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Your Horse:
Selection Of The Horse
Conformation Of Horses
Disposition Of Horses
Saddlery And Equipment For Horses
Care Of Saddlery And Leather
Feeds And Bedding For Horses
Horse Stables
Horse Pastures
The Veterinarian
Care Of Horse Feet And Shoeing
In Or Out Of The Stable
Transporting Horses
Basic Physiology Of Horses
Genetic Considerations Of Horses

Conformation Of Horses

( Originally Published 1954 )

Conformation may be defined as the sum total of the physical attributes of an animal and the relation of the component parts to one another. One may spend a lifetime in the study of this problem and never reach the limits, since perfection is almost impossible of attainment. Some people seem to be particularly gifted in their discernment, while others blunder along for years and never seem to be able to tell the good from the bad. The old saying about "an eye for a horse" is certainly true and I suspect that there is some-thing of the artist, the scientist, or both in the fortunate possessor. Beauty is functional, at least in the horse, and the most beautiful conformation is that which is most perfectly suited to the task at hand. The merits of certain conformation points may be proved by mathematical and physical analysis, while others have reached a standard by the long process of the accumulation of knowledge through trial and error.

Practically everything is relative, and various observers will place greater or less emphasis on certain physical characteristics. One evening, not too long ago, a group of the more experienced horsemen and horsewomen of the vicinity were assembled at my home. Not unnaturally we drifted to the subject of conformation and an attempt to assign a relative degree of excellence to all the local horses. We consumed several hours, and all the available refreshments, and could come to no complete agreement, although we were all basically in accord as to what constituted good factors and the opposite.

The show ring judge has but a few minutes to evaluate all the animals appearing before him, and his system and his decisions will inevitably be colored by his preferences regarding size, quality, substance, and other factors. That is why horses go up and down in the ribbons as their type is seen through different eyes.

An analysis can be likened to a three-legged stool. We must find the three supports of soundness, substance (not size), and quality. In addition we have the seat of the stool which may be called disposition. The three supporting legs will provide no joy or comfort unless covered and held together by a healthy and sensible temperament.

Due to circumstances most of us approach the problem of the prospective mount in the most difficult way. We arrive at a stable and after the customary exchange of greetings find ourselves led down a narrow hall and just in front of a dimly lighted box stall. The door is opened and we peer in at close range and see a blanket which is forthwith re-moved and the animal led into the aisle. While the owner extols the animal's merits we try to check first one part and then another, and before long we have a number of bits of information and practically no conception of the horse as a whole.

I would suggest that a different method be followed. The basis is certainly not original with me, for I have seen dealers of high class hunters exhibit their offerings in a similar way. Stay as far from the stable as possible and take up a vantage point in good light in an open courtyard, or at the far side of an enclosed ring if such is being used. As the prospect is led out of his stall have him stop at a fair distance away and take in the first impressions. Notice first his walk in its entirety, and then one leg at a time. Is It free, willing and even, or choppy, hesitant and stiff? If the walk isn't right there will be a dozen excuses, the most familiar being, "he has been in his stall all day, he just came in from a long trip, his feet need trimming, or his shoes are bad." Any one of these may be more or less true; but if a horse is well and sound he walks freely and boldly and I am inclined to suspect the worst if he doesn't.

Next pay particular attention to his mental reactions to his surroundings. He may be either quiet or playful and in good spirits, but that is quite different from being nervous, tense, and suspicious. Any animal has the right to be alert to unusual sights and circumstances, but he should not be upset by common sights or sounds unless his emotional makeup is damaged by inheritance or training. Some years ago I went out to inspect a horse and I took with me a man who had spent most of his life on a ranch and with all sorts of horses. As we stood there a chestnut was led out of the barn and as he passed an empty wagon he shied sharply. After we finished the rest of the inspection, which was very satisfactory, my friend remarked: "He is a good horse, Doc, and you better buy him; but he will always be spooky." For twelve years the gelding carried me well in the field, in chases, and in polo, but when he went to his retirement at the age of eighteen he was still "spooking" at little things that I could never understand. Trucks and traffic meant nothing in his life, but many a time he saw an upturned branch or a bit of paper, and forthwith "swapped ends" and deposited me unceremoniously in the dust.

