21 Sport Horse Conformation Questions with John Madden

Show jumping trainer John Madden answers your questions from his conformation evaluation webinar.

Thank you everyone for attending Practical Horseman’s“Evaluating Horse Conformation for Potential Ability” webinar, sponsored by Purina Mills?. I hope you were able to gain some knowledge and insight from my experience. I have done my best to answer the many wonderful questions you submitted that we didn’t have time to answer during the webinar. I hope I understood them appropriately.?John Madden


Question:I am doing a science fair project on the effects of conformation on the jumping horse. What points should I follow that would have the most significant effect on the way a horse jumps?


John: Unfortunately, I can’t answer this because it is based on looking at the entire horse?his balance and proportions?not just at specific parts.

Question:When evaluating a horse, which conformation faults are you most likely to dismiss in terms of suitability for athletic performance? Which faults do you consider most serious?

John: Most serious: uneven feet, low heels; curled-under heels; any indication of soft-tissue damage, like bowed tendons. Less serious: splints, cow hocked and toed out.

Question:It seems like conformational leg issues that you pointed out in your presentation did not, in general, cause lameness problems. Which leg conformation issues would you avoid?

John: Tied-in at the knee and over at the knee.

Question:Are there any conformational flaws you would absolutely stay away from?

John: Horrible feet, and I tend to stay away from horses who are over at the knee because it puts far too much stress on the tendons.

Question:Are “no heels” on a horse correctable?

John: They may be correctable, but it is very difficult and not always correctable. It takes a very good blacksmith and a lot of time. It is one of the defects that I really avoid. It is probably the most serious flaw in my mind.

Question:Is toeing in below the ankle an issue?

John: An issue? Yes. Deal breaker? Not necessarily. Though I have had better luck with horses who toe out than with horses who toe in. Every fault is an issue.

Question:What’s your opinion of a slight clubfoot defect?

John: Slight clubfeet don’t bother me too much. They can be managed with a good blacksmith.

Question:How do you see a good foot through bad farrier work?

John: Mostly, a good foot can survive a lot of bad farrier work. Though farriers get blamed for bad work when, many times, the horse just has bad feet. The best way to tell good feet in general is to try to look at it in the whole leg and how the lines all fit together and how the foot is attached to the leg.

Question:Big Ben had a lot of shoulder but it was pretty straight in angle. Same with Abdullah. What shoulder angle do you have the most success with?

John: I don’t look at shoulder angle by itself; you must step back and look at the bigger picture to see how the shoulder angle relates to the other angles and to the hind end to evaluate potential ability.

Question:How does the conformation of the horse’s back affect jumping ability?

John: It has to do with balance and coordination. It’s too complicated to dissect to this level, which is why I like to look at it from a whole horse perspective and evaluate balance and proportions.

Question:What are the most common injuries in jumpers that you see as related to conformation?

John: Sore backs are an occupational hazard. Horses who have the structure and the power to do the job may have an increased tendency to hurt their backs.

Question:I’ve heard longer-backed horses are usually scopier. What is your experience with that?

John: I would agree, but any extremes can be detrimental. Long-backed horses can be hard to shorten and can be prone to back injuries.

Question:On a head with a lovely eye and nice well-set ears, what is your feeling about a slightly convex profile?

John: It wouldn’t be a deal breaker, but it is not my personal preference. I prefer slightly convex to slightly concave if I had to choose, but be careful that the horse is not obstinate.

Question:Are there any positives to a horse with a longer back line from the point of hip to the hock? She has a long tibia/fibula.

John: The ratio of that line to the cannon bone is important but it comes down to proportion. Too long can be a detriment because it becomes a mechanical disadvantage if the lever becomes too long and too much muscle is needed to move the bone. Question:How much weight do you give to a horse’s breeding? For example, Darko produced some wonderful offspring; would you ignore more conformation faults in a Darko baby just because of its breeding?

John: If the horse is a stallion or mare, it matters a little bit. However, I use breeding only to confirm thoughts or feelings that I already have to reconfirm the characteristics of the bloodline for conformation, soundness, scope, carefulness and temperament.

Question:What is given more weight in evaluating a jumper?breeding or type? Would you take on an unusual breed (e.g., Morgan/Thoroughbred ) if it was put together well?

John: Type is more important. If the horse in question was put together well, I would take it on, but the odds are against it. The characteristics of other breeds would probably preclude it. I have found that Thoroughbreds and warmbloods are the best suited for jumpers.

Question:Many winners of breeding classes don’t go on to win jumper or hunter classes. Why is that?

John: I think it is because the criteria are wrong as the pretty horse beat the well-put-together horses.

Question:Do you have a preference among stallions, geldings and mares?

John: No, no preference. But generally geldings are more tractable. Stallions can be more obstinate, and mares can be more temperamental. But all of those things can be seen as advantages or disadvantages.

Question:What are your thoughts on young horses who are very brave and truck around the ring like seasoned campaigners but who are not careful and get the occasional lazy rails?

John: There is no chance to improve on that. They can be nice horses for some jobs, but it will just get worse over time, in my opinion.

Question:Could you say something about horse size? All things being equal in terms of conformation and temperament, do you prefer one height over another?

John: 16.1-16.3 hands is ideal. Conformationally it makes the most sense because that is the size where you get enough leverage from length of the skeleton without overloading the skeleton with muscle to move the bone. It’s the most versatile package, in my opinion.

Question:How do you apply your principles when looking at, say, weanlings or really young horses who will change shape a lot?

John: Let them grow up a bit before evaluating them. For sure you can see major flaws at a young age, but for jumpers there are too many different types that are good that you should not preclude any young horse from being a good horse, barring a huge defect.

Watch a replay of the webinar “Evaluating Horse Conformation for Potential” with John Madden.

Horse in a Stable Box
2 California Horses Positive for EHM
Silhouette of a beautiful Arabian horse against sun shining thro
Unvaccinated Florida Pony Positive for EEE
Caballo con perfil recortado sobre fondo negro
Michigan Gelding Positive for Strangles
horse nose
Florida Mare Positive for Strangles