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DELAWAREHORSE.COM   Copyright 1999, 2000, 2001 by Holly A. Covey. All Rights Reserved

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Holly's Conformation Analysis Page

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What does it mean to say "form to function"?

What is "conformation"? (And by the way, it is NOT spelled "confirmation". That's what you do, the root word being confirm, something like saying yes. Conformation is what you are -- the root word is formation.)

CONTENTS: Essay, Form To Function | Analysis of Horse Types | Language

Copyright 2000 by Holly Covey, All Rights Reserved

Artwork from various sources as noted


When you say you want a particular form in a horse, you must first define what you want the horse to do. Horses are built rather like tables -- with four legs as a base and the table, a rectangular shape, above them. This holds true for nearly every type of horse activity. BUT from there on, the similarities end pretty quickly. The draft horse for instance, adds muscle, bulk, bone and height to the table. The miniature horse subtracts all of that and squeezes the table down to trimmer dollhouse size. And the warmblood makes the table move flexible enough for a slinky with his elastic gaits; the quarter horse makes the table strong and quick; the thoroughbred, elegant and long; the Arabian, curved and delicate. And many variations in between.

The form, or conformation of the horse, is what creates these differences. Genetically passed on traits of muscling, and skeletal differences of breeds is what creates the difference. Man can change the muscling but without generations of breeding we cannot change the basic skeleton.

So what the horse is -- what he inherits from dam and sire -- is basically what he will become. However, training, care and the influence of man can and does change that. Standardbred trotters have become open jumpers. Thoroughbred racers have become carriage horses. Warmblood dressage horses western cowhorses. That's the fun of working with horses.

However, if you want an endurance horse, you'd be advised to look for endurance horse qualities in your next mount; rather than bulk and strength, as the Percheron or Clydesdale, you'd better look for efficiency of movement, smaller muscle mass and dense sound flat bone -- found in what breed? That's right, Arabian. (And by the way the breed of choice for most endurance riders.)

If you want a jumper, better look for deep hindquarters, lofty shoulder and neck, clean canter and powerful gallop as well as size - 16 hands or larger. But your carriage or combined driving horse better forget all that, you want a solid, squarely balanced trot that can extend or collect in an instant and a high set to the neck to adapt to the flexibility needed in harness on marathon carriage day.

If you want a winning western pleasure horse, look for sloping pasterns, a level back, low set hocks and neck. For a cutting horse, a downhill horse -- hips higher than withers, narrow in front, powerful and clean hocks behind and agility rather than size.


Traveller - the famous mount of Civil War general Robert E. Lee

This horse has a long back, flat quarter, low set hock, while the forelegs do not tie in close to the ribcage but rather are set forward on the rather straight shoulder; the crest is medium and the neck comes out of the breast with room to spare. This horse should be an easy gaited horse (without really being able to view the pasterns and hoof angle, it's hard to definitively say) with an experienced face and flat, narrow bone in the legs. This horse would be a great trail horse, long-distance horse and should be sound for heavy use altho not really a carriage or jumping horse. In fact, Traveller was a fantastic riding horse, very tough, the General who was a terrific horseman loved him for his gait and rideability.

The above painting of two hunters ready for the hunt shows quite typical conformation of a horse that is bred or meant to run and jump. The gray horse in the foreground shows the tremendous depth and length of the gaskin and upper hind leg, along with straight hock, short cannon, square pasterns and hooves behind. The flank is thick and back broad with muscular quarters altho slight out of our straight side profile. Contrast the gray's hip, above, with the rounded and shallower hip on the horse below. These hunters have long, long necks for balance while going over varied terrain and long legs with straight wide chests. All meant to give a horse a better stride and longer reach as well as clearance over hurdles and uneven ground.

Artwork courtesy of

The horse depicted above is an illustration, although I think I know which breed it represents. Notice the rounded shallow quarter, contrast with the deep muscular quarter of the hunter above. Also note the delicate, long bones of the legs, and the slightly camped under hocks. This is a horse, with a upward set to the neck, and intelligent, flat face, high set eyes, pointed ears, low set tail, that should have Arabian or Spanish breeding. My guess is an Andalusian; a good solid western riding horse or perhaps a dressage horse, a horse for arenas and flat riding, for novice riders or those wishing a level headed, steady riding horse with classy knee action.

Compare this quite typical, very easily recognized horse with that of the Thoroughbred, below, and the Spanish type horse, above. Yes -- it's a Quarter Horse. The heavily muscled hindquarter, rounded barrel, heavy shoulder and low set neck helps to give visual clues. Strong, built to turn, sprint, and carry, the Quarter Horse is widely varied from this ideal illustration, but still manages to be the most popular riding horse in the world.

Compare this famous horse (answer as to who it is below) with the line drawing of a mule which is the next picture.This is an interesting study in conformation because nearly the opposite of all the good points of the chestnut horse occurs in the mule. The deep quarter and short back -- shallow quarter and long back. The lowset knees and hocks, with the beautifully sloped shoulder; on the mule, the steep shoulder and hocks set out behind the horse in a camped position. The long head, short neck as opposed to the defined head and long, balancing neck which comes out of the shoulder perfectly. I could fault the horse above for too much white (IMO) and for a longer set to the pasterns than ideal, but remember, it's a portrait so the painter probably took some liberties.

Study the two pictures and see if you can see the differences I've pointed out -- good, you are on your way to being a conformation expert!

Artwork courtesy of Bit O'Horse Clipart

The mule. As discussed above.

Artwork courtesy of

Harness Horse

Altho this horse is "checked up" with a bridle and overcheck attached to his harness, and ready to go out to work, I think we can use our imagination to assume how the neck and head would naturally position itself were the horse not checked. Notice the beautiful shoulder definition here and the long forearm of the front leg; the elbows are not tied into the barrel, which has a nearly perfect underline (almost 2/3 length of the topline, which is from the withers back to the hip). The hocks are slightly sickled but the long powerful hip muscle, straight hind pastern, and deep quarter make up for this lack.The head claims a great deal of attention; this is an intelligent, able horse with a great attitude; he has a strong set to his neck and looks as if he could take on the world. In fact, he did, and beat all comers -- this is the great Dan Patch.

Answer to the Other famous "chestnut" horse above: Secretariat!

Language Guide:


The hind limb of the horse including the hip, the top of the rump, the stifle/hock/hind legs. "Deep" quarters are measured by eye horizontally from the flank to the point of the buttocks.

Set of Neck:

This is not the curled way of going of the western pleasure horse but the way the neck comes out of the breast and shoulders of the horse. The neck underline runs from the breast to the throatlatch; the top or crest is from the withers to the poll. Ideally the neck of the hunter or thoroughbred is longer on top than bottom, comes out of the shoulders at a medium point, has a slight arch. The Arabian or Spanish breeds see a shorter, more arched neck with a much longer topline allowing the head to curl under to the chest to a greater degree. The Standardbred and breeds like the Walking Horse, Rocky Mountain Horse, and others more recent in development have the carriage horse neck, thick, short, nearly the equal top and underlines and come out of the shoulders high. Quarter Horses (and hence Paints, Appaloosas, etc). often have low set necks where the neck comes out of a shoulder very low, the topline is extrremely flat with little or no arch, the so called "pencil" neck.

Set of hocks:

The hocks angularity (angles) should be not excessively open or closed; sickle hocks look like the old fashioned sickle of the hay field, curved so far around that they stick out behind the horse. Such angles are considered closed. Straight hind legs, on the other hand, are considered "posty" or straight and wide open in angle. Hocks should be carried under the horse, rather than out behind the quarters.