Last Updated on February 25, 2022 by Allison Price
Good conformation is essential for good performance. Horses with good conformation and a well-built horse are more likely to be top performers in their sport. They are also more expensive or have higher stud fees. Horsemen and women have a tendency to search for prospects with perfect conformation.
Spoiler alert! The search may prove futile. A horse with perfect conformation can be subjective and difficult to find. Even horses that were built according to the book may have problems. A horse with poor conformation can still perform well and be athletic with the right care.
Carol Gillis, DVM. PhD., Dipl., says, “It’s wrong to ignore conformational weakness, but it is also a mistake for a horse to be written off that has one.” ACVSMR is the owner of Equine Ultrasound and Rehabilitation in Aiken (South Carolina).
Rachel Gottlieb DVM is an associate veterinarian at Northwest Equine Performance in Mulino Oregon. This practice focuses solely on lameness and performance horse issues.
Performance is affected by the severity of a horse’s faults, his age, breed, discipline, and other factors.
Josh Zacharias DVM, MS and Dipl. says that mild deformities can be managed. However, severe deformities may pose a risk to your life. ACVS, ACVSMR is the ACVSMR of Countryside Large Animal Veterinary Services in Greeley. “Conformation abnormalities are often viewed as the worst possible, but that is not always the case.”
A conformation fault’s severity can be affected by riding discipline. For example, a horse with a back at the knees might not be suitable for show jumping or racing, but could make a great hunter pleasure rider. A horse with a straight, posty hind-limb configuration might have stifle issues. He might not be able to perform well at events that require difficult stops and turns. However, he could be a good choice for a trail horse.
Steve Adair MS, DVM Dipl., says, “I have seen a person with severe swayback win an endurance race of 100 miles.” ACVS, ACVSMR and CERP. Director of Equine Performance Rehabilitation Center at University of Tennessee’s College of Veterinary Medicine in Knoxville.
Although certain breeds are more susceptible to particular challenges, our sources warn against generalizing about conformation.
Adair says, “I don’t think you can claim that there is one conformation defect that is good or evil across all breeds and all disciplines.”
These four veterinarians were asked which conformation errors they think are most common, manageable, and commonly misunderstood. Here are their recommendations for managing and assessing these structural deviations.
Carpus Valgus, aka Knock Knees
Carpus valgus refers to a turning outward of the knees, which can cause strain on the bones of the inner (medial) leg. Mild cases can be treated by farriers and veterinarians with shoeing and hoof care. Severe cases will require surgery.
Zacharias states that foals with active growth plates are better managed. This is because the development of bone can still be altered, either directly through surgical methods or more conservatively by using prosthetics such as corrective shoes or splinting. It is not possible to correct the condition in adult horses. They should be managed.
These horses require a lot of trimming and shoeing. Your farrier will be paying attention to the hoof breakover, which is the pivot point of the toe when the heels touch the ground.
A horse with a condition that the lower leg is not naturally parallel to the ground, such as carpal vagus, would have a sole that is straight to the axis of the leg. Zacharias says, “I try and get the foot flat on the ground instead of the usual perpendicular orientation (sole to axis of leg)”. This allows for a more evenly distributed force from the ground to the leg.
Knock knees can cause problems with horses’ stride. Many veterinarians are able to manage and treat horses suffering from arthritis.
The majority of horses’ hooves are at least partially asymmetrical. However, a hoof with a different shape to the rest can affect its soundness. Club foot is an example. It occurs when the angle that the hoof wall faces the ground exceeds 60 degrees.
This abnormality can be managed and corrected by veterinarians. They first address the underlying issue, such as pain or reduced weight bearing. A farrier or equine veterinarian can then add therapeutic trimming and shoeing.
Zacharias says that oxytetracycline can be used to treat club foot in young foals and neonates. It is an antibiotic that has calcium-binding properties. Surgery may be required to remove the inferior check ligament, deep digital flexor tendon or other severe conditions. These tendons run down the back of horses’ legs below the knees or hock.
It is much more difficult to correct severe clubfoot in adult horses. Instead, veterinarians concentrate on decreasing concussion at the toe of coffin bones and lessening structural strain.
“I don’t try to make each foot look the same as the others. Adair says that this can lead to lameness. Adair instead trims each hoof so that the heels are lower to relieve pressure on the coffin bones. He also uses special shoes and pads to reduce tension in the deep digital tendon. This helps keep the heel landing and the toes intact.
He says, “If all the hooves have been shod, I make sure that the heels don’t stick out too much, which reduces the chance of the shoe being stepped on and taken off.”
I don’t think the club foot’s heel height will ever surpass that of a normal-height foot.Dr. Josh Zacharias
These horses usually require frequent farrier visits spread out over four weeks. Too much trimming can cause pain. Zacharias states, “I don’t think the club foot’s heel height will ever be lower than that of a normal foot.”
Coffin joint pain can develop in horses who have a clubfoot that is not treated or does not improve over time. This can be addressed by your veterinarian using intra-articular injections (joint injections), systematic joint therapies like anti-inflammatories or disease-modifying osteoarthritis medications (injectables like hyaluronate sodium and polysulfated glycosaminoglycan) or one of the many oral joint supplements.
