Judging horses

Series: Agfact A6.2.2  Edition: Second edition  Last updated: 24 Jun 1999


Most people can judge horses if the basic principles of structural soundness and balance are applied. A good horse is one that is able to perform its given function most adequately and is structurally sound. The better horses are also well balanced.

Balance can actually be measured—the distance from the point of the nose to the mid-point of the wither should be equal to the distance from the point of the wither to the end of the tail bone. Experienced judges can visually assess this.

Your natural ability as a potential judge can be greatly improved through hard study, application and training under a very experienced horse authority or judge. ‘Natural born judges’ would probably admit they had to do a lot of study before the title ‘top judge’ could be bestowed upon them.

Basic requirements

Before you start your judging education, there are two basic things you must know and fix in your mind.

First, you must know all the external parts of a horse by name (see Figure 1). If you memorise these, you will be able to learn from your tutor and converse with him or her intelligently.

Second, it is very important that you try to develop a mental image of the ideal horse. To assist you with this, have a horse authority show you a horse with excellent conformation, and keep a coloured picture of a top horse beside your desk. Your ability to judge will improve if you can compare each horse you see with the ‘perfect image’ you have fixed in your mind.

Figure 1. Parts of the horse

Parts of a horse

1. crest 13. gaskin 25. coronet 37. upper lip
2. withers 14. sheath 26. hoof 38. muzzle
3. back 15. hock 27. knee 39. nostril
4. loin 16. fetlock 28. elbow 40. cheek
5. point of hip 17. ergot 29. forearm 41. face
6. rump or croup 18. barrel 30. chest 42. eye
7. dock 19. abdomen 31. point of shoulder 43. forehead
8. buttock 20. heart girth 32. shoulder 44. ear
9. thigh 21. chestnut 33. neck 45. poll
10. flank 22. cannon 34. throat latch
11. stifle 23. fetlock joint 35. chin groove
12. tail 24. pastern 36. lower lip

The judging procedure

The overview

Judging begins when the horses are led into the ring. As they enter, stand back far enough so that you can get an overall view. This allows you immediately to assess the class being judged and to compare the entering horses with your mental image of the ideal horse. Once you have obtained an overview, have the steward line the horses up facing you. Inspect each horse closely to make sure it is structurally sound. Next, look for the good and bad conformation points on each animal.

If you study Figure 2, you will learn the common unsound areas of the horse. Most unsound points and blemishes are evident to the experienced eye, and this is where you must really start to observe your tutor closely.

Figure 2. Unsound areas of the horse

Unsound areas of a horse

1. curb 5. bog spavin 9. sidebone 13. shoe boil
2. ringbone 6. thoroughpin 10. bowed tendon 14. poll evil
3. quarter crack 7. hernia 11. splint 15. fistula
4. bone spavin 8. toe crack 12. over in the knee 16. hip shot

Figures 3 and 4 show some common conformation faults of the front and hind legs. Look carefully at these aspects while the horses are lined up.

Figure 3. Front leg confirmation

Front legs of horses

Figure 4. Hind leg conformation

Hind legs of horses


Inspect the horse’s head closely, particularly the mouth and eyes, to ensure it is sound. The mouth should have neither defective teeth nor an overshot or undershot jaw. You can determine if the eyesight is defective by passing your hand in front of the eyes and seeing if the horse blinks.

Watching the gait

The next step is to have each horse walk and trot. Have the handlers move their horses directly towards you and then directly away from you. By doing this, you can determine what type of action the horse has, and also if it is lame.

Horses with good action should move their legs straight and true with a spirited, snappy movement. Horses that ‘plait’ their front legs have undesirable structure, as do horses that ‘paddle’ with their front legs. ‘Plaiting’ refers to the action whereby the feet are thrown inwards so that the horse makes itself susceptible to tripping. ‘Paddling’ refers to the action whereby the feet are thrown outwards as they are picked up.

If the forequarter is lame, the head and withers rise when the painful leg touches the ground. The head is lowered when a lame hind leg hits the ground. Hindleg lameness is best seen when the horse is moving away. The point of the hip on the lame leg rises as the leg meets the ground, and the stride of the affected hind leg is shortened.

Close inspection

When you have established the action and soundness of the horses, you can begin to determine final placings. Do this by closely inspecting each horse, usually beginning with the feet because ‘no hoof, no horse’. The hooves should be in proportion to the size of the horse—not too big or too small. They should be well shaped—front hooves rounded, hind hooves more oval. The ideal hoof is deep and wide at the heel, black, and free of cracks and other blemishes.

The pastern, which is the bone from the fetlock joint to the top of the hoof, should be well let down (45 degrees) and not be too short or too long. Short pasterns lack flex and lead to jarred riding. Very long pasterns can be unsound. The cannon bone, stretching from the fetlock joint to the knee, should be clean, flat, round, and large in circumference.

The knee, joining the cannon bone and forearm, should be flat and clean.

The forearm should be long compared with the cannon bone and be well muscled, both inside and out.

The shoulders should be clean and refined, blending with the neck and barrel. Most importantly, the shoulders should have good slope, which gives an easier ride. The slope of the shoulder usually corresponds to the slope of the pasterns and should be 45 to 50 degrees. The withers should not be thick and should blend evenly into the neck as the neck should blend into the shoulder.

Many a good horse can be picked by its intelligent, refined-looking head, which displays its style and disposition. There should be good width between the eyes, which should be large and prominent but not showing too much white. Ears should be mobile, erect and of medium size. Large nostrils are necessary to assist in heavy breathing during strenuous exercise.

The back of the horse should be short with good spring of rib. The coupling (loin area) should be short and strong leading on to a long, level rump or croup. The hind legs should be straight and well muscled at the gaskin. The hock, a very important part of the horse, should be clean and free from blemish.

You should also be aware of the breed society ‘standards of excellence’ for the breed that you are judging, to ensure that each animal is true to type.

Placing the horse

After you have examined all the horses thoroughly, it should be easy to place them. Placing is done by lining the horses up either head to tail with plenty of space between, or side by side, again with plenty of space between. The method used will depend on the space available relative to the number of horses in the class. It is very important to have the top judge, your tutor, explain the placings. By doing this, the judge is openly defending his or her placings and often gets many of the ‘off side’ spectators ‘on side’. It is highly unlikely that two top judges would place an entire class exactly the same, but most likely their placings would be close. The important thing is that the placings be explained, then discussed, so that all can benefit from the experienced judge’s knowledge.


The original version of this Agfact was written by T. J. Korn, formerly of NSW Agriculture.


Author: Bill McKiernan