Posture versus Conformation


It’s important to remember the difference between conformation and posture when evaluating your horse. Conformation is the skeletal make up of your horse. For instance if your horse is butt high (butt is higher than the withers) that is a conformation detail that you must take into consideration. If your horse is “ewe” necked that is a posture problem.  When you are dealing with conformation situations there isn’t much you can do effect a change except understand what exercises you and your horse can do to help him cope with those. When you are dealing with a posture issue there is a lot you can do to effect a change in your horse and help them to become more athletic!

I believe it’s very important to know and understand your horse’s weaknesses so that you can put together a program that will build up those weaknesses. If you don’t understand your horse’s conformation versus posture to start with it’s very likely that you will do something to harm your horse while training, playing and riding. To help you understand your horse’s conformation and posture it’s very helpful to take a few good pictures. I take mine from the side, with billy standing on relatively flat ground. Stand just behind the drive line (withers). Doing this will ensure that you don’t make your horse’s head and neck appear larger (standing in front of the drive line) or his butt look bigger (standing too far behind the drive line). Take a photo from both sides, one from the front and one from the back. We will discuss these photos in the next post.

Below is a drawing of a horse that has many conformation and posture problems.

Conformation problems would be:

  • Large head
  • Back at the knee
  • Little heart and lung room
  • Tied in below the knee
  • Sickle hocks

It would be important for the soundness of your horse that you understand these issues if your horse has any of them. For instance you would not want to be three day eventing a horse that has sickle hocks or is back at the knee. They would not stay sound. A horse with sickle hocks should not be a cutting or reining horse as they would not stand up under the pressure.

Posture problems in this horse are:

  • Ewe neck
  • Straight shoulder
  • Weak second thigh
  • Lack of clearance between wing of atlas and mandible

These issues are ones that can be corrected with the right training, gymnastic program. If you teach your horse to carry itself properly you will see great changes in your horse!



The above picture was taken just after I brought Billy home. Now remember that I was gifted Billy by his breeder because she had been told that he was ugly. She herself told me that he had a straight shoulder, a hammer head and ewe neck. She was as up front and honest about his “faults” as she could be. I admire that! I knew that these issues were actually posture issues. (Except for the large head, but he was a yearling and I could see that he was going to grow into that head! Besides, my mom always told me, “You can’t ride a horse’s head.” So the size of a horse’s head has never been an issue for me. I just don’t care!) With a good gymnastic training program I was confident that I could change these “faults.”

Now onto the “perfect” horse. These are also desirable traits for any horse to have. Things to strive for in your training program.


SONY DSCI believe that Billy has a bit of a long back. This will be important to note so that I can compensate for that in my training and riding. Saddle fit will play a big role in helping his back be as strong as it can be. As you can see from the above before picture and this after one, with the right gymnastic exercises I was able to change his neck from a ewe neck, or a bad banana, to a well muscled neck, or a good banana. As we played with using the top line correctly his shoulder has actually moved into a more laid back position. When we start riding and I am able to help him move more from his hind end, his shoulder will move even more, thereby moving his withers back as well! Also when I can collect him more from his hind end, his croup will strengthen and lower as well, which will help his back get stronger and appear to shorten.

Here is a drawing of an uphill build versus a down hill build.

image001Some horse breeds are more prone to being built downhill such as Quarter horses.  Something to consider when thinking about what it is that you want your horse to do, is that the traditional Quarter horse that is built down hill would not be a great candidate for a dressage horse. Not that he couldn’t benefit from the classical dressage movements. If you understand that your horse is built this way, you won’t expect great collection from the hind end (thereby elevating the front end- doing so for a down hill built horse is very difficult and pushing him into that position could injure him) because it’s much harder for a butt high horse to gather it’s hind end underneath itself. Usually a horse that is butt high also has a longer back. Long backed horses also have a harder time tucking their hind ends. However, with the proper exercises this can be overcome! Don’t lose hope, just study and understand your horse’s body so you can help him overcome some of these issues.

Here is a photo of a 3 year old Quarter horse filly. She shows a more extreme version of butt high.


And a Quarter horse stallion, fully mature that shows a less extreme version of being butt high. Though he is butt high none the less!


Young horses will often go through growth spurts which causes them to appear butt high for a little while. Don’t be alarmed as they will even out as they grow…

Billy as a long yearling. Here he was going through quite a growth spurt. In the first couple months that I owned him he grew 6 inches! That is a lot for a young horse. So for a bit he was butt high.


A couple of books that I HIGHLY recommend to help understand the horse’s skeletal make up, musculoskeletal make up and how that all works together when the horse is moving are:

How Your Horse Moves by Gillian Higgins


Horse Anatomy for Performance by Gillian Higgins

These books will not only help you understand your horse on a deeper level, but they will help you understand saddle fit!


  1. What a great read!
    Those pictures of Baby Billy are just so stinkin cute!!! He has grown into quite the handsome man ;).
    Feel free to share your exercises that built his topline :). I would love to build up Estella’s a bit more before working on saddle fit, but don’t want to put too much stress on her body.

    1. thanks emily! i will absolutely share some of the very simple exercises i did with billy to help his topline. maybe i’ll make a little video with a few of them. they are so easy and totally not stressful on the horse. of course when you look at him in the before you can see i had to be careful with him so as not to injure the poor boy! LOL

      last fall i did some hill therapy with him. the hill was a very slight slope and we mostly walked and trotted with him offering some canter here and there.

      i had already built him up quite a bit, but noticed that the hill therapy helped both his topline and his belly 🙂 he started to reach underneath himself so much better. so the hill therapy really helped him lower his butt and use his hind end effectively.

      if you do it with estella i would be very sure you were using just a very very slight incline (barely discernible with the naked eye) and just walk and trot. i think it’s the daily workout that really helps them. they need that repetition to effect a lasting change. as humans we do not stick to things like we should to see that change through. we get bored too easily!

      billy LOVED hill therapy and would practically drag me out to the hill 🙂 i put on my ipod and rocked out to music while we did it, dancing and jigging. i think it made the whole thing feel like a great big play time to billy 😉 he LOVES music!

  2. This is an important subject, especially as the horse has no collar bone. Their whole front end is held up between the shoulder blades by a sling of connective tissue and and muscle. Withers can raise up to a full hand (4″) with appropriate work. True ‘downhill’ like the quarter filly has the elbow joint lower than the stifle, because the lower leg bones are shorter in front than behind. As a baby she may grow more leg, on an adult, that is not going to change. The stallion shown could develop self-carriage and raise his withers with the right work, but most AQHA folks seem to like the downhill look. Since there is so much TB in the registry, it is one of the ways they can define their ‘look’ and be a little different. It is hard on the horse though, as the downhill look is heavy on the forehand with associated soundness issues.

    1. wow thank you so much saraannon!! great comment full of wonderful information 🙂 i really appreciate your insight. i find it absolutely amazing that the horse’s front end can change so much. and the proof is definitely in the pudding with billy blaze 😉 i am very interested to see how much more he changes when i begin riding him.

      and i completely agree with you on the QH people. i used to board my arab mare at a QH halter breeding barn. they asked me to ride their world champion halter horse english… i did! but it felt very odd. my saddle would NOT stay in place and i constantly felt like i was riding down a hill. of course he was so heavy on his front end we could never have achieved an extended trot. however in QH english pleasure classes they don’t require an extended trot 😉 the horses just can’t do one!

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