Conformation Decline in the American Quarter Horse

conformation american quarter horse

The American Quarter Horse is an icon in western disciplines. While opinions on ideal conformation may differ widely from discipline to discipline, the older conformation ideals are starting to come back into favor among those who grow tired of the fragility of some modern quarter horses. However, there are still many breeders who breed for looks and beauty rather than long-term soundness and breed standards.

AQHA Conformation Standards


A quarter horse’s head is meant to be short and broad. The dainty dished faces favored in halter and pleasure classes were never supposed to be part of the breed. Wide-set eyes, large nostrils, a short muzzle, and well defined jaws were not designed for beauty but for a practical working horse. The original quarter horse could work cattle all day out on the range, sprint a quarter mile on the track in the evening, and rodeo every weekend.


Breed standards call for the head to join the neck at a 45-degree angle. Many modern quarter horses lack the space between the jawbone and neck muscle that allow him to work with his head down without restricting his breathing. The neck should be “medium length and slightly arched” according to AQHA conformation standards, blending smoothly with the shoulders. The key there is slightly arched. Too many breeders chase the ideal of a dainty head and gracefully arched neck that is more Arabian than quarter horse. This leads to necks that are too long, making the horse unbalanced and heavy on the forehand.


According to the AQHA conformation standards, a quarter horse should have “medium-high distinct withers, extending back,” and deep sloping shoulders. Many pleasure horses take the “extending back” to the extreme and end up with an extra long back and weak loins that cause massive amounts of lameness problems and long-term soundness issues. Cutting and reining horse breeders, on the other hand, take it to the other extreme and breed horse with super short backs. Short is better than long, but too short is still detrimental to the horse’s long-term soundness.

Chest and Forelegs

AQHA standards call for a deep heart girth and wide-set forelegs to produce a deep, broad chest for increased lung capacity. Many breeders breeding for English and pleasure rings produce taller horses with smaller chests more in line with the thoroughbred blood that continues to dilute the quarter horse bloodlines. Breeding for height also produces thinner, weaker legs. Breed standards call for “smooth joints and short cannon [bones] [that] are set on clean fetlocks, and medium length pasterns [that] are supported by healthy hooves.” As more breeders breed for taller horses, cannon bones become longer, pasterns lengthen, legs become weaker, soundness deteriorates, and healthy hooves become few and far between. The “powerfully muscled forearm [that] tapers to the knee” is often neglected in favor of thin thoroughbred legs.


Conformation standards call for a short back that is “full and powerful across the kidneys” with deep, well-sprung ribs. The depth in the rib cage is important for increased lung capacity. However, it should be balanced with and underline that “[rises] cleanly to the flank.” An underline that does not taper properly to the flank hinders athleticism, reducing the ability of the horse to turn sharply and really use his hindquarters effectively.


Standards call for hindquarters that are broad, deep, and thickly muscled with “great width extending evenly from the top of the thigh to the gaskin” and hocks that are “wide set, deep and straight.” Again, the influx of thoroughbred blood has shrunk the hindquarters of many quarter horses. They lack the power to really sit back on their haunches and turn. Fortunately this has been preserved in many cutting and cow horse lines as these events require that power and athleticism.

Bone, Legs, Hooves

A quarter horse should have strong bones that are “free from fleshiness, puffs and injuries.” The amount of injuries incurred in the quarter horse breed in all disciplines has sky-rocketed since the founding of the breed. Too many horses break down by the time they are 10-years-old. Many show horse require joint injections and enough supplements to stock a feed store.

Another characteristic lost to many bloodlines is hooves that are “well-rounded and roomy, with deep open heels.” So many show horse suffer from contracted heels, long toes, and flared feet. These can lead to whiteline disease, abscesses, and all manner of soundness problems. This is both a breeding problem, a farrier problem, and a diet problem. Too many farriers do not know how to trim hooves properly and too many vet don’t know how to advise owners on proper nutrition for their horses, leading to catastrophic imbalances in the diet that destroy long-term soundness in the horse.

Where did we go wrong?

Narrowing of the Gene Pool

Over the years so called “line breeding” has risen in popularity. Line breeding is just a fancy way of saying inbreeding. Stallions rise and fall in popularity just like any other fad. A stallion’s progeny start winning big and suddenly everyone wants one. Lake many fads, more is consider better and people start trying to outdo each other. Stallion owners start advertising their studs as “xx% [popular stud].” 45% or better is considered ideal. You find breeding stock from popular bloodlines will often have a grandsire and two great grandsires that are all the same horse. This list of inbreed possibilities go on.

There is a saying in the breeding world: “if it works it’s line breeding, if it doesn’t work it’s inbreeding.” So many people get so focused on bloodlines. Meanwhile, they forget to look at other things like soundness, conformation, and temperament. You find sires and dams that competed once or twice. They didn’t win much, were catastrophically injured, then retired to breeding shed. Never mind the fact that the injury was something potentially genetic. Never mind the fact that the horse wasn’t worth a damn in the show pen. He/she is xx% this or that popular stud so clearly that’s reason enough to breed.

Then you have horses of relatively unknown bloodlines that excel in the arena, have fabulous conformation, and never take a lame step in their life, but are passed over for breeding due to not being the bloodline of the week. This is the type of poor choices that have significantly narrowed the gene pool for so many breeds.

Influx of Thoroughbred Blood

The appendix quarter horse is a quarter horse thoroughbred mix. The rise in popularity of the appendix has led to an influx of thoroughbred blood in the gene pool. There are many nice thoroughbreds out there. However, the best thoroughbred studs are not going to be opening their stud books to quarter horse mares. Appendix horses often come from the left overs of the thoroughbred gene pool. They are often off-the-track studs bred for speed, not longevity. They’ve got scrawny legs, poor hooves, and high strung temperaments. They are the polar opposite of the quarter horse ideal and are catastrophically diluting the quarter horse gene pool.

 Cover Photo by Five Furlongs

One thought on “Conformation Decline in the American Quarter Horse

  1. My dad said this almost 50yrs ago. He was a very old time cowpuncher and was there long before the AQHA. A Quarter Horse doesn’t look anything like it did when I was a kid. As a saddle maker, horse trainer and working cowboy I’ll tell you this is not so pretty good. Something the author didn’t mention is the whithers should be higher than the croup. If the croup is higher than the whithers that puts everything running down hill to the front. People always say can you make me a saddle that won’t hurt my horses shoulder. I’ll look at a picture of the horse and tell them ain’t a saddle tree in the world that will fix that. As a working cowpuncher and horse trainer your better horses fit the original AQHA Standard. A horse can have all the cow sense in the world but if he can’t move he ain’t worth what God give a gnat.

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