A Look at Conformation

As documented by Janet Lane © in various iterations over the (now many) years. Image: Gelding Fisher and mare Faith

A handbook by Janet Lane

This remains a basic handbook, written before the internet (yes, we have been collecting information since before the internet!) Originally done for Classifiers, it was compiled by observing Walers and researching Australian horses of the past and is shared here for those interested in what to look for in our old-fashioned horse.

You need to be familiar with good horse conformation so you can identify faults. Remember no horse is perfect so don’t be too harsh on any deviation from the norm. The main thing to watch out for is congenital faults. These are faults that are hereditary, to a greater or lesser extent, so will be passed on. Some faults of conformation are not congenital, and some may be adventitious – that is, caused by misadventure. All faults should be clearly noted in their degree of severity. All ideal conformation to be clearly recognised too.

Head and neck

A small eye is not desirable, nor a large bulging eye like an Arab. A Waler should be able to regard things off to its side and periphery without having to swivel its eyeball back to show the whites like an Arab. It has a wide range of view.

A kind eye is desirable (often remarked upon when Walers are out and about, such as stallion Ezekiel). A lot of a horse’s temperament is seen in the eye expression. Wall (white/bluish) eyes are a fault and undesirable. It’s just a lack of pigment but is often genetically related to other colour defects that can lead to problems such as lethal white. I would not pass a stallion with a wall eye, let alone two. I would pass a gelding with one wall eye, and a mare with one wall eye but not two – clearly stating the fault. If they had any other fault, I would be pleased to fail them.

Eyes should not be sunken (old horses get a hollow above the eye, this is natural), nor prominent – so white shows even without surprise or fear. Walers with Timor ancestry may have slightly slanted eyes (as mare Coolibah does), an oriental look, more obvious in the pony types. The slanting look of Timor ancestry and hot climate ancestry, comes from long term adjustment to bright sun, a pouched effect over the eye; this shelters it. White sclera is undesirable and may well indicate Appaloosa blood therefore incorrect ancestry; or a pigment defect that is a fault. Walers have adapted to colouring that makes them less cancer prone – white sclera is not in the survival kit. However, white sclera is not enough reason to fail a horse, just to be noted. A horse that shows the whites of its eyes by rolling them or staring, is usually upset or aggressive – watch its temperament.

A Waler’s head is in proportion to its body. This applies to all four types. It doesn’t have the large cheek jowl and long jaw bones of a Thoroughbred. Jaws are strong with good bone and muscle, but not as deeply defined by sunken flesh grooves as an Arab. Walers must munch through a lot of tough feed in the wild – and on campaign – their jaws and teeth have not become weak through handfeeding and soft pasture. A Waler’s head shows strength in all ways. In the army, the heavy headstall-bridle they wore was a considerable weight, which caused other breeds to hang their heads. Waler heads remained upright. Their strong neck aids this (have a look at gelding Blu Puccini for example).

Noses should never be concave (dished) but straight. Roman noses occur and are perfectly alright.

Teeth must be strong, not thin – Walers have far stronger teeth than other breeds – tough native grasses, even spinifex and sword rushes, do not wear them down. Between the jaws (under the chin) you should be able to fit a clenched hand, this means the horse has room for its teeth, wind, and jaw action.

The jaw bones should be strong, not fine. Large, very thick jaws (leaving little room between) are associated with large paratoid glands, which are lumps between the jaw and throat, making it difficult for the horse to flex at the poll. A Waler’s head can look chunky, it is strong rather than pretty but surprisingly it’s often smaller that many believe. A 15.2hh Waler may well fit a cob (galloway size) headstall rather than a full, and a cob be more comfortable in a pony size. So although strong looking, the head is never out of proportion to the body size. If a heavy (Artillery) has a big head, this would be in keeping with its’ overall build.

Waler ponies have true pony heads (this should not differ), like those of Timors (as seen in mare Hale). They are not stunted horses. Small ears are an indication of pony genes, a neat, strong head with a good muzzle (not large) and wide forehead. The jowl (large cheek bone) should not be large nor the jaw bones long (a horse head on a pony body, not good). The back is in proportion – not long, like a big horse crossed to a pony.

