrot mouth.”  Because of the way horse’s teeth continue to grow throughout their lives and the way they naturally grind them down in chewing, a horse with a parrot mouth will need special care and maintenance and may have a shorter life span than a horse that has a proper alignment. 

 

The neck of the horse should look graceful, with a slight arch to it.  The large muscle at the top of the neck, where the mane grows, is referred to as the crest.  A stallion will have a larger crest to his neck than a gelding or mare.  If there is too much fat accumulated in this area or the muscle is overly developed the horse is said to have a cresty neck.  This is very common in ponies and is an indication of being overweight and predisposed to the hoof disease founder.  (We will cover founder in depth in a later section.)     The base of the neck should tie in smoothly to the large backbone, called the withers.  A dip in the neck just before the withers is referred to as an ewe neck and is a conformational flaw that will restrict the horse’s ability to flex his neck properly and utilize his back and hindquarter muscles.

 

Correct conformation of the head and neck give the horse grace, balance and suppleness.  It allows him to accurately see and hear the world around him.  It supports efficient breathing and food consumption.  And it is indeed beautiful!