This conformation blog covers the withers, shoulder, and front leg.
The withers should be well defined, and on a continuous line to the neck with no dips. Older horses are more likely to have dips, as are those who work incorrectly. Defined withers give plenty of roomfor muscle attachment and help keep the saddle in the correct place.
Personally I am not a fan of prominent withers, preferring to see a flat backed horse to a high, undermuscled wither. I also worry when the wither is so prominent the rugs and tack will rub, causing no end of problems. A rub on the withers is known as “fistulous withers” and are a nightmare to treat and heal; I also think that we don`t know if the rub is causing irrepairable damage to the bone and thus the spine. Also, is it a factor in the development of kissing spines?
The chest of the horse should be deep, to provide enough heart and lung room. If it is too narrow and the legs “come out of one hole” then there is a high risk of injury during exercise by brushing and knocking the other leg. Cobs tend to have a wider chest, with wide apart legs which makes them stable but slow, and gives them a rolling gait.
The ideal shoulder should have a 45 degree slope to the horizontal. Or indeed the vertical as 45 degrees is exactly half a right angle. The other thing people look for is to have the hoof-pastern angle the same as the shoulder. So even an upright shoulder should have an upright hoof-pastern angle. But the HPA causes different conformation in the foot… more on that one next time!
An upright shoulder gives a short choppy stride, whilst a sloping one makes the stride longer and the horse more comfortable. In addition, you want the shoulder to match the pelvis and hip, in order for the gait to be equal, and so that the hindquarters don`t suffer fatigue and work stress.
Finally, the foreleg! This should be long and well muscled, with a short cannon bone. The horse has no muscles below the knee and hock, so a short cannon bone means there`s less length of tendons, which makes them stronger and more robust. Seen from in front the legs should go straight down, imagine drawing a line through the middle of the leg. Any deviation in this will hinder the horse`s gait as they will be more prone to dishing,plaiting or brushing with their legs. In addition, legs which aren`t even will have more strain placed down one side of the leg, either the outside or the inside, so the horse is more prone to tendon or ligament strain, windgalls, or even side or ring bone. Upon viewing the horse from the side you want to see a good column of support; I find this part difficult to judge as so often horses don`t stand square, or they shift their weight looking like they are over at the knee etc. If the horse is back at the knee there is more strain on the tendons; if they are tied in below the knee there is not enough room for the tendons.
The fetlock joint shouldn`t be round or puffy as this suggests problems within the joint. If it is well defined then it should move more correctly and fluidly.
Please don`t look at your horse with new found critical eyes; unless there is something obviously wrong no one is perfect, and most of us manage perfectly well with less than perfect conformation. Next time we will go on to the feet.