Western Type Equine conformation and biomechanics analyst Ross Brunt explains the common conformational traits of the western horse and how to assess a horse’s suitability to a particular western discipline. A potential western or stock horse’s conformation is obviously a key factor in its selection. A horse’s proportions and conformation traits, through nature, are effectively providing a hint of its suitability/potential to a given task. Nature provides equines of varied types and shapes, but these variations all have a purpose and detailed conformation analysis can help identify these hints/traits within the athletic horse, and highlight how they can be used to advantage.
For the trained horse, it would be ideal if a rider could simply trial it over varied disciplines to assess which suits it best but, as any good horse person knows, horses generally require a slow build up before having a genuine opportunity to show their true potential in a specific sphere. Therefore, the value of understanding which specific traits will benefit a horse’s suitability cannot be overestimated and are likely to allow the learning process to be easier for both the rider and horse. This also promises a greater scope for top end potential and, importantly, the best opportunity of reward for effort.
Conformation wise, horses generally fall under three categories; western, English, or a hybrid of the two. The traditional methods of assessing a horse’s ‘type’ are not clear cut and many people define western types as being downhill and stockier, and English types as uphill and leaner. The uphill/downhill assessment can be made drawing an imaginary line from the horse’s point of hip, through the shoulder blade to the middle of the thickest part of the neck. A similar and simpler method is often made by assessing the comparative heights of the wither and croup. A horse with a higher wither is often considered to be an English type and one with a higher croup, western. Of course, the uphill posture with an emphasis on being light through the fore will be of benefit in many English disciplines while the downhill posture with a powerful hind and an emphasis on short term power will be of benefit in many western disciplines.
Short, upright pasterns
Shorter overall limb length
Short cannons, longer forearm ratios
Open shoulder joint
Shorter and upright shoulder blade (although the sloping shoulder is generally preferred)
Wider chest (from frontal view)
Short, thick and low set neck
Lowered head carriage
Well shaped, intelligent head with good width between the eyes, wide nostrils and a deep jaw
Chest to wither distance is restricted via the top line
A vertically deeper girth, with shorter legs by proportion
Croup possesses extra length
Femur and tibia bones posses extra length
Shorter rear cannons, low hock set
Short and upright rear pasterns
Wider hips (from back view)
For western riders searching for a quality and powerful performance horse, the large hind of the typical western horse is indeed an advantage as it encourages power from a standing start, and acceleration and the resultant sprint that is essential in many disciplines. That said, a quality, athletic western type horse will possess a number of other conformational traits. Specific western disciplines will require their own set of conformation traits, which may vary slightly from the standard as listed over the page. As such, the western traits detailed in this article should be used as general guide only, and individuals should seek out the small variations that their specific discipline desires.
The western types generally appear heavier, having a bone structure levered towards a shorter, more compact and stronger stride. In contrast, the English type will appear leaner and looser, having a bone structure levered towards a naturally long, relaxed and efficient stride. The box on the right explains the bone structure of the western type in a bid to identify the traits that are a key to its performance and differentiate it from the English type.
Internationally, quality western types often possess Quarter Horse blood, a breed which was initially produced to sprint over distances up to 400m. In contrast, quality English types often possess Thoroughbred or Arabian blood, breeds that were specifically used for racing over longer distances or endurance. The muscle types, which play a major role in determining a horses gearing, speed and endurance capabilities, significantly varies between the types.
Western horses possess a higher proportion of fast twitch type muscles. Typically these muscles are bulky, shaped and shorter. This shape may be observed from a lateral view by assessing the curve at the front of the forearms. These bulky muscles can lack flexibility and can be susceptible to acute micro muscle tears and soreness, especially when the horse is worked while fresh or fatigued. These muscles may lack sustained endurance as their energy supply is somewhat restricted to the energy stored within, as they are not as effective at replenishing energy from the cardio-vascular system. This is not essential to the stop-start nature of most western disciplines that rely on a high energy burst of speed. Importantly, although this type of muscle lacks endurance, it can add essential strength and short term power.
English type horses may possess a higher proportion of slow twitch type muscles. Typically, these appear as smoother muscles lacking shape. During extended periods of work this muscle type can replenish energy in part due to its air intake through the cardiovascular system. Although this energy source is finer, and does necessarily provide the same raw power, it is sustained and therefore is ideally suited to endurance oriented events.