The head should never be out of proportion to the body. A Waler’s head should not be short. All wild horses need a certain length of nose, to make sure the air is warmed before reaching the lungs, preventing chill stress in cold nights and cold weather. A Waler with a short head is suspect. True Welsh ponies in the Welsh hills have long noses. The show breeds of Welsh Pony have short noses, for looks. We don’t wish to lose any good survival and natural conformation for the sake of preconceived ideas about beauty. A long nose is perfectly alright. A horse is a horse. Small nostrils are not desirable; the horse cannot get enough wind when under exertion. A Waler’s nostrils are not as open as a Thoroughbred or Arab. They are distended only when working or snorting, being softly half closed to keep air temperature regulated, and dust, flies etc out. Hair also softly covers the rims for this purpose; a Waler’s nostrils should never be visibly bald. Very thick nostrils are not desired.

Drooping lower lips are not desirable but may occur with some heavies; they trace to some draught and some Thoroughbred lines. Usually this gets more pronounced with age, so take age in account when classifying – if it’s an old horse, ask how the lip was when younger. Tickle the lip and see if the horse can bring it back to normal – often it goes with relaxation. If the lip cannot be closed, it’s a fault. If the lip is not used when eating, a serious fault, undesirable in a stallion.

Protruding or bulging foreheads are a fault, foreheads should be flat and broad; if slightly convex make sure it’s bone – a Roman nose that extends to the forehead. Bone is not a problem; it’s bulging flesh that is not desirable. Flopping ears are not desirable, the ears should be upright when the horse is alert. Pony ears incurve a little, which shows true pony genes and Timor influence, desirable. Ears that cannot be brought upright are a fault. The size of the ears, apart from ponies, is not that important – they should be in proportion to the horse. Large ears on a small horse often means the horse may have grown bigger given adequate nutrition when young.

Bony protuberance on the anterior bone of the nose (a hard lump) is usually an indication of calcium deficiency when young (also called “calcium bumps”). If the horse is still maturing (under six with Walers), they may recede or completely disappear with dietary correction – being given calcium in the form of a lick, lime-water, limestone, supplement etc. Note these bumps if present. Feeding too much grain has the same effect as lack of calcium – the phosphorus in the grain, particularly oats, prevents the body absorbing calcium even when given extra calcium – the calcium is rejected in the urine when phosphorus is present. Check the feed history. Suggest calcium be given and grain withheld.

It’s useful if you can age a horse by its teeth. If you’re not sure, don’t try; a horse dentist can do this very accurately if the owner wishes. Often a good indication of age is simply gained by the horse’s general appearance if you have an experienced eye. Missing front teeth may be foal milk teeth fallen out, which usually happens later with Walers than other breeds (up to and past 3 years old), as they mature later and in the wild, are on the mother for 2 years. There will be a gap, but adult teeth will form. Sometimes the horse is at a loss when its teeth come out and opens its mouth to show you. It has to be determined to bite grass off!

Walers almost always have wolf teeth, including mares. In most other breeds, it’s unusual for mares to have wolf teeth, and males sometimes lack them too. It’s a good indication of a Waler if wolf teeth are present; if not, ask if they have been removed, which most people get done to make bitting easier. These little teeth usually come through about four years of age, so won’t be seen on a young horse. Some wolf teeth (also called canines) get broken off or knocked out in the process of breaking/riding if they haven’t been removed, allow for this too. They are very small teeth, just in front of the rear set of teeth, about the size of a match. There’s a safe area of gum between front and rear teeth for the hand! If the roof of the mouth is swollen so it’s level with the front teeth (sometimes even lower), this is called a lampas. It occurs with horses that were foaled late – that is, late summer, autumn or winter, and occurs from a year to seven years old – different horses get it at different ages. The horse will often open it’s mouth to show you, as it’s uncomfortable. It will not like the bit, throw its head when ridden, and become headshy when being bridled. The horse needs rough forage to soothe the swelling, they’ll happily mouth gorse, blackberry, hawthorn, rough third-cut lucerne, tough native grasses or hard grass stalks for relief, so roughage must be provided. The lampas needs no other treatment and, in a few months, will simply disappear. It’s not a fault, merely a development condition occuring in a few horses, perhaps related also to a mineral/vitamin deficiency. Do not listen to any old hand who tells you the lampas needs lancing!

