An Eye for Conformation

Horsemanship Level 4: Conformation & Unsoundness pt I

Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but good conformation is a matter of physics.  A horse that is well-built for his job will stay sound and perform better than one that has poor conformation.  For Level 4 we want you to be able to identify:

6. Positive & negative aspects of own horse; type; bone. Lameness: which leg and where.

Once more this is a huge topic that I’ll break into three parts, considering type and bone this week, overall conformation next post, and finally how to identify lameness.


Just as a marathon runner, sprinter, and weightlifter all have vary different body types, so too do horses who are bred for different jobs.  All modern horses and ponies are descended from four types of ponies: the European type (eg Exmoor), Asian type (eg Mongolian Horse), Desert type (eg Ahkal-Teke), and Proto-Arabian.  Centuries of selective breeding have created horses that are taller, lighter, heavier, shorter or more refined than their ancestors, but they can be categorized into three groups: Heavy Horses, Light or Riding Horses, and Ponies.


shetland foal
Shetland pony mare and foal

The technical definition of a pony is any horse 14.2 hands high (a hand is 4″ or 10cm) or under.  However, the pony type tends to be stocky, with good bone (see below), and is generally hardier than its more refined cousins.  Thus an Arabian or Quarter Horse who is 14 hh may be considered a pony for competition purposes, but is not likely to be a pony type.  With their sturdy build, ponies can often carry much larger loads in relation to their size than light horses can:  hence the Icelandic and Fjord horses that carried Vikings into battle, or the even smaller Highland ponies that carried Scottish warriors and their gear over mountains and dales.

Heavy Horses

A Percheron: built to pull but can still be ridden
Percheron: built to pull but can still be ridden!

Bred for heavy labour, draught horses are the weightlifters of the equine world.  They have excellent bone, heavy muscling, wide chests, long shoulders to fit a collar, broad backs, and powerful hindquarters.  They tend to be built ‘uphill’: that is the point of hip is lower than the point of the scapula (not the croup to withers line, which can be deceptive).  This allows them to lean into their collars and drop the hindquarters for more power in the pull.

Light Horses

Light horses are all the rest, who are neither ponies nor heavy horses.  However, within the category of riding horses, there are sub-types.

An Arabian stallion
Arabian stallion
  1. Arabian type.  Almost all modern breeds have been improved with the addition of Arabian blood, and there are several different strains of the Arabian breed.  In addition to the characteristic dished face, flat croup and high-set tail, Arabic type horses are small, tend to the lean side, have thin legs but denser bone than most warmbloods, and have short backs (some, but not all, purebred Arabians have one fewer vertebra and rib pair).  They are known for their speed and stamina, making them the top choice for endurance riders.  They are the marathon runners of the horse world.

    Thoroughbred mare
  2. Racehorses.  Thoroughbreds and Quarter Horses are bred for maxium speed, the latter being descended from the former.  With its long legs and laid-back shoulder, the Thoroughbred is a distance runner, while the Quarter Horse, with its powerful hind end, is a sprinter.  Both breeds are built ‘downhill’ which allows the hind end to come farther forward in relation to the front during the gallop.  A downhill build is not ideal for a riding or dressage horse — it makes it more difficult for the horse to transfer weight to the hindquarters for collection and lateral movement — but nonetheless both breeds are extremely capable pleasure and sport horses.

    Selle Francais Jumper
    Selle Francais Jumper
  3. Hunter type.  A hunter is any horse suitable for carrying a rider across varied terrain over fences and natural obstacles.  Hunters tend to heavier bone and a more level build than racehorses.  They need a long, well-set neck for balance when jumping, moderate hip angles, and long forearms to short cannons for a longer, smoother stride.  The type is not breed-specific, though Warmbloods with a good proportion of Thoroughbred blood tend to excel, and some purebred Thoroughbreds are built more like hunters than racehorses.  In human terms, a Hunter type resembles a high-jumper.

    Anglo-Arab sport horse
    Anglo-Arab sport horse
  4. Sport Horse.  This relatively new designation has its own registry.  It is similar to the Hunter type, but with more of an emphasis on all-round performance for disciplines like eventing.  Think of them as decathletes.
  5. With her comfy trot and bombproof temperament, our Flavie makes an excellent pleasure type
    With her comfy trot and bombproof temperament, our Flavie makes an excellent pleasure type

    Pleasure horse. A pleasure horse is just what it sounds like: a horse that is comfortable and pleasurable to ride.  It can be any breed, though smooth gaits, a level build, and a steady temperament are all desirable.  Gaited horses — that is, horses that can amble, tolt, fox-trot, etc. — make excellent pleasure horses because of their comfortable gaits.  They are not Olympic athletes: in human terms they are your moderately fit non-competetive adult.

