August 5

Why is Conformation Important In A Racehorse?


When you buy shares in a racehorse syndicate, what you are also buying is the syndicate’s expertise in choosing the right horses for syndication. When selecting a horse to put into an ARO Syndicate, we place extreme importance on a horse’s conformation in addition to pedigree.

Here’s what our experts look for when selecting yearlings for our ARO Racing Syndication syndicates?

What Defines Conformation?

What is meant by a horse’s conformation and why is it important? 

Firstly, let’s get an understanding of what defines a horse’s conformation. 

Simply put, conformation is the sum of all the parts that go into making up the physical attributes of any horse we evaluate. Of equal importance, in the selection process, is the horse’s intelligence; their athleticism, and, more particularly if it’s a filly, their pedigree.

Listening to many of the greats giving their views on what they look for when purchasing a yearling – the common denominators were: “they need to fill the eye” – be a nice type – and athletic. Horses are athletes. Have you ever seen a bad walker win the 100m Olympic final?

After filling the eye, these experts all differed as to what they look for; both in terms of “must-have” attributes and what “faults” they are prepared to forgive. 

Conformational Faults

Bart Cummings asserts the best horse he ever trained was Galilee. Despite his impeccable breeding, Bart purchased him for NZ3,785 pounds in 1964. Why so cheap? Because the horse had conformational faults Bart was prepared to forgive, that others weren’t. History records that Bart was right as Galilee went on to become the champion stayer of his era. 

Almost every horse has some conformational fault. As Bart, and all his major contemporaries proved time and again, the art of evaluating a horse is deciding which of those faults are less likely to adversely impact the horse’s performance.


It is also helpful to know something about the pedigree of the horse. For example, some sires pass similar conformational faults to their offspring, with some of the faults having little or no consequence with respect to their racing success. 

Faults Can be Forgiven?

A case in point is Mr. Prospector. His pedigree was such that he was the highest-priced yearling of his generation. And a cursory evaluation suggested he had the confirmation to match. But further inspection highlighted, that his front legs were definitely less than perfect, he turned out on his near fore and he was offset in both knees.

These faults were always going to make him a marginal racing prospect. Despite these faults, Mr. Propsector did get to the races, but it wasn’t until his 3YO season. 

Over the next two seasons, he raced 14 times (7:4:2:1) proving to be an exceptionally fast sprinter, achieving the crown as the top-ranked American sprinter in 1974. But his career was marred with injury setbacks, and he finally had to be retired in late 1974 when he fractured a sesamoid bone. 

After being consigned to the breeding backwaters of Florida he immediately proved to be a sire sensation. Despite being a champion sire, on multiple occasions over the next 20 years, he was renowned for passing his bad legs onto his offspring. And this legacy was also prevalent with his sons who also went to stud. 

But what buyers came to understand when purchasing Mr. P’s, and his sons, was that the bad front legs were generally a fault that could be forgiven. In fact, it became an industry joke that you should steer clear of any yearling from the Mr. P sire line who had good legs as they were probably no good.

Inspecting a Horse for Conformation

Let’s start at the beginning and what our experts at ARO look for when considering it as a prospective ARO syndicated horse.

When the horse is taken out of its box to be presented for inspection, it’s at this point that first impressions count. What we are looking for is how the horse fills the eye. If it doesn’t, as politely as we can, we move onto the next horse on the list. 

If this was you, to continue inspecting a horse means you start looking for reasons to like the horse. So it’s better to trust your first impressions and move on. But if you are happy then you should have a checklist like we do to work through as you physically inspect the horse.

The Side

We always start from the side. 

Initially, we are looking for balance. When looking at balance, the neck, back, and hip need to be of equal size in order for a horse to be considered properly proportioned. Balance is not determined by the horse’s weight, but instead by proper angles and proportions of different parts of the body. If we are satisfied, we start moving through our checklist:

The Head

The head should be in proportion: too big and the horse will be clumsy and tend to move heavy on their front legs. Too small will cause the horse to lack counterbalance and lack suppleness in their front leg action. 

As we inspect the horse further, we look for a head with plenty of space between the eyes; large well-positioned ears; large nostrils to facilitate airflow, and a clean throat latch that is large enough to fit a clenched fist. This gives the windpipe more room and aids breathing ability when the horse is working hard. It also allows for a greater range of motion for the head and neck. 

Colt or Filly?

When differentiating between colts and fillies, a colt needs to have a nice strong masculine head. Ever seen a good stallion with a bad head? Conversely, a filly should possess a nicely refined feminine head.