This conformation is common in Warmbloods and Thoroughbreds. It increases the amount of muscle activity required to lift the front end while you work, which causes more strain on the back. This conformation can be a boon for some athletes, allowing them to jump higher. Horses need to be strengthened in order for this conformation work. Otherwise, they could become injured. Gillis suggests that you walk the horses for 15 minutes at the beginning of each ride. This allows the spine’s joints to lubricate, and signals the horse that it is time for work.
You may also want to do specific exercises that strengthen your horse’s back, croup and other muscles. These, along with the joints and muscles of the spine, form the horse’s core. Exercises such as the walk, walk, trot and walk to the canter that focus on the horse’s back and strength his core include compression and extension.
These horses can benefit from spiraling circles, particularly those that gradually increase or decrease in size. Serpentines can challenge the back muscles and make them stronger.
Gillis says that bending exercises are great for similar reasons.
Stifle Laxity, aka Loose Leg
Veterinarians often attribute stifle rigidity to the angle at which a horse’s “thigh” and femur meet, which is sometimes too steep. This can cause the medial patellar ligament of the horse to catch in part of the medial trochlear ridge. For strengthening the stifle and improving hind end strength, strengthening exercises can be beneficial. These horses can be strengthened by combining exercises under saddle and in-hand. Gottlieb states that it is beneficial to do tail-pull, rounding, and walk over raised poles.
She notes that in addition to strengthening exercises, some veterinarians may recommend prolotherapy (injections of dextrose solution onto the patellar ligaments to cause inflammation).
She adds that “blistering has fallen out favor with some vets because of the profound inflammatory reaction it induces.” Although not as well-known in veterinary medicine, prolotherapy has been used for many years in human medicine and in naturopathic medicine (for conditions like tennis elbow or rotator cuff issues) in order to induce a healing response that is less inflammatory.
If the laxity is causing primary stifle-joint soreness, the therapeutic injection might be beneficial to the stifle itself. However, this should only be done after a thorough physical exam, radiographs, and ultrasound, if necessary, to rule out any developmental orthopedic disease. In-hand and undersaddle exercises are also helpful.
Stifle laxity can be aggravated by low heels on the hind hooves. Your veterinarian and farrier should assess your hind hoof balance.
A sign of underlying pain is if there’s a lot of laxity. Gottlieb explains that horses who shiver or become sore in their stifles can be a sign of underlying pain. These problems can be ruled out by your veterinarian.
Straight Hind Limb
Straight hind limbs can be found in almost any breed. This can expose horses to suspensory tendon injuries, or degenerative conditions due to repeated overloading. Suspensory injuries are more common in horses with straight hind legs, long sloping pasterns, or hyperextended foetlock joints.
Gottlieb states that it is a conformational abnormality that isn’t as well-recognized or considered a risk as other faults. It is a risk in many disciplines but especially for higher level dressage prospects, as the discipline requires horses to place more weight on their hind ends. Piaffes and canter pirouettes for example increase the load on the hind suspensory canals.
A straight-limbed horse left barefoot can put additional strain on its ligaments and tendons.
Gillis warns that hill work is counterproductive to the goal of helping these horses. Gillis warns that even a slope of 3% can increase the strain on the horse’s stifle or suspensory ligament. Instead, she suggests trotting on flat ground to improve strength.
Toeing in, aka Pigeon-Toed
This is especially noticeable when looking at the horse from the front. One or both of the toes will point inward. Horses that swing their legs in a paddling motion when they walk are those with toes in. The horse’s speed increases, but the motion becomes less obvious. The horse will also be more visible if he has a toe-in conformation.
Adair states, “As a rule, I consider the toe-in conformation excessive.”
In harness racing, this trait is not desirable as it causes horses to slow down in order to avoid hitting their forefeets against each other (interfering). To optimize the performance of pigeon-toed horses owners and veterinarians are able to manage them.
I work with young people to corrective trim or shoe. Adair explains that I trim/shoe more mature people to prevent them from hitting their heads.”
He also said that half-round shoes enable the horse to move in the most comfortable direction at the toe. To force a correction can cause too much torque to the distal (lower), limb, and result in lameness.
Toe-out conformation is usually not an issue, but it can be criticized.Dr. Steve Adair
Toeing Out, aka Splay-Footed
This deformity can be best seen from the front. It can be as high as the hip or shoulder, as well as the lower limb. As the limb progresses, it wings out.
Adair says that toe-out conformation in horses is usually not an issue. “If the horse isn’t interfering with or hitting himself while his legs swing inward, then I don’t do anything.”
He will work to move the abnormality slightly to the inside of the toe in cases when it is affecting the horse’s stride. If this doesn’t work, he will lighten the medial branch or bevel or roll the edge of his shoe from the medial quad (inner side the hoof wall) to the heel.
What does it all mean?
Although conformation is a key factor in a horse’s athletic abilities, it’s not the only one. Performance is influenced by many factors including talent and training.
Gillis states, “It’s important to recognize weakness and take the necessary steps to help your horse reach its full potential.”
Horses with mild conformational flaws could experience additional stress and wear-and-tear to their bones, joints and supporting soft tissue. Gottlieb says that owners must be prepared to take preventative measures, such as wrapping, diligent shoeing and systemic joint supplements, to fix the problem before it escalates into a serious lameness issue.