VRH Ranch Conformation: A Judge’s Perspective

VRH Ranch Conformation: A Judge’s Perspective

Nail Versatility Ranch Horse conformation classes with tips from an AQHA judge.

bay ranch horse conformation (Credit: Jill Dunkel photo)

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The American Quarter Horse Journal logo

By AQHA Professional Horseman Chris Jeter with Jill J. Dunkel

Photos by Jill Dunkel

The conformation class is held at the end of a Versatility Ranch Horse show so a judge, who has seen these horses perform during the day, can evaluate their conformation. It’s form to function. Some people don’t do much to prepare for this class. They think, “It’s just halter.” And that attitude shows in their presentation.

The conformation class is just as important as the VRH ranch cutting or the VRH ranch trail. Each class counts the same. Don’t end a good day of showing by being half-hearted in this class. And don’t be upset when someone else comes in there and works a little harder in this class than you do, and they end up winning the all-around. You’ve come this far – don’t quit yet.

Even if you don’t have a heavily muscled horse, anything you can do to improve your chances of placing is worth it. You want to leave a good impression with this judge, because you’ll probably show to him or her again somewhere. Giving everything you have in this class is respectful to the judge, and they appreciate it.

Class Procedure

It’s important to understand the pattern when you go in this class. You’re going to walk to the judge, then as he moves out of your way, trot past him in a straight line, and then turn left at the cone and continue to trot. This is where the judge looks at how clean your horse moves, and checks if he is sound or not. Teach your horse to trot beside you. As a judge, if I am trying to help get your horse to trot, it makes it harder to watch him travel.

When the ring steward lines you up, leave 6 to 8 feet of space between you and the horse in front of you. The judge needs room to get between each horse and look around. Don’t put the judge – and yourself – in a dangerous position of being too close to another horse. Plus, it makes it harder for the judge to see your horse.

When you line up head to tail, try to line up straight, or parallel to the fence. Sometimes you have to move because of a hole in the ground or something, and that’s not a big deal. But try to be straight. If your horse is angled in the line up, you are distorting his profile. Give the judge the best view of your horse that you can when you line up.

This isn’t showmanship, and a judge doesn’t expect the “quarter system” – the exhibitor moving from one side of the horse to the other so the judge can see – that showmanship exhibitors use. But you do want to give the judge the clearest view of your horse. Don’t be directly in front of your horse, but don’t block my view of your horse, either.


Clean is always attractive. This class is about your horse’s conformation, and how good he looks is a factor. While I want to see you in working equipment, don’t roll it in the mud before you go in the pen. Have pride in your horse, and show that you’re proud. You’re a horseman, and part of being a horseman is grooming and having a clean horse and clean tack.

That doesn’t mean go give your horse a bath right before the class. As I judge, I understand you’ve been showing this horse all day, and he might be sweaty. You might have just finished your last riding class and pulled the saddle off. That’s OK. But brush the sweat off. Comb his mane and tail. It just creates a better overall appearance.

Set Up

Not setting up your horse makes it look like you’re not very serious about showing him. Study your horse and learn what makes him look his best. Learn where to set his feet to give that best impression. You’ve shown your horse to his best ability all day; continue to do that in the conformation class.

bay horse set up for ranch conformation

If this is how an exhibitor presents his horse to me, I’m going to think he really doesn’t care or he doesn’t want to be here. It is not very respectful to the judge, and why waste an entire day showing, if you’re going to present your horse like this.


Don’t be afraid to get some help. Moving a foot 1 or 2 inches can make all the difference in the world on how your horse looks. Take this article and study how the profile of the horse in the photos changes depending where his feet are set. Now, set up your horse and get someone else to hold him. Does he look his best? Are his feet squarely underneath him? Does moving his feet out or in slightly change his topline for better or worse? What about the position of his head? Does he look better with his head higher or lower? What does that do to the rest of his body, especially his topline?

You are allowed to touch your horse to set him up. It’s not a disqualification. It’s handier if you can use the halter to set his feet, and if you practice this enough, your horse will start to set up pretty quick. It doesn’t take a lot of time. Just practice setting up your horse before you turn him loose each day. It’s respectful to the judge and other exhibitors if your horse sets up quickly and no one has to wait for you to make your horse presentable. 

Also, know where the judge is in the arena. After he’s looked at the line up, he may want to see your back number. At that point, he’s made a decision and is marking his card. However, you are being judged from when you walk in the arena until the class is over.

Like every event, each judge comes with a different background and perspective. What might be great to one might not be great to the other. Don’t have it in your mind how things are going to place. Let the judge make his decision. Don’t halfway show your horse because you don’t think your horse is good enough to place. Someone else might have a horse with a characteristic that bothers that judge, and if you do a good job showing your horse, you might move up a few places.

bay horse set up for ranch conformation

Your horse’s feet need to be squarely under the corners of his body. In this photo, the horse’s back legs are too far back and it lowers his back. It makes him appear to run downhill and look weak across his topline.

bay horse set up for ranch conformation

Now his back legs are set up more directly underneath his body, and it makes a big difference in this horse’s topline. This is why it’s important to have someone help you set up the horse and get a perspective of where the horse looks his best. Even though his feet are not perfectly even, and it would look better if he was a little more square, all four legs are underneath his body and it makes a big difference in his profile.


bay horse set up for ranch conformation

Decide how your horse looks his best, and that includes how high you hold his head. Some people think it’s good to hold it as high as possible. You do that, and it will drop his back and can also alter the appearance of his neck. I’m 6’4” and I don’t hold my horse’s head to my height. Here, his neck looks shorter and his throat latch looks thicker than if I hold his head in a more natural position. Both his front and back feet are set too far underneath him, and that distorts his back and makes him look sickle-hocked.


bay horse set up for ranch conformation

bay horse set up for ranch conformation

In the photo on the right, his back legs are set squarely behind, which makes him wider at the stifle and well balanced. In the photo on the left, when his back legs are set too close together, it makes this horse look narrow at the stifle and weak-muscled.


bay horse set up for ranch conformation

bay horse set up for ranch conformation

Setting a horse’s legs too wide can have similar effects because it changes the appearance of his structure. In the left photo, the horse is set too wide. It changes the angle in his feet and makes his legs look off at his knees.


bay horse set up for ranch conformation

bay horse set up for ranch conformation

Make sure your halter is adjusted properly. A well-adjusted halter makes a horse’s head look smaller and typier. It’s the first initial impression – the first thing I see as a judge. Let’s be honest, a poor-fitting halter runs into a safety issue. I don’t want a halter that can slip over his nose. If I tied this horse to the trailer and leave to check-in, he might not still be there when I get back.


bay horse set up for ranch conformation

bay horse set up for ranch conformation

Give the judge a clear view of your horse. If you’re standing in front of him, the judge can’t see. Plus it’s not safe to stand directly in front of a horse.

About the Source: Chris Jeter

AQHA Professional Horseman Chris Jeter has been an AQHA judge for 21 years. He is also an approved NRCHA, NRHA, APHA and NSBA judge. Chris has trained, shown or coached 145 world and reserve world champions in his 30-plus years in the industry. He lives in Perrin, Texas, and trains ranch and versatility horses as well as manages NRCHA major events.