10-Point Conformation Checklist

by Sean Patrick

first published in Western Horseman

If you want a prospect to excel in competition or do his job well on a ranch, it’s best to start with the right horse.

Whitesboro, Texas, horse trainer Pete Kyle, a National Reining Horse Association World Champion and the American Quarter Horse Association’s 1997 Professional Horseman of the Year, outlines 10 key horse-conformation points, and tells you what to look for in your next performance horse.

1.            Eye Appeal

First impressions are important, and Kyle says a prospect should grab your attention right from the start. That attractiveness is beneficial when it’s time to show, breed or sell the horse.

“I like to see a wide forehead and soft, kind eyes,” the trainer explains. “I look for some animation and alertness in the eye, but I’m wary of a colt that looks scared and is easily startled, as he tends to ride the same.”

Kyle prefers a horse with a pretty head, proportional features, alert ears and a face that is neither dished nor protruding. A horse’s nostrils should be large enough to aid in heavy breathing, but the muzzle shouldn’t be oversized and thick.

“I might not purchase or breed a horse based on color,” he adds, “but it certainly can be a factor in overall attractiveness.”

2.            Balance

“I want to train a horse that’s ‘built uphill,’ ” Kyle says. “So many maneuvers require a hind-end push, with a front end that’s

elevated and light, so I want a horse that’s not heavy on the front end and uses the hind end to its full potential.

“A well-balanced, uphill physique encourages the horse to stop with his hind. From that, we can build great lateral movement and balanced selfcarriage. Horses that are built downhill struggle with stopping and athletic front-end maneuvers such as turnarounds and rollbacks.”

Three factors can help you determine whether a horse is built uphill, flat or downhill. First, draw a line from the point of the horse’s hip to the withers. The line should be higher in the front than it is in the back. In other words, the withers are “uphill” from the horse’s hip. Second, examine the top line of the horse’s neck, both while the horse is at a standstill and while in motion. The head should be carried neither too high, nor too low.

“I want to see a neck and head carried flat and without excessive movement,” Kyle explains. “If the horse is pumping the neck muscles, this tells me he’s struggling at lifting his front end.”

Third, the hind end needs to be fully muscled and low to the ground to better propel the rest of the body. Kyle adds that the horse’s back should be short and muscular, and the top line smooth and flat, with no low spots in the center of the spine. Horses that are “hollowed out” find it difficult to remain in frame.

“Horses want to be in balance,” Kyle says. “If we begin training with a horse that wants to use his hind end and feels

comfortable doing so, the job becomes a great deal easier. A horse built uphill is comfortable planting its hind feet and pushing to a nice stop. A horse high in the withers doesn’t struggle with lateral movements.

“When we train horses that are built downhill, we find that we’re constantly working against their natural balance points and trying to teach them to work off their hinds. It can be done, but the end result will never be quite satisfactory.”

3.            Bone Structure

Fine-boned, dainty horses don’t rate well with Kyle. Instead, he prefers horses with strong legs and medium-sized, healthy hooves. His reasoning is simple: Horses not built as strongly have a greater chance of turning up lame.

“A prospect should also have short cannon and pastern bones, both in the front and hind legs,” he adds. “In the hind end, this allows drive to come from the hip. In the front end, this allows better lateral movement, such as in diagonals, sidepassing, turnarounds and rollbacks.

“I also look to see if the cannon bone is centered under the knee. If the forearm and cannon bone aren’t in proper alignment,

the knee joint is exposed to undue stress. Any time there’s a joint, bone or hoof that’s not straight, there’s the possibility of an injury down the road.”

4.            Rear-Wheel Drive

A strong, well-defined rear end, built for strength and power, helps a performance or ranch horse have strong, balanced stops. Kyle’s ideal prospect has a top line that’s flat until the point of the hip, where it rounds out with a full hip muscle. The horse’s tail should be set low, inside the hip muscles, and lie flat and smooth. Finishing the picture, the hocks should be low to the ground. Well-defined stifle muscles can also be indicative of stopping and driving strength.

“This conformation allows a horse to drive himself correctly,” Kyle says. “A horse with these qualities will most likely be able to get in the dirt and push himself back out again. A horse built with a strong hind end naturally wants to use it. A horse with this type of power in the back half allows me to move along more quickly in training and have greater success.”

5.            Neck Muscles

The size and length of a horse’s neck is strongly tied into its overall balance. If the neck is too long and oversized, there’s too much weight on the front end. This weight impedes the uphill balance that trainers look for.

Kyle says a horse’s neck should lie fairly flat from the withers. The neck muscles should be strong but not tied in too low to the chest or too short in length. A deep neck that begins near the chest muscles, or that’s short and thick, can result in stiffness.

“That being said, I prefer a shorter neck over a longer one,” he says. “The horse’s throat latch should be clean and give ample room for him to hold his head in a soft manner. A horse with a clean throat latch and a balanced neck finds it easier to give to bit pressure and bend his neck both laterally and vertically.”

Horses that naturally hold their heads level and that are soft in the face give a trainer more to work with. When a horse naturally gives to pressure from the bit, the training process becomes easier.

6.            Front-End Build

Kyle prefers to see a prospect with a strong chest, with a pronounced break in the middle. Maneuvers such as turnarounds

and rollbacks require strength to come from the front end. A horse that’s too wide in the chest often makes “boxy” movements.

“When I start to isolate shoulder movement, a horse built well in the front will catch on and perform the request more naturally,” Kyle says.

7.            Pedigree

A lot of time and money go into finding specific bloodlines. Kyle looks for a horse that has both an outstanding mind and great conformation. A horse that’s curious, respectful of your space and that doesn’t show aggressive signs is a good place to start.

Performance horses should be able to handle reasonable trappings such as saddles, leg wraps, bridle pressure, halter work and stalling. Some horses have a mind for this and excel in a training program, while others take longer and never enjoy it. Many of the top performance lines produce such trainable minds.

In spite of market fads and trends, the bottom line is that horses with great conformation and pedigree never go out of style.

“I look at many factors, and breeding is one of the highest on my list,” Kyle says. “If the horse’s dam is of great lineage and was a proven performer herself, and the sire is the best money can buy, then there’s a high probability the offspring will also be able to perform.”

8.            Correct Development

Horses can develop in stages, but seldom do they correct themselves and change their overall appearance and balance. Kyle advises against expecting a horse to “come into its own” as it grows. Ideal bone structure and muscle should be evident even at the yearling stage, prior to a horse’s initial training.

“If I see a low set of withers and a long back,” Kyle says, “I don’t have high hopes for the horse.”

9.            Gender

In the performance market, there seems to be twice as many buyers looking for colts as there are for fillies. Colts tend to head to the top of the futurity placings, as they can be a bit stronger in body and mind at a younger age. Kyle cautions buyers against being prejudiced against mares, though.

“Personally, I like to train and enjoy showing mares, as well,” he says. “All horses have their own pace at what they can handle mentally, but mares generally take a little bit longer to accept training than do colts. At the point that they gain confidence, I find that mares can accelerate through the learning and catch up to the boys.”

10.            Presence

Each end of the horse-conformation spectrum is easy to spot, and great horses simply stand out. They are exceptionally balanced and attractive, while the poorly conformed are just as easy to pick out due to their shortcomings.

A prospect might be attractive, wellbuilt and athletic, but add in a certain indefinable quality—a “wow factor” that might have to do with a horse’s expression, the way it carries itself or simply the way it looks under saddle— and you begin to push past the fine line that separates a good horse from a truly exceptional horse.