Conformation of a Driving Horse

I’ll will start with this – when looking at the conformation of a horse for driving it’s similar to looking at a horse with conformation for riding. A well built horse is a well built horse!

And, as usual, this information applies to horses and ponies a like. I’m sure donkeys as well but I don’t own donkeys and am not sure if they have some other qualifications or allowances than horses and ponies. I would love information on donkey conformation if someone wants to share that!

I saw this simple description of perfect horse conformation in a poem on Facebook the other day:

The horse is an iron-grey, sixteen hands high,
Short back, deep chest, strong haunch, flat legs, small head,
Delicate ear, quick eye, black mane and tail,
Wise brain, obedient mouth.

Of course a nicely conformed horse doesn’t have to be 16 hands tall (or have a black mane and tail!), but the rest of it kind of hits the nail on the head!

Short back, deep chest, strong haunch. These things are the building blocks of the 1/3 rule – 1/3 shoulder, 1/3 back, 1/3 hip. This makes for a lovely balanced horse. A horse that fits in a square:

Flat legs refers to the knees. Knees that are not OVER at the knee or BEHIND at the knee, but just nice and flat. Hind legs that don’t sit too far under the horse or camp out behind.

Small head, delicate ear and quick eye refers to a lovely well shaped head. Now I have said before, my mom always said you can’t ride a pretty head… but it doesn’t hurt to have on either!

A miniature horse gelding we raised years ago!
Beautifully put together Welsh pony stallion.

I find it easier to understand these things by looking at horses with excellent conformation. So I’ll share a few more photos here!

These horses (and ponies!) have a lovely length of neck that ties in well to their chest. They have a nice lay of shoulder with strong short backs and well rounded rear ends. All these things come together to make a beautiful horse!

I’ll use Zorro as a negative example. He has a few things going against him that I am working on carefully. As long as you know your pony or horse’s short comings you can help them!

In the above photo you can clearly see that his rear end is a bit small compared to his shoulder. His neck does tie in nice and high on his chest. Which I really like! He has a nice, clean throat latch and a pretty head. It’s a little long but not bad! He is a bit over at the knee in this photo. I feel he could have a bit more angle around his stifle area and have a wider thigh/gaskin area. He is what is considered to be Goose Rumped, you can see that point at the top of his hip. That should be more rounded and not pointy. He has a short croup as well, which is nice for him tucking his hind end and rounding up into the bit, someday! (He hasn’t learned that yet.) He does have a nice short back!

The mare in this photo is a mess! LOL! This was my mare many years ago.

She has a very short, thick neck, with a thick throat latch. This is NOT a clean throat latch, just to give you a comparison. She has a long back and a weak hip as well. Her croup is also a bit short. She has lovely legs, clean flat knees and a well angled hip and hind leg. If you compare her stifle , thigh/gaskin area to Zorro’s you can see what I mean about more angle. Hers are lovely! She has a steep shoulder angle and a very large boxy head with small eyes. But look at this mare move:

So don’t be too discouraged if your pony doesn’t have the perfect conformation. But do be aware that it doesn’t, so you can use exercises to help it be the best it can be! This mare was an absolute driving machine and she loved her job. She didn’t even look like the same mare when in harness. She became very proud of herself!

There is also a difference between conformation and poor posture. Even horses can have poor posture that negatively impacts their performance. Here is a curly horse, Billy Blaze, that I was given as a yearling. He was so ugly that the breeder had been told by other breeders he would be better off put to sleep!

Ewe neck, straight shoulder, over at the knee, straight hind legs, poor angle at the stifle, goose rump, big ugly head.

Then with careful management and teaching him a different way to move through Hill Therapy and in-hand work he turned into this:

Beautiful neck because he learned how to use it! Nice shoulder, good hip. He is still goose rumped because that is not something you can change but you can work with it! And he grew into his head. Also he was not over at the knee anymore with proper hoof care.

My take away – what I learned with Billy Blaze was – there are things about a horse’s body that can be changed over time. Don’t throw away a perfectly sweet “wise brain, obedient mouth” because it’s not pretty enough. But do understand the short comings and learn how you can help your horse or pony over come them!


5 thoughts on “Conformation of a Driving Horse

  1. Debbie McNicholas says:

    Thank you sooo much for this insight. I have a little Shetland pony that i will begin on harness shortly. She is suppose to know how to pull. I on the other hand am as green as they come. Thanks again. I love your advise and attitude toward our 4 legged buddies.

    • Mindy Schroder says:

      Note that this blog was asking people to send in photos of THEIR horses and ponies 🙂 No one has sent in photos of a Standardbred. If you have one and would like to participate I would love to do an investigation with your photos of your horse.

      Thank you, Mindy~

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