The difference in a horse's responses never fails to fascinate me. Many in our country are brought in direct from distant ranches where they have never seen a crowd, traffic, an enclosed riding hall, or the other embellishments of civilization. Some seem to be able to size up the whole situation in a few moments and show concern for only formidable objects, and then dismiss even those as soon as they have been investigated once or twice. Others never seem to be at ease about anything, and the worst of it is that you never know what will cause the upset or when it will take place, except that it is a good bet that it will be in an inconvenient or dangerous situation. If a horse rears or bucks he can usually be trained out of it as soon as the reason is established and his habits reconditioned. Repeated shying, on the other hand, is an indication of an unstable nervous system, sometimes aggravated by defective vision. You may be able to control it, but I predict that you will never be able to eliminate it entirely.

Having considered these generalities, place yourself for a full profile view and take in the outline as a whole. Every-thing should seem to fit together as if it were of one piece. A good horse is proud and his stance will show it. The head should be clean cut and well placed on a rather long neck which runs back into well defined withers, and the overall topline should give the impression of gentle curves rather than bumps and angles. The body or middle piece should show strength and depth, and in general the amount of "daylight" under the horse should not greatly exceed the depth of the body. Unless you are personally happy with what you have seen there is no point in going any further. A few polite excuses can be offered and you may suggest looking at something else.

If you decide that further investigation is warranted, approach slowly and stand by the near shoulder. No horse is any better than the feet and legs that carry him, so it is best to pay particular attention to this portion of the anatomy. The front feet should be nearly round in outline and have an outer surface free of ridges and irregularities. A concave wall suggests an attack of founder (laminitis) and this is usually further confirmed if the sole is flat or dropped. Be-fore touching any strange horse raise an arm slowly before resting it well up on the shoulder. Never fail to speak in a gentle and reassuring voice as you do so. Run the hand gently down the leg and pick up the foot' and inspect the sole for contracted heels, shrunken frog and the presence of moist or foul discharge in the crevices. Thrush, a fungus infection, is the usual cause of such an infection and it is common in horses who have stood up in dirty stalls. Feel the coronary band at the top of the hoof. It should be elastic and free from bony enlargements. In range areas, stock wire cuts are rather common. Most of them result in a blemish of no great importance, but if they have cut deeply into the tissues which secrete the horny wall, a permanent defect may result and a split hoof with serious lameness may result. In general, very small feet suggest contracture from illness or injury, while excessively large or splay hooves prompt the thought that cold blood is present in large quantity.

The pasterns should be clean, long, and make an angle of approximately a hundred and thirty-five to a hundred and forty degrees with the vertical. The pasterns are probably the most important single shock absorber in the equine leg and no horse will be a pleasant ride if major defects are present therein. A straight pastern will cause a rough ride at all gaits, and, if short in addition, the result is miserable. Such an appearance may suggest strength to the novice, but that is only because he fails to realize that the excessive transmission of jarring steps will damage every structure above, from the ankle to the shoulder. As we go along we will try to determine the places where we can overlook variations from the perfect standard and where we may not without great danger. The front legs from the knee down are a perfect example of a spot where we cannot compromise. Cannon bones must be clean, short, and vertical. The tendons on the back of the lower leg must stand out like steel cords, and the front and back lines should be nearly parallel. Any sloping forward of the back line just below the knee offers evidence of weakness and insufficient bony attachment areas for the tendons. The feet should neither toe in nor out, although the former, if not excessive, is by far the lesser of the two evils. Sometimes a horse's leg will bend slightly backward from the knee down. This is called being "over at the knees," and if not a congenital defect it is usually the result of early or hard use. A horse may last a long time after such a condition has developed, but it is the best policy to avoid buying one in which the condition is apparent. Far worse is the knee that is back, for weakness will inevitably result. Minor cuts, and small bony growths on the sides of the cannon bones, unless the latter are just under a tendon, or near a joint, usually do no harm.

The knees should be large, flat, and have prominent bones to provide leverage for the muscles. Slight thickening or scars over the knees are common in horses who have jumped a great deal, and except for the appearance they may be disregarded. I would put a greater importance upon such marks, however, in a young horse who has but little training. One wonders if they are the result of stumbling and falls that should never have occurred. Practically ninety percent of all lameness is due to conditions in or below the knee, and if we insist upon near perfection in this area we will minimize most of our future troubles on that score. The forearm should be vertical and well muscled, joining into an elbow sufficiently well away from the body to allow it a full range of motion.

