Conformation and hoof health: How faults affect feet

Conformation and hoof health: How faults affect feet

A few aspects of conformation particularly impact the horse’s feet. One of the most important is straightness. On a horse with perfect conformation (you know the ones – you see them in textbooks, but they’re usually drawn in rather than photographed because they’re so hard to come by), you could draw a straight line from the points of their shoulders down to the ground, and that line would fall exactly in the center of the horse’s leg. In the back, hocks and hooves might turn out a bit, but in front, their knees, fetlocks and front hooves would point straight forward. Their hooves (at the sole) would be as wide as their legs are at the top.

From the side, the ideal horse will have a straight line going from the middle of the shoulder through the front of the knee to the middle-back of the hoof, and another line going from the point of the buttocks to the back of the hock and straight down the back of the cannon bone to the pastern.

One of the other most important aspects of conformation is proportion. To minimize the amount of strain a horse places on itself when it moves, it needs to be able to disperse the impact of landing across a bigger surface area. A long, sloping shoulder, for example, has more area for muscle to attach, and will mechanically result in a bigger stride and less concussion. When the shoulder is too short, the horse’s stride shortens, and the foot hits the ground with a greater impact.

When parts of the horse get too long, other problems can arise. Pasterns that are too long will put strain on the tendons and ligaments at the back of the fetlock joint because the pastern won’t be able to support the joint. A good rule of thumb is that wherever the horse’s leg has a joint, there needs to be sufficient leg underneath it to support it.

Horse Anatomy - ConformationThe ideal horse will probably grow and wear its feet down evenly because it will properly load its weight when it moves.  Although recent research has shown that a bit of lateral movement is the standard way of going for the horse, the horse with great conformation will move relatively straight and bear its weight in a balanced way, landing flat at the walk, and heel first at the other gaits, thereby making your job easy. Well, easier.

The less than ideal horse

There are lots of deviations from the ideal, and each deviation will create its own problems because each crooked part of the horse will cause strain on another part of the leg or foot. Even weight distribution is the key. When one part of the leg or hoof takes more weight than another, the concussion from the impact of a landing foot will strain those areas that take more of the horse’s weight. Not all at once, mind you, but over time, that repetitive strain will end up creating damage.

Here are some of the more common leg deviations, and the places where strain usually occurs:

Conformation faultWhat it meansWhere the pressure goes on landingProblems associated with these faults
Toe OutThe horse’s toes are rotated outThe inside front of the hoofInterfering with itself



Toe In (Pigeon Toed)Toes are rotated inThe outside front of the hoofRingbone


Coffin joint disease

Collateral ligament problems

Base NarrowThe space between the horse’s feet is narrower than the space between its upper legsThe outside rear of the hoof wallHeel bruising



Base WideThe space between the feet is wider than the space between the upper legsThe inside rear of the hoof wallHeel bruising



Sheared heels

Bow LeggedThe shoulder and hoof line up, but the knees will be farther apartThe outside of the hoof wallLigament, knee strain
Knock KneedShoulder and hoof line up, but the knees are closer togetherThe inside of the hoof wallOsteoarthritis

Tendon, ligament, knee strain

Calf Knees (Back at the Knee)The knee will be behind the line from shoulder to middle of hoofExcessive landing on the heelChip fractures in knees and fetlocks

Bowed tendons

Buck Knee (Over at the Knee)The knee will be in front of the line from shoulder to center of hoof – the knee will look like it’s bent, even when it’s straightUnstable, uneven pressure, usually on the front of the hoofBowed tendons



Check and suspensory ligament strains

Cow HockedLike being knock-kneed, the horse’s haunches and feet will line up, but the hocks will be closer togetherInside of the hoof wallOsteoarthritis

Bone spavin

Bone spurs

Sickle HockedThe hocks have too much angle, and are carried too far underneath the horse’s bodyUneven loading patternsBone spavin

Curbed hock

Plantar ligament strains

Post LeggedThe hock angle is too straightTendency to land sharply, with too much concussionOsteoarthritis

Suspensory disease

Upward fixation of the patella

Bog spavin

Considerations when trimming and shoeing

Since hoof problems seem to go hand in hand with conformation faults, the first order of business is to improve the quality of the hoof before worrying about trying to change the horse’s way of going. There’s lots of debate on whether or not conformation can be “improved” through trimming, and whether a horse should be trimmed or shod to balance the foot, or to balance the whole leg. What everyone seems to agree on is that conformation can be managed best if the internal structures of the foot are kept in balance. And, of course, when it comes to conformation and soundness, people tend to agree on the old saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”


Duberstein, Kylee Jo.  “Evaluating Horse Conformation.”  University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, 4 Apr. 2012.

Lawrence, L.A. “Horse Conformation Analysis.”  Washington State University Extension and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 2006.

Morrison, Scott. “Hoof Capsule Distortion And Its Relationship To Foot Lameness.” American Association of Equine Practitioners, n.d.

Oke, Stacey.  “Horse Conformation Conundrums.”  The Horse, 1 Oct. 2010.

Van Heel, M. C. al. “Dynamic Pressure Measurements for the Detailed Study of Hoof Balance: The Effect of Trimming.” Equine Veterinary Journal 36.8 (2004): 778-782.

by Cindy McMann

image 1: Pixabay; image 2: (Creative Commons BY-SA)

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