Parrot mouth is a fault, a serious congenital fault if pronounced. Do not confuse with undershot lower jaw (both discussed later). A badly parrot-mouthed horse finds great trouble eating, a stallion like this should be failed.

A head that is obviously pointed between the ears, like a conical hat, is a serious fault and usually goes with a horse being unintelligent and incapable of looking after itself so it gets poor. It can also mix it’s gaits, not deciding whether to trot or walk, it can’t concentrate. I would fail any horse like this. Usually they have a good nature, but this does not counter act the negative side of stupidity and inability to get about and survive well.

Walers have plenty of brain room, their forehead is wide. The head is squarish around the upper parts.

Some heads will show ancestral breed influence, such as Shire, Timor, Suffolk Punch, Percheron (like stallion Billjim) or Cape Horse (Boerperd), note this down. Shires have long noses and good eyes, unlike the small, often sunken eye of the Clyde. Clydes have beards – plentiful hair along the lower jaws and their nostrils are often under the curve of the nose/muzzle. A Shire’s nostrils are well formed and straight off the nose. Suffolks and Percherons have fat jaws and fat jowls (large cheek bone has plenty of fleshy covering). Cape Horses have well defined facial bones, fine muzzle with good largish nostrils and a wide forehead, no excess of anything – a “quality” head in the better sense of the word, their head being very similar the old Norfolk Roadster (like mare Pearl). Percherons have a good eye for a draught (Arab/Barb was used very early on in the breed for refinement), the eyes close to the anterior bone and a straight or convex (Roman) nose. Some beard hairs (under the jaws) may come from the Timor and Shire too.

Warts are often seen growing on juvenile horses, often around the muzzle but can extend over most of the face; in large groups they can look quite hideous. They are a juvenile condition the horse will grow out of, and nothing to worry about; in fact caused by a magnesium deficiency remedied with a good mineral lick. Calcium must be present for the horse to take up magnesium.

With Walers, the head is carried high. This comes from Army horses being encouraged to keep their neck and head in front of the rider for protection from bullets, lances, sabres etc. (mare Rigoletto for example). The style of riding by the military necessitated keeping one hand free, for holding a weapon, or signalling, so curb bits were used such as the 9th Lancer – these too helped the high head carriage. Stockwork, where the rider carries and uses a whip; and coaching where horses were expected to get along in style, all meant requiring a horse to keep its head up – the Waler was used for all these things. It also was descended from carriage horses with high head carriage. This style of riding and driving often meant the under muscle of the neck was powerfully developed, if the neck was thin it would appear ewenecked, but Walers having strong necks, this should not be the impression at all. So the neck is pretty upright, you feel as if you have a horse in front of you, a good feeling. The Waler flexes as much at the poll as the crest, if not more so. The Friesian has an almost identical neck structure. Holding the head high is a survival habit – wild horses can see further.

Horses which cannot flex at the poll are unbalanced to ride, check the horse does so – a Waler should naturally – check otherwise if the rider has bad hands, so the horse evades the bit, or relies unnecessarily on artificial aids such as the standing martingale. If the horse has a thick gullet (throat) it is at fault. The head should be set onto the neck with the gullet defined, giving the windpipe room, not constricting it, or hiding a small windpipe. The neck should be strong and muscled. A stallion will naturally have a bigger crest, more pronounced, the same with a horse gelded in adulthood. A horse gelded very young (when a foal) may have a thinner neck than desirable – take this into account.


A Waler has very strong legs with plenty of bone and big well-formed tendons. Feathering is a breed characteristic (mare Mega was a good example) and may be on the fetlocks or right down the legs from the body or middle leg joints, note where the feather starts and how luxurious or not it is – officer types usually have the least feather. Feather must be fine and silky, not coarse and hard. Some feather swirls tightly about like cowlicks, note this too, it’s usually from Timor and/or Suffolk Punch ancestry.