As we stand in front of the horse the two front legs should be as vertical columns and not tend to become closer as they reach the lower border of the breast. One should be able to find at least a hand's breadth between them at this point. An excessive width will, according to authorities, cause a rolling and unpleasant gallop; but well bred horses are rarely too wide, and under bred animals will show other evidences of their coarseness.

The same general principles will govern the evaluation of the hind legs. The feet are slightly more pointed and the cannon bone is not quite vertical. The hocks should be large, low, and wide from front to rear. Boggy or bony growths in this area deserve most careful scrutiny. A capped hock usually denotes a kicker, while a hard enlargement just below the point of the hock is known as a curb. Curbs denote weakness or injury and the tendency toward them is often hereditary. I know one famous Thoroughbred stallion who has transmitted this defect to a very large number of his get. The hind legs should be well under a horse or he will lack handiness and drive. Horses whose hind quarters appear to be "out in the next county" will have a floundering method of locomotion and balancing and collection will be most difficult to obtain.

If the lower part of the hind leg has too much forward inclination the term sickle hock is applied. Unless excessive it will not greatly affect the riding qualities. The hind legs, like the front, should be parallel, but a light inward deviation of the hocks may be forgiven, even though it carries the unhappy description of "cow hocks." Hocks that are too far apart will do much more damage and result in a wide and spraddling gait.

If it is true that the legs are the primary indication of soundness and gaits, it is equally true that the head is the most important single guide to quality. Again we must go back to the Arab to study conformation and remember that all really well bred horses have facial characteristics that spring from this source. The head must be small and rather short in length, with nearly a straight line from the top of the forehead to the tip of the nose. A slight concavity is permissible and often even desirable, so long as it is actual and not a deception produced by a bulging forehead. The muzzle must be small but the nostrils wide and flaring in order to provide ample air supply under long gallops. Convexity of the line of the profile, the so called roman nose, is reputed to be a sign of bad temper. It is not common in registered horses, but many others who show many obvious evidences of good blood will have a little of this characteristic, and if the head is otherwise neat and well proportioned it is not objectionable. I have known many honest and generous horses with this minor fault. This business of being quite sure that character is infallibly demonstrated by the eye, the shape of the ear or nose, and like matters is subject to some suspicion. Men who considered themselves experts in such matters in the human have been thrown for a loss when confronted with large groups of rogue's-gallerystyle photographs of criminals, ministers, psychopaths, and noted educators. I believe that carries a lesson for judges of horseflesh, and while general averages may exist the exceptions are legion. The Army for years had on their team a hammer headed and unattractive brute with the well fitting name of Ugly. But this gallant old fellow jumped against the best in the world and was one of the most honest horses who ever wore a bridle.

But if temperament is not always apparent from the out-side, quality is, and may be told by clean cut bony structure, covered with a fine thin skin and few coarse hairs. The forehead should be wide and the eyes full and bright. Ears have been widely discussed and there is general agreement that they should be alert, well set and of medium size. Some will condemn a small ear as indicating meanness, while an-other will insist with equal firmness that large lop ears are a sure sign of bad temper, sluggishness, and a lot of other things. I think that it is the resemblance to the mule that suggests some of these latter ideas, but I must agree that lop ears are unsightly and it is not hard to remember the bad tempered horses who had them.

The jaws should be wide apart to give room for the larynx and to permit proper flexing of the neck. In general we look for symmetry and an appearance that is pleasing to the eye. A head abnormally long or large pronounces the cold blood.

Age is denoted by the teeth and it takes a bit more than the reading of a book to be able to judge accurately. Charts are available in standard texts, but until one has had considerable practice it is best to call in a more experienced consultant. A foul discharge from one nostril is a strong indication of decayed teeth which have involved the nasal sinuses. The eyes must be examined in good light and note made of any scars or cloudiness of the superficial or deeper structures. A blinking reflex should be immediate if a hand is passed near the eye.

