Conformation and the Right Horse by Craig Cameron
Conformation is always important when selecting a horse. Conformation is more than just how a horse looks. A horse’s build directly affects how the horse moves, how well he can respond to many things that are asked of him during training, and how sound he stays for the rest of his life. You don’t want to buy a horse with a soundness problem or end up with soundness issues later because of the way the horse is put together. Become familiar with good conformation so you know what to look for when you get a horse. Every breed is different, and each breed has excel¬lent qualities, but finding the right horse for you is what is important.
I have discovered that, when looking at a horse to buy and studying his conformation, it’s easiest to start at the head of the horse and go all the way back to the tail. That way I miss nothing.
I like a pretty-headed horse. I like a nice triangular-shaped head that’s not too big. When I look at the horse’s mouth, I like it to be shallow. I think a shallow-mouthed horse is a little more responsive to the bit. That’s not always the case, but I always look at the mouth. I always check the teeth for age and condition. I like to see a nostril that is round and big, so it’s able to take in a lot of air. Ideally, I like a big, round, placid brown eye. That usually speaks for a gentle horse. Some Appaloosas, Paints, Palominos and Quarter Horses do have some white in the eye, and that’s fine. I also like a horse whose ears aren’t too big or too small; they should match the head of the horse. I like stallions and geldings to look masculine, and mares to look feminine.
From the eye, I then look the horse’s throatlatch. I like a nice, clean throatlatch; that makes it easier for a horse to flex and soften at the poll. I want a clean, balanced neck. I want it to tie in to his shoulders nicely —not too low, which can make him heavy on the forehand; or too high, which can make him carry his head and neck high.
His shoulders should have a nice slope. The slope of a horse’s shoulders affects how he moves, how he strikes the ground and how athletic he is. The slope should not be too angular, or straight up and down. The same goes for the angle of the pastern, which should match the angle of the shoulder. A horse with good sloping shoulders and pas-terns is a better mover and, consequently, smoother to ride.
I like to look at a horse from the front and side views. From the side, I like to see a horse with a nice level top line. I want a horse with good bone. A fine-boned horse is more susceptible to injury. From the front, the horse should have adequate distance between his legs, and show strong definition in his chest. His legs should be straight, with nice flat knees; a short cannon bone, which is strong and helps prevent injury; and adequate, oval feet. I check the hoof condition, and remember the old saying, “No foot, no horse.” A good-footed horse is a must.
Good withers help hold the saddle in place. Horses with no withers, or “mutton-backs,” can make their riders really fight to keep their saddles in place. From the withers, I like a short-backed horse. That indicates strength in the loins. I also like a deep heart-girth, which shows a large heart and lung capacity.
From a side view, I’ve learned to look for a proportionate trapezoid in the conformation of a horse. The horse should be long on the bottom line and short on the top line, with balanced angles of the shoulders and hips.
In any horse that I ask to perform, I want nice, strong, big hips, and strong stifles and gaskins. When I look at a horse from directly behind, his legs should be straight. His hocks should not point in (cow-hocked) or out (sickle-hocked), either of which means the hocks are more prone to injury than straight ones. When I look at a horse’s hind legs from the side, I don’t want to see a post-legged, or straight-legged, horse. I want a bend in the hocks, and the hocks to be set low. That makes for a more athletic, smoother riding and sounder horse than one with conforma¬tion faults.
Ideally, I want to see a horse that presents a pretty picture, with soundness being paramount. We all love pretty horses, but we shouldn’t let color cloud our view. Remember: Pretty is as pretty does.
There are exceptions to every rule, and occasionally I see a horse with conformation flaws, and the horse excels anyway. But when I’m looking at a horse, I want to stack the odds in my favor by choosing one that has correct conformation to do the job I need him to do.
A Native Texan Craig Cameron, one of the original clinicians, is on the road more than 44 weeks a year covering 80,000 miles demonstrating the style of horsemanship he has perfected in the last 23 years. Called the “public defender of the horse,” Craig dedicates himself to those who educate their horses by first educating themselves. At an age where most have long since retired the thought of starting colts, Craig Cameron, known as “The Cowboy’s Clinician,” starts hundreds of horses each year. Learn more about Craig Cameron at www.CraigCameron.com
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This article was printed in Performance Horse Digest, Volume 9, Issue 11