The Eye 

The eyes should be big and bright.

We also look for an intelligent, alert eye. As a rule, we generally tend to steer clear of horses that are dull in the eye and most definitely don’t like horses with a mean eye. This regularly translates into an ungenuine individual. A horse with a lot of white around the eye (a walleye) is often nervous and flighty.

The Neck

The neck needs to be 1/3 of the horses’ total body length. At the front end, the head should attach to the top of the neck with a throatlatch that is approximately half the length of its head. 

The way the neck is set on the shoulders is also important for proper balance. Viewed from the side, there should be a smooth transition from shoulder to neck. Too short a neck restricts a horse’s stride. As does a high head-neck carriage. Why? Because a horse’s stride will not travel past the tip of its nostril.

The Shoulder

When a horse stands square, it should have a shoulder angle between 40 and 55 degrees. At this angle, the horse’s elbow is directly below the front of the withers. The elbow should be parallel to the horse’s body. We know that the greater the angle the longer the stride which is why we consider this important. Horses with straighter shoulders and pastern angles tend to have shorter strides. They also tend to jar up easier and generally act much better on rain-affected racetracks.

The Girth 

We look for a nice deep girth that provides greater room for increased heart and lung capacity which is critically important for a racehorse.

The Muscle

Depending on the type of horse (sprinter/stayer) depends on the type of muscling we look for. Points on the horse where we evaluate muscling include the chest and forearm, loin, stifle, and gaskin. In these areas, we evaluate the quantity and quality of muscle.


We look for horses with plenty of bone and a good strong well-developed bone structure. Fine-boned horses tend to be more susceptible to racetrack injury. Ideally, the front leg will have a slightly longer forearm and a shorter canon bone. This is particularly relevant if we are looking for a sprinting type.

The Front Legs

Simplistically, whether being viewed from the side or the front,  look for straight lines from the shoulder, or chest, down through the knee, and cannon bone to the ground. We judge any deviation on its merits as the greater any deviation from the norm, the larger the risk of bringing the horse successfully to the racetrack.

The Knees

It is best if the knees are set squarely on top of the cannon bones, not off to one side or another which are known as “Offset knees.” This also becomes an important aspect of our evaluation.

The Pasterns

The patterns should be at a 45-degree angle – not too straight and not too sloping. Its length should be proportionate; too long a pastern could indicate weakness and tendon strain, while if it is too short, it may absorb too much concussion, thus stressing the bone structure. (refer to the shoulder)

The Feet

A horse’s hooves must be able to withstand a great deal of pressure, especially while racing. At full speed, a 500kg thoroughbred will place the equivalent of 100 times the force of gravity on each hoof with every stride. Therefore the foot needs to be shaped properly to withstand this concussion and to dissipate the shock of impact. We always look for a nicely conformed hoo with plenty of heel.

The Hind legs

The hocks should be clean, well-defined, powerful, and have no soft tissue swelling or bony projections. They should not be straight as a post, nor curved so deeply as to be “sickle-hocked,” but somewhere in between. Ideally, if we dropped an imaginary line from the point of the buttocks to the ground, it should run parallel to the cannon bone and be slightly behind the heel.

The Chest

Comparing a horse with Olympic athletes again, a horse’s chest should be broad and appear powerful. Narrow-chested or slab-sided horses are likely to lack power.

The Back

The back extends from the withers to the loin or last rib. We look for a horse with a short, straight, strong, and muscular back.

The Hindquarters

As the horse generates its power from behind it is essential any horse we bring into the syndicate has a nice strong hindquarter.

The Walk

Once we are satisfied with all of these points on our checklist, we watch the horse walking. We get the handler to walk the horse away from us and then back again. We are looking for a nice athletic action. We also want to see that the horse tracks through evenly with a nice overstep (hind hoof overstepping the placement of the front hoof).

Additionally, we will be looking to see that the horse uses themselves well with a good swinging gait propelled from behind. Any deviation in the horses’ gait as it walks can be forgiven as long as the foot lands evenly on the ground.


As you can see, there is more to selecting a racehorse than meets the eye (pardon the pun). We are confident that any horse we select for syndication, has the right combination of all these factors. So yes. Conformation is an important aspect of ensuring any of our horses have the right qualities to potentially make it to the track.

At ARO we also take into account the trainers, jockeys and any special equipment a horse might need to bring out their potential on race day.

Check out our syndicated horses here and get involved with friends and family. You will find ARO is the home of Affordable Racehorse Ownership.


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