  6. Baroque type.
    The Lippizaner is a Baroque breed

    These horses are most similar to the mediaeval destrier.  They are moderate in size, with a level or uphill build, high-set and cresty neck, and round, compact body.  Lippizaners, Knapstruppers, Andalusians (PRE) and Canadians are all considered Baroque Horses.  The gymnasts and dancers of the horse world, they are ideally built for dressage and mounted combat.


‘Bone’ is measure of the thickness of a horse’s cannon bones.  It is also a way of describing the animal’s carrying capacity and sturdiness.  A horse with good bone will theoretically be able to carry a larger load and stay sound longer than a horse that is ‘light of bone’.  A circumference of 8″ or more just below the knee is considered adequate bone for a horse that weighs 1000 lbs.

Other factors affect the weight a horse can bear: short, wide loins can carry more than long flexible backs; native ponies tend to have a greater carrying capacity than the average 20% of body weight; and Arabians have denser bones, and thus can get away with smaller circumference legs.

Choosing a horse that is built for the job you want to do will certainly lend success to your equine endeavours.  However, bear in mind that horses are naturally athletic and very trainable, which means that almost any horse can be schooled for any discipline.  Correct riding and training go a long way to make up for shortcomings in type.  However, good structural conformation — the topic we will examine next week — is the most important consideration for long term soundness and performance.

Current & Upcoming Classes

Beginner Riding & Horsemanshipleft shoulder

This six-week series will teach you to groom, tack up, and handle your horses as well as getting you started in the saddle.  By the end of six weeks you should be ready to test for Horsemanship Level 1, and a second run through the course will get most people to Riding Level 1. Choose between Saturday or Sunday classes — or take both to get you to your goal twice as fast!

Sundays 13 Mar – 17 Apr, 10am – noon
Saturdays 2 Apr – 7 May, 4pm – 6pm
cost: $300 for 6 classes

Riding & Horsemanship Level 2leading in hand

The Level 2 course covers the same topic areas as Level 1 but in greater depth.  You will progress through the Horsemanship Level 2 curriculum while continuing to work on achieving your Riding Levels 1 or 2.  If you are unsure whether you should sign up for Level 2 or Beginner, just pick the class which has space.  The courses run simultaneously and riders are informally assessed during the first class, with placements shuffled to make sure everyone is riding with a group of the appropriate level.

Sundays 13 Mar – 17 Apr, 10am – noon
Saturdays 2 Apr – 7 May, 4pm – 6pm
cost: $300 for 6 classes

Horsemanship Level 3-4hoof

This six-week course is intended to get you through either Level 3 or Level 4 Horsemanship, but there are no prerequisites.  That means anyone who wants to learn about saddlery, vet & first aid, grooming, foot & shoeing and other stable management topics can take the course.  A great way to learn about horse care, taught by certified Pony Club alumni.

Sundays 13 Mar – 17 Apr, 11am – noon
Saturdays 2 Apr – 7 May, 5pm – 6pm
cost: $130 for 6 classes

Jack 2Riding Level 3+

Welcome to the Open class!  Here you will further hone your riding skills, adding jumping, cross country, quadrille and mounted games work as you work towards your next riding level.

Sundays 13 Mar – 17 Apr, noon – 1pm
Saturdays 2 Apr – 7 May, 6pm – 7pm
cost: $200 for 6 classes

Mounted Combat Fundamentals

Prepare to take this course more than once if you are just starting out with the longsword.  While the five-week course does cover all the areas of Mounted Combat Skills for the Green Spur, most people will require further longsword and/or grappling work either through additional iterations of the course, or by supplementing with Longsword Fundamentals or Mastery classes.  Sword DrillsEven if you have signed off all the points in your Green Spur checklist, there are more skills to develop through working from the ground.  Students who have been through the course before will be given more advanced drills to work on, and may be able to join the ground sections of the Intermediate class during clinic time.

Sundays 13 Mar – 17 Apr, 1:30 – 3:00pm
cost: $120 for 5 classes

Intermediate Mounted Combat

Students in this five-week class will spend approximately an hour and a quarter each week working from horseback on longsword, spear, and grappling skills, as well as mounted games and general riding exercises.  Mounted Combat WorkshopThe remainder of the class is taken on the ground and from the falsemount, working on more advanced weapon and unarmed skills.  Students should have their horses tacked up and warmed up ahead of class to maximize training time.

Sundays 13 Mar – 17 Apr, 1:00 – 3:00pm
cost: $140 for 5 classes


Mounted Combat Playday

If you have a minimum of Riding Level 1 you can participate in our upcoming Mounted Combat Playday on April 2nd. If you don’t, come out and lend a hand setting up games, keeping time, and cheering on our riders!

Sunday 3 April, 1:30 – 4:30pm
cost: $15 + $15 for use of school horse
Spectators free, and volunteers welcome!



Jennifer Landels Jennifer Landels heads up Academie Duello's Cavaliere Program. She has been swordfighting since 2008, and riding since before she could walk. She started the program as an excuse to combine those passions.
Read more from Jennifer Landels.