Conformation – The forelimb.

Be it for showing under saddle, racing, reining, or riding for pleasure, a horse needs to be put together properly; but does a horse need to be put together perfectly?

Which limb defects matter and which don’t?

Since horses’ domestication, humans have been scrutinizing equine legs in an attempt to judge which horse will perform best in a given situation. Be it for any discipline, a horse needs to be put together properly; but does a horse need to be put together perfectly? Given that some poorly conformed horses surprise us and go on to be champions begs the question: Is conformation really all that important?

What is Conformation

Conformation simply refers to the physical appearance or ‘outline’ of a horse.”

Conformation is more or less defined by the horse’s bones, muscles, associated soft tissues, and how they all fit together. If all horses were created equal and used for the same purpose, then judging conformation would be easy. Alas, this is not the case. Every classification of horse (i.e., draft, light, or pony) has a different “normal” conformation and its own set of conformation traits defined by the breed and type of work the horse is intended to do. For example, sport, stock, hunter, pleasure, race, and show horses are all types of light horses, and each has its own accepted standard of conformation.

Conformation assessment involves a fine eye, patience, and a bit of luck. The horse is usually examined with four key functional components in mind: the head and neck; the forelimbs; the barrel and the hind limbs. Ideally, the forelimbs are evaluated from the front and sides.

Forelimb Conformation

A horse’s forelimbs should match and bear weight equally. Both toes are expected to point forward, and when the horse stands square the feet should stand as wide as the limbs are at their origin (i.e., the chest). If a straight line is drawn from the point of the shoulder, it should course perfectly down the front of the limb to the middle of the foot.

There are a large number of conformation faults that commonly occur in the forelimbs. It is important to recognize that a horse can have pigeon toes as a fault and that the presence of a fault does not necessarily mean a horse will develop a problem.

Bucking the System

Champion Thoroughbred racehorse Seabiscuit, grandson of the great Man o’ War, was notorious for his poor conformation. However, the undersized and knobby-kneed runner went on to claim the 1938 Horse of the Year title subsequent to his victory over War Admiral in what was dubbed the “match of the century.” Makes one wonder how Seabiscuit’s story would have panned out had his conformation been perfect.

Toeing-In (Pigeon-Toed) The horse’s toes point inward toward each other. Affected horses bear more weight on the outside of their feet, which places abnormal stresses on all of the structures located on the medial aspect of the limbs from the foot to the shoulder. These horses tend to “paddle” when moving, or swing their legs to the outside during the flight phase of the stride, then return back to the middle with the toe in when bearing weight.

Toeing-Out (Splay-Footed) The toes point to the side, away from each other like a ballerina’s. This fault is commonly seen in base-wide horses. Not quite as graceful as a dancer, these horses “wing” to the inside–swing the foot in toward the midline when they move. The problem with this conformation defect is that affected horses bear more weight on the medial aspect of the foot. Horses can be both toe-out and base-narrow and have an abnormal gait called “plaiting.” This means the foot travels in an inward arc and lands in front of the opposite foot – bit like a runway model!!! This is a highly undesirable trait because these horses can stumble when the forefeet hit each other (i.e., interference).

The Feet Not to be ignored, the forefeet are also common sites of conformation defects. Feet can be flat or contracted, bull-nosed (having a dubbed toe, where the front of the toe is ground/rasped off), or the horse could be coon- or club-footed. A club foot has a foot axis–the angle between the hoof and the pastern–of more than 60°, whereas a coon foot has a steeper foot axis as compared to the pastern angle with the ground (i.e., the opposite of a club foot). Like the conformation faults described above, foot abnormalities can occur in one or both feet.

Should you be worried?

An owner or prospective owner should consider whether a certain forelimb conformation defect is important relative to the job the horse will perform. Is a scar over the knee important? Is that divot on the point of the shoulder an issue?

I purchased a mare that had a fair scar across her knee, I didn’t want to show this mare, I bought her to breed with. This mare went on to be one of my best performance producing mares I owned. However, at the age of 18 the dear old girl suffered terrible arthritis in both her knees (she did go down on both knees when she split one of them open). I had to have her put down as she could no longer walk.

Conformation is one piece of the complex puzzle of a lame horse. Although poor conformation does not necessarily condemn a horse to lameness, the relationship of conformation, lameness is well-recognized.”

Conformation faults such as base-wide or base-narrow, whether in the forelimbs or hind limbs, have less severe conse-quences. Weight bearing with these defects is simply not optimal; the feet wear unevenly, which could lead to undue and abnormal stress on the bones and supporting soft tissue structures. But what about the other faults?

Many foals are born with a slight toed-out appearance. As the foal grows and the chest widens the limbs will progressively straighten on their own.

“In more severe cases of angular limb deformities, treatment is required and a foal with severe feet issues can lead to osteoarthritis of the carpal joints and lameness problems in the upper cannon bone. Often, toed-out conformation accompanies limb deformity, predisposing horses to lameness issues in the lower forelimb and to problems with interference (winging in).”

Many foals can be corrected right before your eyes with hoof balancing and dubbing the toe (making a bull-nosed foot).

Foals are like molding plastic because the greatest impact on conformation is made during periods of rapid growth, early recognition and regular reevaluations are extremely important to achieve a positive outcome.

A very common error among horse owners is refusal to confine a foal to a stall with an angular limb deformity when treating with trimming and/or shoeing. Too much exercise in a foal with angular limb deformities will worsen the result.”

In mature horses corrective trimming and shoeing can alter a horse’s stance, stride, or breakover. These methods can be used in horses with conformation defects to achieve a more normal limb movement. For example, balancing the hoof to avoid unequal shoe wear in horses that “interfere” can be used when poor conformation is an underlying cause of the interference. However, keep in mind that once a horse is an adult, more damage can often be done by trying to “correct” faults than by managing them appropriately. Speak to your farrier about corrective trimming and shoeing.

What are the rules?

In the A.Q.H.A. (Australia) Rule Book under…

Undesirable Characteristics

Any characteristic of conformation or movement, of a horse, is considered undesirable if it is below the standard described under Rule 11.1 to 11.3;

11.1 Conformation; means the form or outline of an animal; the symmetrical arrangement of its parts.

11.2 The conformation of a Quarter Horse is different from that of any other breed. It gives the horse grace and balance and enables it to excel in a great variety of disciplines. It is important therefore to become familiar with the Standard of Excellence for the breed.

11.3 Characteristics The following characteristics are desirable in Quarter Horses: (I have only added the characteristics of the limbs in this article, if you are interested in reading more on what are the desirable and undesirable characteristics of the Quarter Horse you will find the information in the A.Q.H.A. (Australia) Rule Book.

Note: I believe that all western bred registered horses would be the same.

The number and degree of undesirable characteristics, and/or defects present in a horse, will determine whether or not it is acceptable to the Association for registration or recording

Movement: Any characteristic which interferes with balanced, active movement of the horse such as: splints or other bone conditions accompanied by lameness.

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I am a retired professional horse trainer, active Certified rider coach, I coach riders and their horses throughout Australia and New Zealand, I am the author of the book From Go To Whoa - Training Your Own Horse, I am also a Certified Nutritionist and a professional Keto Coach. I am a keen fisher woman and I love the gym where I weight train 4 days a week. I travel Australia full time now with my husband and our Jack Russell Doug, booking and holding clinics and lessons throughout the country for many remote horse riders as well as not so remote. I love coaching riders and their horses along with helping people with nutrition and the ketogenic diet.

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