Top to Bottom: A, B, C, D, E, F
EC May/June, 2006
The breeding and exhibition of horses is a highly competitive atmosphere at the world championship level. Like every industry that involves the selective breeding of animals for certain conformational traits, fads and extremes appear invasively and can be difficult to regulate. But the ultimate responsibility lies in our hands as judges. With much industry discussion about the direction of our modern halter horse, many judges are looking to sharpen their eye for the positive phenotypical traits that will enhance the quality of the breed for many years to come. Surprising to some, the traits that were sought after by an earlier generation of great horseman are probably the same qualities that should be sought after in today’s arena and, as a judge, I am constantly looking for ways to condense the information into a systematic approach that is consistent and fair to each exhibitor and horse.
The American Quarter Horse rulebook has listed four basic categories that collectively make up and break down what we, as judges, are supposed to look for when placing a class of horses based on conformation. The categories are balance, structural correctness, breed and sex characteristics, and degree of muscling. These categories are not listed in random order, but rather strategically aligned on the premise of importance.
I think that everyone would agree that a building structure is only as good as the foundation and framework that it is built upon. It is with that line of thinking that this system is based. A horse’s physical appearance and aesthetic value is determined by it’s skeletal structure which lies beneath all the flesh and muscle that we see as the horse. Balance and structural correctness is determined by the skeletal conformity of each animal and that is why it is where I begin.
Because of my own personal need to simplify things, I break balance into four parts. The one third rule, the depth of heart = length of forelimb, levelness of topline, and front width = rear width.
The “one third rule” is based on the idea that on a correctly balanced horse there should be equality in the length of the shoulder, loin, and croup when that horse is evaluated from a profile. This is so important because the length of that shoulder and consequently the wither placement determines much about the quality of the lower leg, and potentially the quality of stride. In addition, this length will often affect the attachment of the neck and that natural way that a horse will carry its’ head and neck.
The loin should be short enough that it promotes an athletic animal but not so short that it causes the horse to interfere with itself. Additionally, the croup should be long, not only for aesthetic purposes, but to provide more driving power to propel the body forward.
The second part of balance is determined by the relationship of the depth of heart and the length of the forelimb. These two lengths should be equal on a mature horse and may vary some on a horse that is less than two years of age (especially in weanlings and yearlings).
Moving on to the third part of balance, we find a component that has much influence on the ability of a horse to carry itself in a balanced manner. The height of the wither should be equal to the height of the croup on a mature horse (mature meaning three years-old and older). Common horse sense will tell you that a horse that is conformed properly in his or her topline is better equipped to carry him or herself with the weight of the body more evenly distributed front and rear. I like to see horses, even young ones, that are also strong-loined. By that I mean that they don’t drop off drastically behind the wither. I often see young horses that are slightly out of balance, but still strong on their loin. That is more forgivable for me than one that is out of balance and weak behind the wither.
Finally, I like to see the skeletal width of the front equal the skeletal width of the rear. This is not to be confused with muscular width.
The second component of conformation is structural correctness. Structural correctness can be condensed to the alignment of bone within the limbs both front and rear. To simplify things for myself when I am judging, I try to focus my attention on an area of study that will begin slightly above the knees and hocks. Because of the need in this article to conserve reader time and editorial space, I will be brief. Structural correctness should be viewed from all four corners of the horse. The profile will give us the best place to evaluate the ability of the forelimb to support the weight of the animal and the quality of the rear limb to propel and carry the body weight of the horse in an efficient, well-balanced manner. From the front and rear views, we get the opportunity to evaluate much of the same. However, this view allows us to judge the alignment of bone more critically to ensure that there are not flaws that will cause stride deviation or undue stress on joints.
The third component of conformation is breed and sex characteristics. This part is influenced almost entirely by the quality of the head and neck. The head is probably the easiest part of a horse to identify as being “pretty” or desirable. Unfortunately, it is one of the hardest to describe in grammatical terms. Most all of us know a pretty head when we see it. The evaluation of the head should be done most from the profile and some from the front view. The neck, on the contrary, can be evaluated in four different ways, and can be judged entirely from the profile. Overall length, quality of throatlatch, quality of neck attachment, and cleanliness of the topline comprehensively evaluate the neck.
The fourth and final component of conformation is degree of muscling. This category can be broken down and evaluated in three basic parts; length, volume, and definition.
Below and on the follwing page you will find an outline that breaks down the things I have discussed.
This is a good class of horses and is typical in caliber to some of the better shows that one might see as a judge. My alignment of this class is as follows; B, C, D, A, F, E. The easiest horse to place is my bottom placed horse, E, then I find this class to have a close top pair of high quality, well-balanced individuals in B and C.
Initially, I start the class with the two bay horses B and C. These two mares are close in conformational quality and another angle of C might prove her to be better than B but I am judging the class with what is in front of me. Therefore, I chose to top the class with B because I can see that she has a slight advantage in balance. She is deeper in the heart and more symmetrical in her design, by that I mean that she is longer, more laid back in her shoulder and shows to have more length to her hip from the angle provided here. I do recognize that C is more refined in her head and stronger in her loin. But to me, I chose the balance of B over the femininity of C.
In the third and fourth slots, I find D over A. Although these two mares are both impressive at first glance and could be flip-flopped, they are significantly lower in overall quality for a number of reasons that both lead back to skeletal defects. I chose to start this pair with D based on the strength and quality of her lower forelimb. However, this is where I find the advantages of D to end. The Paint mare, A, could have been the winner in this class if she was supported by a stronger set of front legs. I appreciate her more level topline, depth of heart, and length of hip. In addition, she is cleaner in her neck and more feminine in her face. As you can see on paper, the paint mare has a lot of positive attributes and I can’t argue with anyone that would like to see her in the third slot.
In my bottom pair of F and E, I find two horses that are deficient in several of the categories that I discussed earlier. Both of these mares are poorer in their breed characteristics than the ones before them. Still, the balance and substance of F beats E. F is deeper in the heart and stronger, more nearly level in her topline. E may be given a slight advantage in her face but I find that even though she is carrying the least amount of finish, she has one of the poorest necks in the class. This can be seen prominently on the top or crest of the neck.
Let’s recap what we are looking for when we are judging this class from the side:
1 – “One third” rule (length of shoulder = length of loin
= length of croup)
2 – Depth of heart = length of forelimb
3 – Levelness of wither = height of croup
4 – Front = rear
Structural Correctness: Basically evaluated from the elbow and stifle down
Breed and Sex Characteristics:
Quality of head and neck (Femininity and masculinity)
Neck evaluated from-
1 – Length
2 – Neck chest attachment
3 – Topline
4 – Throatlatch
Degree of Muscling:
1 – Length
2 – Volume
3 – Definition
(Author’s note: “F” is a superior halter mare that is owned by Stuart Ranches of Oklahoma. Although not typically known for producing “halter” horses, this mare is an AQHA Superior Halter mare in open competition and has been to the World Show in Open Heading.)