walking away
Walking away to show hind end conformation. Photo Credit: NBanaszak Photography


Conformation - noun

Definition: The shape or proportionate dimensions especially of an animal.


When you start to really get into horses, you begin to realize that conformation (not conf-i-rmation, which is completely a different topic) is a subject that is most important to horses and their people.

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Let's face it - the horse's entire future is dictated by how its body is put together. Good breeders over the centuries have considered conformation as one of the critical factors in stallion and mare approval. Horse shows everywhere have conformation and movement classes designed to validate and reward young horses that are built to excel in their discipline and stay sound. Take an equine course and you will likely have to learn all about not only the horse parts and names, but also the common conformation faults.

Speaking of which, when it comes down to it, most horses are not built to the ideal standards. One might have a club foot, another might have a long back. One might be sickle-hocked while another is camped out. There are so many possible variations of not-so-perfect that you might initially be a little overwhelmed by it all.

The trick is to know the horse's strengths and weaknesses, and what needs to be done to compensate for or support that area of need. Aye, there's the rub. 

And so we set off on a lifetime of learning - from the science of it (identification and understanding), to the practice of it (riding). We figure out how to solve the specific problems - and believe me, every horse is different - through riding, shoeing, veterinary and medical care, and whatever else is needed to help the horse be happy, safe and exercised over the long term.

Some people say that conformation is not as important as other traits such as temperament, rideability and level of education. I think the key is to first of all, analyze the horse's conformation as it relates to the kind of riding you want to do, and then, take into account everything else. 

It is quite possible to pick a horse based on his training level, for example, knowing full well that you will always have to engage his hind end to compensate for his long back. Or maybe you will do best with a short-coupled horse that can turn on a dime despite the fact that he might be a little higher energy than you were looking for. 

In any case, knowing about conformation is almost as important as knowing how to ride. One informs the other, and the more we know about both, the more we can do well by our equine friends.

How does conformation affect your horse and riding? Tell us in the comments below.

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  1. My criteria for choosing a horse are #1 conformation, followed by #2 temperament. My interests were eventing and dressage but I have never owned or been comfortable with tall horses. After looking at a lot of prospects, I settled on a Morgan. He is short backed and hot, with a high necked, convex top line and powerful hind quarters. He never met a line class he couldn’t win but his conformation has it’s own set of issues. His short back leaves me sitting almost right on top of the motor, which makes for a jarring sitting trot. Collected work is natural for him but his front end conformation gives him natural knee action and makes extended gaits more of a challenge. He has tremendous jumping ability and has demonstrated that he has natural ability for barrel racing and pole bending. After a lifetime of owning horses, I believe that if we want our horses to have long, happy and productive lives, we must choose for them the activities that they are suited for. I also believe that all sound horses are suitable for trail riding and benefit greatly from it.

  2. Great article and my experience confirms this, too. The emphasis on physical soundness and attributes seems to depend a lot upon the intended use of the horse. Is the rider proficient and ambitious? Then conformation is so important because you need a sound structure to withstand the rigors of work or competition. That being said, I have seen people, usually young, who have been carried away with pedigree, look and perhaps the origin (European) of a horse but then cannot handle the temperament and have to sell the horse after many battles of will. Additionally, we breeders see buyers who are hyper concerned with any itty bitty defect which might conceivably interfere with some imagined advanced use. Ah, I’m talking myself into the conclusion that temperament IS the most important. A sound, solid and willing partner makes advance so much easier. If one knows that they need a horse that must withstand extreme use then look for reputable breeders and sellers who offer animals that have the character . and . the body and training to do the job. You will start off way ahead. I’ll say finally that cost is almost irrelevant. There are so many rescue and rehabilitation organizations of good reputation that a slim purse should be no impediment to acquiring a suitable equine partner.

  3. I believe temperament is most important. If the horse is unwilling, challenges you at every opportunity, does not care about being with you, hates to work, and is either too hot or too mellow for your liking, then all else is unimportant. After temperament, I concur that conformation needs to match the intended purpose of the horse. If you need an athlete for competition, the conformation has to be such that the horse stays sound over the life of the horse. That said, with good biomechanics and using the correct muscles of a horse during exercise, a rider can immensely influence if a horse stays sound or becomes lame early in its career.

  4. I have a thoroughbred…he is long backed and down hill…it takes a bit of effort to get him to track up and once you start getting some front end elevation the forward from the back end goes out the window, so I find we have to ride somewhere in between in order to exhibit some reasonable paces esp in canter

  5. I think Ursula Compton hit the nail on the head, especially her last sentence. So much breakdown is caused simply by bad riding. Riders can overcome–or at least work around–many conformational faults, if they have the eye to detect them and the experience to compensate for them.

    PS: Thanks for getting that “conformation” thing “confirmed”! Drives me nuts reading sale horse ads…