What to Look for in a Horse

General Appearance / The Perfect Shape / Parts of the Horse

 To those who are unfamiliar with horses, all horses may look alike. In actuality, there is an infinite variety of features and temperaments among horses. It is important to learn something about horses in general before you devote your life to one. The following information is meant to give you an idea of the ideal horse, so that when you are purchasing a horse of your own, you can spot and avoid those with serious defects.


The ideal horse possesses good balance. The various body parts of the horse should be proportion to one another, and all of the parts should look like they belong to the same horse. For example, the head should not be too small or too large for the rest of him, or the neck too long or too short. The reason to look at balance is not purely for esthetics. A horse’s performance depends on balance. He will be well-coordinated, and give a smoother and more comfortable ride.

The ideal horse has a fine, glossy coat, skin pulled tightly over muscles, and good bone.

Style and Type
The stylish horse moves and stands gracefully. He looks alert and intelligent. He look his type, according to breed. If you are looking for a Western pleasure horse, do not select a Hanoverian type.

Top of Page



A = 1. Length of Head  

2. Point of hock to ground

3. Point of hock to fold of stifle

4. Chestnut to base of foot

5. Depth of body at girth

6. Fold of stifle to croup

7. Posterior angle to scapula to the point of hip.

  Length from point of shoulder to seat bone = 2 1/2 times length of head.
B = 1. Seat bone to point of hip  

2. Seat bone to stifle

3. Stifle to point of hip

Top of Page


Pastern: the pastern acts as the shock absorber for the horse. If the hoof is well-shaped. the pastern should be on the same slope as the wall of the hoof. The most common angle is 45 degrees. If the horse has been walking in cold water, cracks sometimes develop in the fold of the pastern. Watch for bony tumors which sometimes develop on the pastern. This is a painful condition called sidebone, and it can reduce the suppleness of the limb.

Fetlock: the fetlock is important to the smoothness of the animal’s gait. A vitamin deficiency in young horses, and fatigue in older horses, may lead to a wobbly condition called overshot fetlock. Watch for windgalls, which are small lumps at the back of the fetlock joint. These cause limping.

Hock: the hock is the most important joint in the hindquarters. It has to withstand the forces exerted by the hindquarters. It must be flat, clean-cut and long. An inflammation at the base of the hock is a bone spavin, and this can cause lameness. Bog spavin is a soft tumor on the outside of the hock, and makes the hock appear deformed.

Cannon: the cannon should be short and strong. The longer the forearm, the shorter the cannon must be if the horse is to be fast. Good bone is oval, rather than round. The cannon bone should appear wider from the side than from the front. Flat, clean, hard bone is stronger, and will stand up better under hard use. Watch for fusees, bony tumor that may be hard to see at first, but can lead to lameness.

Knee: the knee joint should be broad, thick and vertical. External injuries or internal strains cause hard lumps called osselets to form. These blemish the joint, and may eventually immobilize it. Look for scars on the front of the knee – these will detract from the value of the horse.

Forearm: the forearm should be vertical. This will give length to the horse’s stride.

Elbow: the elbow is often knocked by the hooves when a horse gets down on the ground and curls its legs under. This often causes soft tumors on the elbow, a condition which can be prevented by applying a pad to the pastern.

Shoulder: ideally the shoulder should be long, sloping and muscular. This will provide the flexibility of movement that enables the horse to adapt its gait to the variations in the terrain. A long shoulder will enable the horse to bring the front legs well forward for a good stride. Arthritis in the shoulder can be caused by severe falls, and is a very serious infirmity.

Throat: try to place three fingers between the jawbone and the neck muscle. If you cannot, the horse’s ability to breathe may be restricted when he is turned or stopped. Jawbones that are set too close together constrict the windpipe.

Nostrils: the nostrils should be broad and well opened since a horse cannot breathe through his mouth. Bleeding from the nostrils after strenuous exercise indicates that something is wrong with the horse’s circulatory system.

Mouth: the sensitivity of the mouth varies greatly from horse to horse. Some horses will respond to the slightest pressure on the bit, while others will require strong handling of the reins. A bit can cause injuries at the corners of the mouth, and an improperly used bit can cut the horse’s tongue. The lips should remain slack except while chewing. A perpetually drooping lower lip can cause continual loss of saliva which would be detrimental to the horse’s health.

