I don’t know about you, but I remember learning conformation as being very complicated.
There can be endless diagrams, angles to analyze, triangles and squares to visualize, and various different methods of analysis. But really when it comes down to it, all that matters most to us as riders is how a horse’s conformation will impact its movement, our riding, and its training.
If we want to bring a horse into balance and lightness, where it can move with the most ease under our weight and have the mobility and strength to perform any movement, then we want to analyze two things: The horse’s natural balance, and any asymmetries, to understand how we can support or remedy these systematically through training, to bring the horse into greater equilibrium.
Bringing the horse into balance means bringing the horse’s body from its natural balance into greater equilibrium (with equal weight front to back), and resolving the symptoms of natural asymmetry from side to side that can cause issues throughout training. Identifying and then working to resolve any asymmetry or imbalance can then dramatically increase a horse’s capacity.
From being light in the hand, to staying straight on curved and linear tracks, to performing lateral movements well on both reins – identifying and then improving the natural balance and asymmetry of a horse is key to improving its every movement. This is because every movement unavoidably flows from the horse’s body and its position that is set in motion by its areas of strength, weakness, stiffness and flexibility.
How can we analyze a horse’s natural balance and asymmetries?
- We can begin by looking at 3 key conformational lines to evaluate a horse’s natural balance, and
- We can then observe any asymmetry between the right and left sides by observing the horse moving freely on the lunge.
Analyzing a Horse’s Natural Balance
There are three key lines we can look at to analyze the natural balance given to a horse by its conformation. To read more about these in depth, I highly recommend further reading Vertical 1, the handbook for the Escola de Equitação which I am a part of, and on which the following is based.
To begin, we look at a horse that is standing square on level ground.
The vertical of the shoulders (illustrated in blue) shows us the ideal alignment and balance of the shoulders, as a straight vertical line from the highest point of the withers down the back of the front legs. In reality, this line may tilt slightly forward or backward. For example, if this line tilts slightly backward (with the back of the forelegs slightly behind the highest point of the wither), this shows us that the horse is naturally built with more weight on its shoulders, which tends to prevent the shoulders from moving freely. In this case, the horse may benefit from more help to raise the withers and forehand to free the shoulders.
The vertical of the hindquarters (illustrated in pink) shows us the ideal alignment and balance of the hindquarters, with another straight vertical line from the point of the croup (the highest point of the pelvis; careful not to mistake muscle or fat for the highest point) down to the point of the toe of the hind legs. This line can tell us something about how easily the horse can naturally tuck its pelvis and collect more of its weight on the hindquarters. For example, if this line tilts slightly back (with the point of the toe behind the point of the croup) this shows us that tucking the pelvis may not come as naturally, and the horse may benefit from more help to learn to collect.
The horizontal of the shoulders and the hindquarters (illustrated in brown) shows us the relationship between the forehand and the hind end, with a horizontal line between the point of the shoulder and the middle of the femur. While trickier to find, this second point can be found by visualizing the mid-point between the point of the buttocks and the patella. This line shows us how easily a horse may freely move its shoulders as well as develop collection. For example, the degree to which this line may tilt down towards the shoulders shows us how much the horse will naturally carry more weight on the shoulders. In this case, the horse will have less natural freedom of the shoulders, and need to work more to collect and tuck the hind end under.
Analyzing a Horse’s Asymmetry
Asking a horse to move freely on a lunge in trot and canter with as little interference from a handler as possible (e.g. no line tension) can reveal some of a horse’s natural asymmetry. Just as we have a dominant side, so often do horses, where one side may be much stronger yet stiffer than the other. When the horse is in motion on a curved track, this becomes more obvious as the asymmetry gains momentum with speed and can reveal differences in the horse’s movement in each direction. This can help us figure out which side the horse could strengthen, and on which side the horse could become more supple to become more balanced. While this seems simple, this asymmetry can create difficulties in performing many movements, such as staying straight, lateral work, bending, and staying light in hand. Thus, it is essential to improve the balance in order to resolve these issues at their root.
Where there is an asymmetry, we can note the following things on the lunge (with no tension on the line):
- Does the horse look outside, inside, or straight ahead?
- Does one shoulder tend to bulge either in or out on the circle?
- Does the horse consistently make the circle smaller (come in slightly, where the line becomes more slack) or pull outwards (go out slightly, where the line becomes more taut) in one direction versus the other?
If the horse in one direction looks consistently to the outside, or has the inside shoulder potentially bulging in, or if the horse makes the circle consistently smaller (often pushing in with the shoulder, where the hind end swings out), this can show us that the horse is stronger on its inner side to the circle. The horse often pushes onto the stronger shoulder, while the hind end on the same strong side often reaches under and across better (engages) with the hind end swung out.
Similarly, if the horse moving in one direction looks consistently to the inside, or has the outside shoulder bulging out (which can add tension to the line as the horse pulls) as the horse makes the circle bigger and swings the hind end slightly in, this can show or confirm to us that the horse is stronger on its outer side to the circle. Again, the horse pushes onto the stronger shoulder and engages the hind end on the same strong side more.
This can be very useful to notice, as we may ask ourselves why a horse may have trouble with lateral movements in one direction but not the other, or have trouble bending in one direction, or have trouble staying straight. These problems become much more simple to deal with when we understand that they simply stem from the horse’s asymmetry, and so by suppling the stronger side and strengthening the weaker, more flexible side, we can solve multiple issues at once, at their source.
Anther Useful Angle
There is another useful angle we can look at to tell how well the horse will be able to tuck under the hind end and collect. There are certainly many more angles to look at, but to keep things simple, we can look at the angle of the hindquarters, from the point of the croup to (more or less) the top of the tail. When this angle is too flat, the horse could have a harder time tucking the hind end under and collecting. When the angle is too steep, the horse may not be as strong in the hindquarters, as the hind legs will not have as much power to push off the ground (disengage), and will have a limited backwards swing.
Riding in Balance
Riding in balance means to bring both us and the horse into greater balance to work together with ease and harmony. To bring the horse’s body into greater balance and so improve its movement, we can begin by first looking at the horse’s natural balance with these 3 key conformational lines, and analyzing any asymmetry of the horse in movement on the lunge. This can show us a bit about what a horse may struggle with and what it may benefit from most in training, which can help us to get to the root of any issues and then improve them at their source.
Of course, we may find many horses that have conformation which makes attaining balance more difficult, or that makes some movements more challenging for the horse to perform than others. It is always important to respect the nature of the horse, and keep in mind that the goal of training is to improve the horse’s balance and capacity, and know that this will be different in every case. The goal is not to make every horse perform the same, but to help strengthen in the horse what is weak, and supple what is stiff, to enable each horse to move and express itself at its best in working together.
Thus, there is not really any “good” or “bad” conformation per se, but conformation that enables the horse to do some things more easily than others. Some breeds have been developed for specific uses, and so are well suited to some disciplines of riding and work, and less to others. If we are working to bring a horse of any conformation into balance, we must respect the conformation and ability of each horse, and simply work to bring out the best possible in each horse.
In the words of Baucher:
“…while I confess that it is impossible to give more breadth to a narrow chest, to lengthen too short a neck, to lower too high a croup, to shorten and fill out long, weak, narrow loins, I do not the less insist that if I prevent the different contractions occasioned by these physical defects, if I supply the muscles, if I make myself master of the forces so as to use them at will, it will be easy for me to prevent these resistances, to give more action to the weak parts, and to moderate those that are too vigorous, and thus make up for the deficiencies of nature.”