Structure and balance can affect horse health and performance.
“Balance is the framework that you build everything on,” says Dr. Jim Heird, AQHA first vice president. That’s what Dr. Heird, who served as an AQHA judge from 1977 to 2015, taught other AQHA judges and the college judging team he coached in the past.
Whether it is for performance or breeding, good balance and conformation play an important role. Faults and poor structure can often lead to health issues later in a horse’s career or adversely affect progeny. That is why it is important for horse owners to recognize balance and quality structure in their own horses and in prospective horses.
First things first, before talking about structure, you have to talk about balance.
“When I start to evaluate a halter class, I begin by asking, ‘What’s the nicest balanced horse out here?’ ” he says. “Once I consider a horse’s balance, then I go back and look at structure, such as in the feet and legs.
If performance is in your horse's future, becoming an expert in conformation will help you identify potential soundness issues.
“What the average owner should know about evaluating horses is no different from what any judge should know,” he says.
Basic Balance Reference Points
No. 1: Slope of shoulder
“Everything, for me, begins with the slope of the shoulder,” Dr. Heird says.
Look for the horse’s skeleton: To find the shoulder’s slope, follow the spine of the scapula under the skin.
Dr. Heird begins with the slope of shoulder because it’s a good starting point to help you see other factors in the neck and body that affect a horse’s overall balance.
“The scapula always connects to the muscle at the same place on the bone,” he says. “But if I straighten the scapula, the neck becomes shorter. When that happens, you shorten the topline of the neck and lengthen the topline of the body.
“Whereas if I have more slope in the scapula, the neck lengthens. The topline of the neck lengthens, and the topline of the body gets shorter.”
No. 2: Basic ratios
If it’s difficult for you to see the slope of the shoulder, Dr. Heird suggests that you look at ratios, how the horse’s topline compares to his bottom line in the body and neck. In the body of the ideal, balanced horse, you want a short topline (back) and long bottom line (underline). The back should be approximately half the length of the bottom line.
In the neck, it’s the opposite. The balanced horse has a long neck topline and a short bottom line.
In an unbalanced horse, the top and bottom line lengths in both the neck and the body are closer to the same.
Remember, a horse’s neck and body ratios are always linked. If the neck’s topline is almost the same as the neck’s bottom line, then you’ll see the same thing in the body’s lines.
“The reason you use ratios is so you can compare big horses to little horses,” Dr. Heird says.
Become a conformation expert to help identify structural unsoundness in a future purchase or a horse in your own pasture. Recognizing potential faults could help you avoid performance injuries or future health issues.
The neck and back lengths, by themselves, are not as important as how those lengths relate to each other and the rest of the body. That’s what looking at ratios helps you see.
No. 3: Square hip
The ideal hindquarter appears square.
“In any breed, we’re looking for a long croup and a long hip,” Dr. Heird says. “We want slope to the croup because it positions the hind leg more under the body for turning, stopping and working off of the haunches.”
“But if you look at our ideal,” he says, “from the point of the hip to the buttocks and down, it’s just as deep as it is long. It’s just as full at the bottom as it is through the top.”
Once you can evaluate structure and balance, then you can move on to evaluating how form affects function.