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How Your Horse’s Conformation Affects His Athletic Ability

No horse is perfect, but there are some attributes that the “model” horse must have.



Lynn Palm

Form to Function Part 1:

How Your Horse’s Conformation Affects His Athletic Ability

By Lynn Palm

It is a simple fact that how a horse is built affects his performance! I call this “form to function.” Once you understand how a horse’s conformation affects his personality and athleticism, you will have a better chance of choosing an equine partner that will stay sound and help you meet your goals.

No horse is perfect, but there are some attributes that the “model” horse must have. These tips can help you evaluate future equine prospects, or they can help you to understand why you are getting certain reactions from your current horse.

Heads Up


Let us look at conformation traits to evaluate intelligence, temperament, and sensitivity. Start with a horse’s head. He should have a large, dark, “kind” eye to help him to see well. I have found that horses with small, “pig” eyes have difficulty seeing. Horses with “bugged out” eyes with all or part of the white sclera surrounding the eye showing may have a kind attitude, but they tend to be very unpredictable. When the whites of a horse’s eye shows, I look for him to have a tendency to be spooky and inconsistent.


Next, evaluate his forehead. A horse whose forehead has a lot of width between the eyes tends to be more intelligent than one who has a narrow forehead. Look at the structure of the horse’s forehead. A flat forehead tells me that the horse will have a great personality, while a horse with a bulge between his eyes tends to be more stubborn and temperamental.



Even a horse’s ears can give you clues to his personality and temperament. Ears should be set on top of the head and be “sharp” and erect. They should have distinctive curves and sharpness. These ears say, “I have a great personality and a bright expression!”

Less desirable are floppy-eared horses with their ears set too low. These ears show a lack of expression. They indicate a slower, more mellow horse, but one that will rarely have brilliant expression.

“Pin ears” are the least desirable ear conformation. This conformation fault is caused when the ears are attached too close to the poll, and these horses tend to be very temperamental.

Horses also use their ears to “talk” to us and tell us what they are feeling. Good horsemen learn to read their horse’s ears. Here are some of my translations:

Ears forward, alert“”May mean he is surprised, not certain, or happy;

Ears working back and forth softly“”May mean he is attentive, accepting, has good concentration and is trying to please;

Ears straight up“”May mean he is lazy, bored, or asleep;

Ears facing straight back“”May mean he is confused, mad, doubtful, or showing the first signs of resistance; and

Ears really laid back“”Means he is unhappy, mad, or aggressive towards another horse.

As we continue our analysis of how a horse’s conformation influences his temperament and performance, we will now consider three characteristics many riders overlook””the horse’s nostrils, mouth, and skin.


A horse’s nostrils do not indicate temperament, but they are an important conformation factor for performance. Large nostrils are a desirable trait, and they are typically found on horses with good lung and breathing capacity. A horse with small nostrils may be limited in his endurance and stamina.


Since the horse’s mouth holds the bit, it is a key component in how we communicate with our equine partners. Look for a horse with thin lips and a short, shallow mouth because horses with these qualities tend to be the most responsive to your rein aids. Horses with thicker lips and longer mouths tend to be duller.

Skin Texture

Can a horse be too “thin skinned?” This term is usually used to describe sensitive people, but it also applies to horses. A horse’s skin and hair coat can tell you something about his personality. The thinner-skinned and finer a hair coat a horse has, the more sensitive he will be. For example, Thoroughbred horses are typically thin skinned with fine coats that feel like doeskin or sealskin. They also tend to be more sensitive and high strung. On the other hand, thicker-skinned horses with coarser coats tend to be quiet and lethargic.

In the next article, I will discuss conformation as it relates to performance. In the meantime, go to to learn about our courses and training products.

For more information about Palm Partnership Training â„¢ training videos, books and equestrian schools, please visit or call 800-503-2824.a

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