Ergots are an obsolete toe (as are chestnuts) and are found on the back of the fetlock. By feeling in the feather, you should find the ergot, like a bump of tough skin or callous. Some can grow like spurs and need trimming off, like chestnuts that grow without falling off. These can usually be snapped off by hand or hoof clippers. Ergots are missing from many modern breeds, or very small. It’s a good indication of a Waler if ergots are present, desirable for identification and not at all a fault.

Joints are large and well formed. Knees flat at the front. Legs are very important and should give an overall impression of soundness and strength. Well-developed powerful legs are a Waler’s pride along with its good nature and big rump (mare Faith for example).

Hooves are open, well formed, slightly concave underneath and may be any colour or part coloured. Walls are strong and thick. The Waler’s hooves, if untended, will often snap off level with the sole, quite neatly, not splitting or breaking in chunks up the wall like many breeds. Needless to say, living on soft ground and not travelling hard distances as in the wild, means hooves should be regularly tended to. Quarter cracks are a bad management ailment that can happen to hard hoofed horses kept untrimmed on soft ground. Always take into account if the horse is wild, but cared for, so hoof trimming may be difficult.

Hooves should be at the same angle as the pastern and shoulder. Heels should be well spaced, the frog well defined and not hard. The frog may go hard with a horse kept shod continuously – shoes should be removed so the hoof – sole and frog – gets some natural circulation occasionally, especially when the horse is turned out. The new fashion for bare-foot trimming does hooves good and mirrors hoof condition/shape in the wild.

Watch the horse trotting, the stifles should work in line with the body. Stifles that go outward are a sign that cowhocks are too severe.

Remember hind cannons are slightly longer than fore cannons. Long fore cannons are a fault. The shorter the better. Cannons should be the same width all the way down and should not be thin; plenty of good flat bone should be seen. Tendons must be strong and fluted (well defined). Forearms must be straight in line with cannons – a Waler’s front legs should be magnificent studies in correct conformation.

Faults, to be noted in their degree of severity (may be very mild) are : knock knees; calf knees (lower foreleg bent out from the knee); overbent knees also called “stood over” or “galloping forelegs” (lower leg going back from the knee); round knees; splay footed or toeing out; severe pigeon toes; severe cow hocks (resting together is severe); straight back legs (almost no bend in the hocks); sickle hocks (the hock is overbent so the lower part of the hind leg is set forward); hocks up in the air (the point of the hock is too high so the lower part of the leg is set back); straight pasterns (almost upright – ideally, pasterns and hooves should be at a 45 degree angle in front, 50 degrees for hind feet); long sloping pasterns; bow legs; split up behind (lack of muscle development of the inside thighs, so when viewed from behind the upper hind legs appear thin); tied in gaskins (the second thigh points sharply into the hock area so movement is restricted); tied in elbows (elbows contracted too close to the body, making the horse scrabble with restricted movement); contracted heels also called boxy feet or club feet (steep narrow hooves); angled tendons (tendons should run straight down the legs, not angle in or out).

Remember problems such as “leaving the back legs behind” (hind legs are set well back, past the logical point of weight bearing) may be caused by back injury. Often seen in pacers with spondylitis – vertebra damage over the loins – through excessive use of the overcheck; or in hacks, due to riders using severe bits with hard hands; and/or wrongly using artificial aids such as chambons, standing martingales etc. The horse’s back hollows under work stress and incorrect/immovable head and neck position: the resulting damage causes it to stand oddly to relieve the pain. It is afflicted for life. Always observe and query.

A fault may in fact not be a fault at all. Slight pigeon toes and slight cow-hocks are favoured by stockmen as pigeon-toed horses are very sure footed, and cow-hocks mean they can spin fast in a small area. Campdrafters, polo and polocrosse players favour this deviation from the norm – and these are some uses a Waler can excel at. Most faults are only serious when extreme. Cow hocks are a Clydesdale heritage, the horses were bred to go narrow behind for ploughing, it became a serious problem for the breed and was corrected only with much weeding out those affected and using Shires to improve the breed. Shires and Percherons, being utilitarian, in fact more usually in carts, were more four square, better set up for all-rounders. Suffolk Punches, although a farm horse, were also utilitarian and have perhaps the grandest hind legs of all heavy breeds (they stand square!) – it’s said ideally you can push a wheelbarrow between the front legs and out between the hind!