In the resting state the well set head is nearly at a right angle with the line of the neck. The upper part of the neck should be thin and graceful, and a little arch will show in horses well developed or trained. A short and thick neck is an abomination, for with such a defect the stride will be limited and a good mouth difficult to develop. In my opinion it can hardly be too long, unless it is extremely weak at its attachment to the shoulders. It is important to consider the under line of the neck rather than the top line. The latter will have a nicely rounded curve if the horse is in good flesh, developed and trained. In those just off the range, or in untrained youngsters, the muscles may be very under developed and the line may be flat or even concave. Do not judge this too harshly for you will be amazed at the trans-formation that will take place with six months of grain and body building exercises. Pay your attention to the under line, for in this you will have the key to the future. Unless this line is quite straight the neck will bend at the shoulders instead of the upper third, and star gazing and a bad mouth will result. I believe that no single fault of head or neck would deter me more than a bulging middle third of the under line. The horse uses his head and neck as his major balancing mechanism while at slow gaits, speed, turning, jumping. Unless they are right he will not be smooth, clever, or a joy to ride. Here again we can ill afford to compromise.

The neck should run back into high and well defined withers, the latter being the name applied to the spiny processes of the vertebrae of 'the region. Almost the entire muscular anatomy of the forequarters is related to the structures which are attached to them, and the greater the development the better will be the grace and flow of the stride and the comfort of the rider. A year or so ago I made an analytical study of all the winning steeplechasers of the Grand National at Liverpool, England. I found many variations, but one finding was practically universal—good high withers. If you are examining a stock horse or one of the quarter horse type be particularly observant, for a weakness in this characteristic is all too common. One of the very practical advantages of well formed withers is the fact that it insures a proper placement of the saddle and one is spared the unpleasant feeling of going forever down hill. With a properly fitting saddle, secure support is also obtained and the girth need be but moderately tight. I have had a saddle slip sideways while galloping in the hunting field and I can assure you that it is an unpleasant experience. No matter how firmly you take up the girth on a bull withered horse the tendency to rock from side to side remains to some ex-tent.

Before evaluating the body, the back and the loins it is necessary that we know exactly what we expect to accomplish with our prospective mount. The show ring standards insist upon a very short back, a deep chest and an under-line which does not tuck up appreciably as it approaches the hindquarters. This is perhaps ideal and par: 1y based upon the theory that a short back is stronger than a long one. It is theoretically true that a short back will stand more weight and carry it longer than one less perfectly made, but unless our horse will be required to carry heavy loads for many hours each day, or is to be judged in high class competition, he may be forgiven a considerable variation from the standard. We frequently hear it said that "he is too long in the back," but I can recall but few instances in which a structural failure has ever occurred. If the horse is well ribbed up, that is to say that the last rib is not much more than a hand's breadth from the point of the hip, the matter is of even less concern. Horses with moderately long backs often have smoother gaits and a more flexible spine for jumping. The best horse I ever owned was far from short backed, and the previously mentioned study of steeplechasers showed that many of them fell into the same category.

It is somewhat of an advantage to see a horse when he is in poor flesh for the bony structure is less well covered and the skeleton will stand out clearly. Fat will cover a multitude of sins and if a horse looks reasonably good when his ribs stick out you may be sure that considerable improvement will follow conditioning and grain. A fat horse is a much more difficult diagnostic problem; as the blubber is converted into hard muscle our disillusion is sure o in-crease. The smart dealers are well aware of this and the young stock at the major sales is uniformly hog fat.

A very narrow chest is to be deplored, but if the front legs are reasonably far apart there will be sufficient chest room for heart and lungs, even if there is a little tendency to shallowness. Unless you are pointing for the four mile cross country races a well blooded horse usually has enough "bottom" for all practical pleasure riding. The ribs should have a good flare from the girth on back in order to supply room for the digestive system and also to keep the saddle from slipping back. A herring gutted horse is frequently a hard keeper and a breastplate must be used to keep the saddle in place. A little tucking up in the flanks will do no great harm and this, too, will be minimized by flesh.

A flat croup, well concealed hip bones and a nice rounded set of hindquarters will take the judge's nod every time, but they really won't add much to riding merit. Hip bones that stick out may not be pretty, but they give additional leverage to muscle attachments. A prominence of the sacrum may spoil the symmetry of the top line, but such a variation has been so frequently present in good performers that it is commonly called the "jumping bump." The really most important thing is to have a good length of the bones from the point of the hips to the rear of the buttocks. If that is present one may disregard a low tail. The muscles of the croup are probably the first to show lack of development and considerable lightness may be allowed in the young and untrained. Many of the best staying horses remain for-ever a little light behind. Round, heavy hindquarters give pulling strength to the plow horse but they apparently add nothing to speed or beauty of motion.

