Written by: Donna Marie West
Just like us, horses come in a multitude of shapes and sizes.
The way a horse’s body is put together is called his conformation. Conformation varies from breed to breed and horse to horse, but certain qualities are desirable and certain faults, not so much, no matter what kind of horse you have or what kind of riding you do.
To evaluate a horse’s conformation, make sure he’s standing on a flat surface, with his weight squarely on his four feet. Stand back a few steps so you can see his general shape. Observe him from both sides, and from front and rear. Then move closer and examine every part of his body carefully.
A horse’s head should be attractive and proportional to his body, not too large and heavy, nor too small. The forehead should be broad, the eyes large and well set out at the side of the head. The ears should be active, small to medium in size and set wide. The upper and lower teeth should meet when biting. In profile, the nose is usually straight, but there are variations on the classic head:
Dished face: a slightly concave face, common on Arabian horses and Welsh ponies
Roman nose: a slightly convex face, common on draft horses and some Spanish breeds.
Parrot mouth: the lower jaw is shorter than the upper jaw, causing an overbite; it can be difficult to fit a bit on a horse with a parrot mouth.
Underbite: an undershot jaw, where the lower teeth protrude in front of the upper teeth, can cause eating problems and bit discomfort.
The head should join the neck at about a 45° angle. The neck should be of a width and length proportional to the head and body, and slightly arched from poll to withers. Faults include:
Ewe neck: an ‘upside-down’ neck, more heavily muscled along the underside than the crest; often causes high head carriage.
Bull neck: a short, thick neck is strong, but lacks flexibility and may indicate choppy strides.
Low set: while desirable on a western pleasure horse, a neck set too low can make a horse heavy on his forehand.
Body type can vary from breed to breed and from one discipline to another. In a riding horse, his body length from chest to point of buttocks should be approximately equal to his height at the withers and croup. The chest should be wide and deep. The rib cage should be well-sprung, with a round barrel that allows enough room for the heart and lungs. A narrow-chested, flat-sided horse may lack stamina and tend to be a poor doer (difficult to keep I good condition).
The ideal topline, from a horse’s poll to the root of his tail, should be smooth, without a big dip through the back or a bump on the croup. The back should be about 1/3 the length of the body, although disciplines requiring speed and agility (such as polo or barrel racing), a somewhat short back can be a good thing. Arabian horses typically have shorter backs than other breeds, too. The underline should slope slightly upwards as it approaches the stifle. The hindquarters should be thick, deep and well-muscled. The horse’s body is subject to a number of conformation faults:
High withers: can make it difficult to fit a saddle; common in Thoroughbreds.
Low withers: interfere with the freedom of the shoulder, and don’t hold a saddle well.
Sway / hollow back: the back is concave and may be stiff or painful; often seen in older horses.
Roach back: the back is convex and may make it difficult to fit a saddle.
Long back: while it makes for a comfortable ride, an extremely long back may be weak and easily strained; common in Thoroughbreds.
Croup higher than withers: may indicate powerful hindquarters, but when extreme can make a horse heavy on his forehand. (Not a problem in a young horse that’s still growing.)
Sloping quarters: horses with quarters that slope sharply from croup to the root of the tail are called goose-rumped.
Herring gut: an underline that runs up like a greyhound’s does can indicate a lack of stamina, or difficulty keeping weight on when at work.
Of course, many wonderful horses have far from perfect conformation. The important things are balance and symmetry (both sides equal). The parts of a horse should fit together well, giving an overall pleasing picture. Don’t worry too much if one aspect of his conformation is not ideal, as long as it doesn’t prevent him doing what you want him to do.
♦ If you lead a white horse through your house, it will banish all evil – even the bad luck that comes from breaking a mirror!
♦ If you see a white horse, spit over your left shoulder to banish the evil spirits associated with it.
♦ If you see a white horse and look over your left shoulder, you will see the Devil.
♦ When you see a white horse, say, “Lippity, lippity, white horse, when you have good luck, bring it to me,” and you will have good luck.
♦ Seeing a grey horse on the way to the church is lucky for the bride and groom.
♦ Grey horses are unlucky in racing.
♦ Spotted horses, or horses with spots of colour, have magical gifts.
♦ Being breathed on by a piebald horse, or riding on its back, can cure whooping cough.
♦ Black horses are touchy and tend to rear; chestnuts are hot-tempered and tend to pull; greys are docile and dependable; bays are self-willed and mulish.
Other physical characteristics
♦ “One white sock, buy him. Two white socks try him. Three white socks, look well about him. Four white socks, do without him.”
♦ One near hind sock is particularly lucky; one off hind sock is not.
♦ Horses with four white socks are unlucky in racing.
♦ Horses with a full forehead, large eyes and medium length ears are intelligent and reliable; horses with a narrow forehead, small eyes and long ears are dull, sullen or treacherous. Horses with a lump between the eyes are mean or stupid; large, floppy ears indicate jumping ability.
Witches and Such
♦ If a horse’s mane is matted or knotted in the morning, fairies have ridden him during the night. In Shakespeare’s England, the knots were called ‘fairy stirrups’. In the American colonies, they were ‘witches’ stirrups’ because – it was a witch who had ridden the poor horse!
♦ If you wear a black stallion’s tail hair on your wrist, you will be protected from witches.
♦ Braiding ribbons into the mane or tail of a horse will protect him from witches. Corn husks will also do the trick.
♦ Carrying a rowan-wood whip will prevent witches from casting a spell on your horse.
♦ Placing a piece of red cloth on a horse’s forehead will protect him from witches and the ‘evil eye’. Bells or brasses attached to his harness will do the same.
♦ The Devil likes to ride black horses, and sometimes he even takes the shape of one.
♦ Horses can see ghosts. If you place your head between your horse’s ears, you will see them, too!