Hocks should be under the centre of gravity, giving correct impulsion and leverage. They should be large, clean, with well-formed bones. Puffiness and lumps are faults (bone spavin, thoroughpin, splints, bog spavin) although capped hocks and capped elbows (lumps on the point) are adventitious. Fetlocks should have well defined ligaments and tendons, and be flattish in front, not spheroid. Elbows should be sufficiently away from the body to allow free shoulder movement.


A Waler often, but not always, has a longish back in proportion to height, except ponies which are usually well coupled. Walers have broad loins, a deep hindquarter, generous broad rump, and sloping croup to a low set tail.

The shoulder should be well defined, not running into the neck. Unless there is a clear ancestral line from the Lincolnshire Black, these often have a less defined shoulder being chariot pony descendants and harness horses, I have seen five little black Waler mares and one little black stallion that would appear to be from this Black line (mare Romani being one). On the whole, shoulders should be well defined.

Strong powerful gaskins, broad strong stifles. These are a must and make for soundness in vital areas. Plenty of propulsion and jumping ability.

A good deep girth is necessary. A good way to gauge this is that the distance from the top of the wither to the point of the girth should be much the same as from the point of the girth to the ground.

They should be well sprung around the barrel – not narrow through – with the front ribs (true ribs) flatter than the back ribs. This robust barrel structure does not mean having the type of barrel body where the saddle slips due to lack of defining shape in the back, shoulder and wither. Artillery types however, may not be quite as ideally built for the saddle.

A good chest, squared at the shoulders which are well defined. The sternum (breastbone) that runs between the forelegs, should be deepest behind the elbow, not run up underneath so the horse looks like a greyhound (this appearance in the body area may also be due to another fault – a herring gut).

Desirably, the muscles of the back are higher than the spine.

A Waler stands over its forelegs with an impression of strength. The front legs should be straight down the front.

It has a large gut area to ingest quantities of low-quality food; the gut should be full from flank to girth – the tummy is usually bigger looking than most breeds. Herring guts, where the gut runs up sharply under the flank is caused by the false ribs being too short, a serious fault as the horse is difficult to keep condition on. Walers are renown for being “good doers” – that is, easy to keep – thriving on basic fare (which can catch new owners by surprise so watch your Waler’s weight carefully, always a challenge with gelding Fisher!)

The distance between the last rib and the hipbone should be no more than a handbreadth, a little more in mares. I would, however, allow a little more for Walers, for the gut area.

The wither should be defined – at maturity ideally the wither is the same height as the croup (top of the rump). The wither should not be pronounced or fine; or flat and dumped (hidden). If the croup is higher (the trotting pitch) this may also indicate harness blood, beware of close-up Standardbred. It could also be ancestral from harness breeds such as the Lincolnshire and Norfolk.

A back that is too long is a fault, as is a back too short coupled. Other faults are narrow chest; buxom chest (protrudes); lack of depth in the hindquarter (short between hip and point of buttock); short croup (lack of distance from top of croup to tail); straight flat croup (not sloping down); hollow loins; narrow loins; goose rump also called “jumpers bump” or “goosed” (a bump on top of the croup; although to some this is not a fault as it supposedly indicates good jumping ability) but it sometimes goes with a narrow rump; loaded shoulder (flat wither and dumpy shoulders, not well defined although this is acceptable with Artillery horses); dipped back; bony back – older horses may be dipped or bony due to age, riding, foaling – check – dipped backs in youngsters is a fault; straight shoulder (ideally 45 degrees); roach back (check whether adventitious or congenital as described in “problems” section); high set tail; tail carried high (bone goes upright); very long neck; thin neck; thick undefined gullet; narrow gullet; neck running into shoulder (not defined but if young, inspect again when horse is mature as shoulders do not come out till late with Walers); rat-tail (small, thin, not enough hair and/or not enough tail-bones).

Forelocks that are short tufts (not generous) are not a fault as we have seen this in several Walers, it may go with a certain ancestral influence (I don’t know what as yet!) Generally, forelocks, tails and manes are generous, and may be straight or wavy (check out gelding Enoch‘s luxurious mane and tail).