By this time we should have a pretty fair idea of our candidate as a whole. Moderate compromise with the ideal is inevitable, but we have a right to demand a maximum of good points and a minimum of seriously bad faults. Once more it is time to sop and consider whether there is any advantage in going further. I think it hardly fair to the seller o put him to greater effort if we feel that our standards of conformation are not met; and in addition we do not want to fuss around until we get talked into something that our judgment tells us to be unwise. I like to wear my riding clothes when I go shopping for a horse and in addition I stow one of my own saddles in the back of the car just in case I may want to ride. Many ranches and farms will have nothing but stock saddles available, and often not even that. Unless you are quite at home with such tack you may find yourself so ill at ease that you will be unable to ride in your accustomed style and to devote your entire attention to the horse. If our prospect is admittedly completely unbroken about all we can do is to have him led by a man on foot or riding a second horse. Considerable discernment is necessary if we are so limited, and we must realize that the entire breaking process is yet to come and that we must do it ourselves or engage someone to do it for us. If the owner states that the horse is partly or fully broken to the saddle I suggest that he provide the first rider. There is no sense in risking your own neck, and besides it is always well to have a good look from the ground while the gaits are demonstrated. Ask for a free walk on a loose rein, an extended trot, and an easy slow gallop. There is no point in asking for a show of speed. If the breeding is right there will be "foot" in abundance, and if it is not present no amount of pushing will belie our evidence as shown by conformation.

If our demonstration has revealed a willing spirit and a gait that meet our standards, ask that he be taken about two hundred yards away and then galloped briskly directly to you and halted abruptly. Note how he reacts to the sharp pull up and then immediately take hold of the bridle and place your ear next to the nostrils in order o check for any irregularity of the breathing passages. A horse who is out of condition may be permitted a little evidence of being out of breath, but that is very different from any roughness at either inspiration or expiration. Failure to follow my own hunch in such a case was the reason for my most costly failure. I once rode a horse who had just a suggestion of a harsh noise on inspiration when he was galloped. Two different veterinarians assured me that he was entirely sound and I made the purchase, only to find that the roaring be-came worse rather than better as he was conditioned and sent into faster work. It was a disheartening experience to have him put in a really top performance in a hunter stake class at a major show, and then have the judge set him down for being "rough in the wind." Unfortunately the condition became worse and worse as months went by. Roaring is caused by a paralysis of the nerves of the larynx, and is usually the result of pressure on the recurrent laryngeal nerve as it follows its peculiar course down to the chest before turning back to the larynx. The larger the horse the more frequently this condition occurs. Do not confuse thick wind with a fluttering of the nostrils which makes a sound called high blowing. This latter condition may occur in horses who are just playing up or are overly eager. It does not indicate bad wind. As soon as you have checked the nostrils turn your attention to the flanks. Even though he is breathing heavily the motions should be smooth, even, and effortless. No sound horse, no matter how soft, should be distressed by a little run of a couple of hundred yards. If there is grunting, straining, or roughness of expiration be on the lookout for heaves, a practically incurable disease of the lungs. It is similar in its cause and effects to asthma in the human.

The final test is to take a good ride yourself and the longer and more varied, the more sure you can be of your decision. Try him alone, and in company; note how he re-acts to galloping in company and whether he will pull up and walk or stand without nervousness. Some of the best hunter dealers offer to arrange a day behind hounds for you and nothing could be a fairer trial. If two hours behind hounds won't show up limitations and vices probably nothing will. Similarly a short scrimmage will tell you about a polo pony. If he is represented as a trained jumper try him over a few moderate fences. Remember that jumping is a partnership and make allowances for your lack of familiarity with one another, but insist on form and manners rather than height. If your requirements are those of a pleasure horse or hack try to make your trial ride simulate, in so far as possible, the conditions, terrain and traffic that you will encounter in the future. Few horses are perfectly trained, but with practice one learns to evaluate both the present performance and the potentialities. Above all you must have a deep feeling of joy and satisfaction when the ride is finished. Unless that is the case he may still be a good horse but he is not for you.

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