In the Quarter Horse and its derivatives, specialization has taken over the breeds, and the horses vary considerably in the separate branches. In some of those segments of the breeds, selections are made almost entirely on performance, which leads to different conformation types. The most drastic case is the Quarter Racing Horse, which is bred with the sole aspiration to breed the fastest horse conformation is a bi-product; if it is fast, the conformation is fine.
Also different from halter horses, are the cutting horses which are strictly bred for the ability to work a cow, whatever conformation may be the result. This has led to rather small, leaner, agile, dynamic horses that sometimes do not look much like Quarter Horse types. Their bloodlines are referred to as working bloodlines, and those same bloodlines are also dominant in the reining horse industry. In reining though, physical appearance does play a bigger role, so more emphasis is put on conformation by breeders of reining horses. Neither one of these specialists which make up a large part of the breed look like the halter horses we see in today’s classes and they would not stand a chance to win.
What was once claimed to be the world’s most versatile horse, the Quarter Horse, has since been split up in special segments, each of which could be called a separate breed. The worst, most recent trend is in western pleasure and hunter under saddle horses (usually doing both disciplines). It goes towards a lanky, long-legged, tall rack of a horse that is on the opposite end of the conformation scale from the Quarter Horse. Those horses may have the bloodlines, but represent everything the Quarter Horse does not stand for.
Halter horses could be the unifying element for the breed, the common denominator, the factor that preserves the breed type. Instead, this has become another highly specialized segment, and one that is frowned upon by most performance-oriented breeders and exhibitors. The characteristics of the breed type are being emphasized all right, some are even exaggerated.
Extreme muscling has always been a trademark of the Quarter Horse, but there can be too much of a good thing. The decisive factor here is that these horses are not put to any performance tests, and consequently become useless as mounts. Most stem from generations of halter horses, that never did anything but stand on the other end of a lead shank. To the uninitiated observer, they look like elephants, and they certainly do not inspire any desire to get on their backs and ride them.
In addition to that, trends in the industry led to proportionately too small feet, often with pinched heels, so what we have is an overfed, overweight giant of 1200 or more pounds on feet like a Shetland pony, a sure recipe for soundness problems.
Associations and registries for Foundation Quarter Horses have come up with a better system: Halter horses and their classes are allowed at their shows only if the horses have competed sufficiently in performance classes. If they need to perform, and perform well, that will take care of all the excesses and unsoundnesses.
It is telling that the American Quarter Horse Association speaks only of conformation in the rule book, while the American Paint Horse Association, for instance, at least puts some emphasis on the movements on the horse. At some length it is described what to watch for in a horse’s way of travel.
Being led towards, by, and away from the judge in all classes, at the walk and the trot, halter horses are then stood up squarely, that is, all four feet should be planted perpendicularly, so that connecting them with lines would result in a rectangular. The judge then evaluates the horse’s conformation by looking at him from the side, to get an idea of his balance, or lack thereof, from in front, and from the rear. The judge is looking for a structurally sound, balanced, evenly and well-muscled horse of good stock type conformation that has eye appeal and is turned out well. A definite sex character is also desired in the halter horses, mares should be feminine and stallions masculine.
The horse’s patience is often tested to the extreme, especially in multi-judge shows, when they have to stand still for a long time, until all judges are finished and turn in their cards.
Photos from left to right. 1) A top class of halter horses in the line up. 2) Warm up on the longe line. 3) The developed forearm of a competitive western halter horse. Photo at the top shows a halter horse being longe-lined in preparation for the class.