Other characteristics of Walers


Walers are perfectly happy to exist on basic fare, native pasture, in bush runs, on unimproved pasture. They are used to natural foraging, so do not need pampering or rich pasture. This is a trait lost in most breeds due to stud management and is one we should try to preserve. Indeed, it did not take many generations of pampering before Welsh Ponies, naturally a frugal breed, started to founder to the extent that now, almost every single Welsh will founder on pasture; an inbuilt fault they cannot eliminate due to lack of concern with classifying against such problems when they become obvious.

The Waler is intelligent and if provided with food constantly will cease to think for itself, get less exercise, and get bored which can lead to lethargy or vices. Needless to say, a horse in work needs supplementary feeding as required for the workload – nevertheless, an oat goes a long way with Walers – their system is not geared to quick-fix energy food. A good salt/mineral lick should always be provided to make up for them not being able to access different geological areas as in the wild. Oats and lucerne given without exercise will make a Waler hot, not just jumpy and hyperactive, but to the extent they will sweat in the paddock and spook madly from hyperactivity. Good lucerne must be given very sparingly, it is rich food. If the Waler you are inspecting seems “hot” (nervously active), it may be naturally silly (a serious fault), or frightened, or more usually – fed wrongly – check the feeding regime. There are plenty of cool fuel alternatives these days. A lack of calcium also leads to nervous horses.


Good, trustworthy, safe natures are another outstanding feature of the Waler it is vital to preserve. Their wisdom and intelligence come from survival in the wild, and from the careful selection of horses originally put there for breeding such horses. An ideal combination to create a thinking, tough horse. Walers shouldn’t be locked for long periods in small boring paddocks where they can’t think for themselves. They need stimulation, a lot of training or riding, or a big bush run where they can keep their minds and bodies active. Being intelligent means a Waler is a safe ride. It will think through strange situations and sights, instead of panicking, it will also trust in its rider. It’s surefooted and careful and will not lead you into danger or take foolish risks, it will avoid slipping and falling, bogs and cliffs, unsafe going. It looks after its human well. It’s safe to be around, and for children and inexperienced people to be around. We need to keep this good temperament and not spoil it, nor accept horses to the contrary.


Walers have the ability to carry large weights for long periods of time, do sustained work for weeks on end under varying extremes of ground and climatic conditions. The same for harness horses – the Australian Artillery horses outperformed others, in France pulling guns, signal equipment, and wagons through heavy mud; in the Middle East through sand; when one was shot, the others pulling the increased load.

Walers have a well-earned legendary reputation for endurance and stamina. Good conformation, plenty of heart and lung room, strong legs and hooves will help maintain this hardiness. The thick mane and tail protect them from the elements. This robust build, athleticism, bravery and plenty of sense, means the Waler is very versatile. Stockwork comes naturally to them – about the only breed left that can work wild cattle, do it well, and keep you alive. Polo, polocrosse, jumping, campdrafting, mustering, dressage, eventing, driving, endurance, harness, military, police mount, hunting, and just plain hacking about, are some of the pursuits they are suited to.

While a horse has a use, the breed survives. We need to encourage owners who are using their horses, thus creating a market, as well as those breeding. So it’s important to record what the horse you are classifying has done.


A Waler will bond strongly to one person, like a one-man-dog. It will try harder for this person and be tractable for them. If a Waler doesn’t take to a person, they’ll get nowhere with it – but it may be perfect for someone else to whom it bonds. It’s not the sort of horse you lend out willy-nilly as it could go sour or dispirited. Being wise, they cannot tolerate bad handling/rough handling – many made superior buckjumpers in the past as they refused to co-operate with fools. If a person has done well with a Waler it says a lot for that person’s horse-sense. They are a horseman’s horse, the best. This one-person bond was particularly desired in Army horses as the rider could depend on the horse to save his life. There are many accounts of Walers riding into fire when asked by their rider, and keeping going despite being wounded.

Being intelligent, the Waler is less of a worry for the owner altogether – when being handled, ridden, worked or driven, and when turned out.

Posted by Janet Lane

Rare breeds advocate, and Waler researcher and owner/advocate since the 1980s.