Western horse conformation allows less scope for extended stride length but aids in producing a shorter and stronger stride helping maintain power, and a high stride turnover rate over short distances. The longer back can be primarily responsible for producing a flatter profile action. This helps keep the horse’s fore close to the ground, which means when the forelegs are propelled forward in preparation for the next stride, they are not left idling mid air waiting for the fore to lower. Instead they quickly strike the ground generating strength and power. This encourages a strong, compact stride and often produces a low profile galloping action. The deeper girth and shorter limbs of this type help provide far better maneuvering and quick bursts of speed.
English types should have a smooth, flexible, flowing action with good length of stride, encouraging efficiency and better endurance. A greater under reach from the longer striding hind legs can provide the fore with a greater lift during the recoil stage of its action, allowing more time for the forelimb to fully stretch forward in early preparation for its next stride prior to dropping downwards. This encourages a longer stride and these types can typically maintain a reasonable level of aerobic fitness.
The two types of top lines vary greatly. The western type may have a shorter distance between the chest and wither, but a longer rear end through the hindquarters. The top line overall is generally longer on the western type in relation to its height, and it will likely possess a slightly longer back. The shorter distance between the chest and wither can actually work as an as it leaves greater room for a larger hind within the top line while also maintaining a reasonably balanced overall height/length ratio. Thus the short term strength/power a horse may loose from the restricted fore can be compensated for in spades from a larger and muscle laden hind.
The typical western type will often have an open shoulder joint and slightly upright and shorter shoulder blade. Although this trait is strength oriented and not unsuitable for most western disciplines, the opposing sloping and longer shoulder blade is preferred. A sloping blade usually leads from a closed shoulder joint which together can add athleticism, agility and versatility. This encourages a horse to lengthen its stride with ease, providing the potential to perform over a wider range of varied disciplines.
The Western Pleasure type’s lowered head carriage (when compared to the English type) is a desired trait. An upright shoulder that is typical of many western types also encourages the lowered, natural head carriage. However again, a western type which possesses a sloping shoulder is preferred, provided it can maintain the desired lowered head carriage and the well set back withers and blade during motion. The typical shorter cannons and low hock set of the western type also encourages the desired movement of the loping, ‘daisy cutting’ movement in the show arena.
In text book theory the room for developing the cardiovascular system, which is primarily made up of heart and lungs, can be gained via a large chest and barrel volume. However, recent scientific studies have concluded that these volumes in fact have little effect on the size of a horse’s heart. It may be reasonable to suggest however that a large barrel size does allow a greater lung expansion and a greater intake of air per stride. Clean winded horses generally breathe in time with their stride, meaning long strides and large intakes of air complement each other. Therefore, to take advantage of the large barrel, the horse will be required to sustain a breathing pattern in time with his stride but this may not occur with the stop start nature of the majority of western events, meaning the western horse may be more likely to gather additional, but smaller, intakes of air during the slower motion, or stationary phases of a workout. The endurance type in contrast, is more likely to be exercising with a rhythmic stride pattern, inline with its breathing pattern, thus further improving the effectiveness of its cardio-vascular system. Therefore any possible advantage a stock working western horse gains from a deep girth and long barrel, in regard to its cardio-vascular system, may be marginal.
Be all and end all?
The majority of horses will possess a combination of western and English traits to some extent, and many will perform against what their own traits may suggest. Apart from a combination of the above traits, a number of factors can ultimately determine a horse’s ideal discipline, including instinct, pre training, temperament, willingness, rider skill, age etc. Small variations of just a few percent typically make up the majority of conformation variations, which can often pass undetected to all but the most experienced eye. Therefore, conformation should only ever be used only as a potential guide to a horse’s capabilities, rather than a definitive rating.
Western Pleasure - Long neck, short back and moderate limb lengths
Barrel Racing - Strong hind, shallower girth, short or moderate limb length
Hunter Under Saddle and Racing - Leaner, shallower girth and moderate limbs
Stock Horse and Cutting - Solid, deeper girth and shorter limbs
Halter - Tall, open should joint with additional muscle mass
Reining - Strong hind, shallower girth and moderate limb length
Ross Brunt is a conformation and biomechanics analyst specialising in performance horses. He developed Horse Gears, a computer programme which gives technical analysis of a prospect's conformation and suitability to all fields of horse sport including western disciplines of reining, barrel racing, western pleasure and cutting. Visit Horse Gears here.