Muzzle: scars that appear on the muzzle could indicate a weakness of the horse’s forequarters and frequent falling.

Eyes: the eyes are protected by their sockets, lids and lashes. Small and deep set “pig eyes” suggest poor eyesight. Large and bulging “bull’s eyes” suggest myopia. The eye sockets are hollow at the top, and their depth increases with age.

Neck: the neck must support the head properly, and should be of medium length, slightly arched, and it should blend smoothly into the shoulder. The neck that is too long tends of have a lack of strength, and this also detracts from the appearance. The neck that is too short lacks flexibility. The neck that is too thick makes for a stiff forearm. The neck that is too thin is a poor support for the head.

good head and neck
too short neck
ewe neck

Withers: the withers are located just behind the shoulder, continuing the neck line. On a saddle horse, the withers should be prominent. If the saddle is poorly fitting, sores can occur in this area of the horse. If the withers are low and thick, the forearm often moves awkwardly, and the saddle will not stay in place. If the withers are prominent but don’t extend back far enough, the pommel of the saddle will cause injury to them. Injuries to, and defects of the withers can cause grave complications.

Back: ideally the back slopes gently from front to rear. If the saddle were to slide, it would travel to the rear, thus avoiding injury to the withers. A concave back on a horse is called swayback, and is probably due to the underdevelopment of the loin muscles. A deep swayback causes the saddle to ride up onto the shoulders, and gives the rider a poor seat. The opposite of a swayback is a roachback, and this defect results in a stiff stride.

Hindquarters: haunches that are prominent are prone to injury when the horse lies down on a hard surface. A good many fractures occur here, but most are not serious. The rump should be long, horizontal, somewhat muscular and fairly wide. The strength of the horse is proportional to the length of the rump. A steeply inclined rump doesn’t lend itself to speed, but rather to an up and down motion, as in the gallop. A horizontal rump with a slope of less than 25 degrees relative to the top line means less strength in the hindquarters. A horse with a slope of more than 45 degrees is a poor ride.

Belly: the belly behind the ribs should be round, and neither too bulky nor too flat. The size of the belly depends on the horse’s diet. A drooping belly is a sign of too much coarse roughage and not enough exercise. Careful feeding on an oat base, and a gradual return to regular work will solve this condition.

Chest: the chest should be long, wide and deep. If the chest is too small, the horse can become easily winded.

Set of the Legs: Viewed from the side, the forequarters are set right if the perpendicular divides the forearm, knee and cannon into equal parts when passing through the centre of the joints from the elbow to the heel. Look closely for the following faults:

  • slope to the rear: this will give the horse poor balance, and increase the likelihood of falling; the stride is too short, and paces are too close to the ground.
  • set forward: if the legs slope forward, this will put extra weight on the hindquarters, and may result in pulled tendons.
  • bandy legs: the knees are too far forward, and this increases the chances of falling.
  • hollow knee: the knees are too far backward, which results in poor support and possibly arthritis.
  • long pastern: the forequarters are not firm, and the legs will tire quickly.
    Viewed from the front, the forequarters are set right if the legs are perpendicular from the forearm to the ground. Look closely for the following faults:

  • open set: legs are turned forward, breast is wide, and injuries from the sides of the shoes may result.
  • knock-kneed: the knees come together without the feet being turned and tend to strike each other, the chest is narrow and the muscles are flabby.
  • cow-hocked: the legs are turned outward, the chest is usually narrow, and the elbows are close to the body.
  • too open in front: the horse has a broad chest and powerful muscles, but the paces will be slow.
    Viewed from the side, the hindquarters are set right when a perpendicular from the point of the buttock passes through the point of the hock, follows the back edge of the cannon and strikes the ground behind the foot. If the hind legs are set ahead of the vertical from the point of the buttock, the horse will have poor balance and tire easily. If the hind legs are set behind the vertical, the horse’s speed will be affected.

    Correct set

    Set ahead of the vertical

    Set behind the vertical

    Viewed from the rear, the hindquarters are set right if the perpendicular from the point of the buttock runs right through the centre of the lower parts of the leg from the point of the hock, and leaves a space between the hooves about equal to the width of the fetlock. If the line is inside these points, the horse is too open with the point of the hooves turned outward and the inside of the heels too close. If the line is outside these points, the legs are too close and the horse can hurt itself on the inside of the cannons and fetlock joints.

    Top of Page

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *