To manage all this then, we should realize there’s a hierarchy of structure. First and foremost, there’s functional conformation, the build that's consistent to nature's blueprint and purpose. Then next there’s breed type, the structural differences that define a breed or type. And last, our tastes, or those features that form a horse more to our liking aesthetically. This means we shouldn’t only know what’s viable, but also what’s desirable as well as what's variable. That’s a lot to juggle.
- Malocclusions: A “parrot mouth” or an “undershot jaw” are severe faults because they interfere with eating. A parrot mouth occurs when the upper jaw overshoots the lower jaw whereas a undershot jaw is when the lower jaw undershoots the upper jaw. This shouldn't be confused with a "pooky" lip, however.
- Big Head: Also called Nutritional Secondary Hyperparathyroidism (NPH), Big Head is a condition caused when the horse doesn’t get enough calcium. Firm bony swellings appear of the bridge of the nose near the eyes. Other symptoms include thicker jaw bones which sometimes become so thick and misshapen that the tongue hangs out because the incisors can’t meet. The condition also causes unsoundness that periodically switches from leg to leg, sometimes making the horse unwilling to move. And because the bones are weaker, they can fracture easily.
- Narrow jaws: A large fist should fit between the ridges of the jaws between the ramus to allow for a proper airway. When there isn't, the horse may have problems consuming enough air or swallowing.
- Buggy eyes: There’s a tendency to select for big, buggy eyes in certain breeds such as the Arabian. However, this feature can indicate hypothyroidism or Anterior Segment Dysgenesis (ASD) in a real horse.
- “Dishy head,” “classic head,” or “extreme type”: The distinctly dished, domed head (the “jibbah”) of the Arabian is a prominent feature of the breed. A prevailing misconception believes the jibbah creates a larger brain case (or, alternately, to increase air intake). Predictably then, selection for this structure is strong as enthusiasts seek the deepest dish, the most pronounced jibbah, and the most bent concave axis. The result found in many halter classes today then has become markedly extreme compared to heads past. Simply comparing the Arabian profiles of ancestral desertbred photos to those of today makes the difference patently clear. In natural circumstances, however, the Arabian profile is much more discrete in design because, in reality, the jibbah evolved in a desert environment as a means to cool and add moisture to the hot, dry air to protect the sensitive inner tissues of the respiratory tract. In fact, many desert species have cranial dishes for this reason—from asses to hemonids to antelopes—so it’s not something unique to the breed. This means the jibbah is a function of the sinus, not the brain case or breathing capacity. Being so, extreme concave profiles are a functional lability by actually contradicting nature’s design. Remember that air passing through the respiratory tract can be as fast as 400 mph, faster than an F5 tornado, and this air flow can move unimpeded in a normal head. Yet an “extreme” head causes air sweeping through the sinus cavity to hit the delicate membranes at abnormal angles, causing painful inflammation. Also the easy flow of air within the head's respiratory system is restricted by causing pinch points at key intersections, often producing wheezing and gruntling. In some cases, such a head structure also forces the roots of the upper molars to puncture the floor of the sinus cavity, resulting in various physical and behavioral problems due to pain. Unfortunately then these animals are reduced to "lawn ornaments," unable to function as as nature intended, or even have to be euthanized, their disfigured skulls often found as cautionary tales in equine dentistry schools. This is why Arabians used for sport tend to have less–extreme heads whereas halter horses tend to have the more extreme heads. Yet because a “classic head” is considered so desirable today, Arabian artwork has idealized and amplified it to brow–raising proportions as a means to seduce sales. Indeed, some art work has swerved so deeply into exaggeration that it’s no longer realistic by any measure. For example, Arabians with dolphin–like deformed heads with extremely domed foreheads and crushed nasal bones with tiny muzzles and enormous eyes are quite common in art work. Or seahorse–like heads due to also gouging–down the jaw bars, giving the head a fluted appearance. Stepping back then, it begs the question of how much should our tastes influence our creative choices regarding a structure that must first be functional? For this reason, perhaps it's better to derive influences from those Arabians used for performance rather than halter showing.
- Fine muzzle: A relic from the Victorian era, a small, refined muzzle is thought to constitute good breeding whereas a “coarse,” large muzzle apparently indicated poor breeding. In particular, the Arabian ideal demands a “tea cup muzzle” which has inspired breeders to select for ever–smaller muzzles, some alarmingly so. This creates what can be described as an “ice cream cone” head in which the muzzle almost seems to end in a point, something even exaggerated in art work. Yet a “tea cup” muzzle never meant a muzzle small enough to fit into a teacup, but one sensitive and delicate enough to sip from one. Remember that, biologically, the entirety of his evolutionary history can be found in his head, and nature designed all the necessary means for sustenance in his muzzle: The intake of air, food, and water. Being so, a small muzzle compromises their intake by reducing the net capacity of the muzzle. What’s more, an undersized muzzle can cause interference with the rooting of the teeth while, in large breeds, a small muzzle can compromise the consumption and processing of the copious amounts of food, water, and air needed to sustain their mass. Therefore, the animal requires a muzzle of goodly size and proportion to his mass. Truly, biologically speaking, there’s no such thing as a muzzle that’s “too big."
- Fine head: Current ideals of animal beauty aren’t necessarily self–evident or timeless. More often, they’re rooted in historical cultural, social, or class prejudices, especially during the Victorian period, which was ripe with ideas about elitism and eugenics. One such example is a comparatively small head which was more a function of class prejudice in the Victorian 1800s rather than intelligent breeding. In the past, the common horse used by the working class had a relatively heavy, large head—and what upper class aristocrat would want to be seen with a “common horse”? This fueled the desire for a smaller, “finer” head which only intensified with the emphasis of showing status from utility. Horse paintings, which were the primary means to glorify prize animals before the camera, idealized horses even more with curiously small heads as an artistic expression of this underlaying preference. The work of George Stubbs is a classic example. Consequently, breeders aimed for this ideal even more, causing a progressive shrinking in the equine head, comparatively speaking. As a result, most horses today have smaller heads than those of yesteryear, or in relation to feral or wild cousins. Indeed, Susan McBane noted this trend in her book, Conformation for the Purpose, The Make, Shape and Performance of the Horse: “Domestic horses, however, nearly all have longer necks and smaller heads than their primitive ancestors because we have selectively bred for this characteristic of beauty…” Indeed, we still hear this sentiment today in the comments made about wild or feral cousins being described as “primitive" or even "ugly." Notwithstanding, evolution designed the equine head for things far more important than our ideas about beauty, and serious complications can arise when a large body mass with high performance demands depends on a head that’s too small to accommodate. We should also remember that the equine head is integral to his balance and coordination, being a weight on the end of his neck, and by extension his entire spine. For these reasons then, his head should be in balance with his mass and more faithful to proportions informed by nature. (Note: It’s also curious that other related structures are present in those old paintings as well such as long, fine necks, giant eyes, small muzzles, light bone, small hooves, and often long cannons, all vestigial ideals born of the Victorian age that still influence breeding today in some breeds. So the lesson here is: While art can be technically realistic, it can still be unfaithful to the subject through a misappropriation of proportion.)
- Homogenization: There’s been a fashionable trend within some breeds of adopting the features of another breed as a means of “improvement. For example, the Saddlebred influence on the breeding of Morgans, or the “exotic” Arab–like heads on American Iberians or Quarter Horses. But shouldn’t each breed be celebrated for its unique features, which are often rich in history and cultural context? And shouldn’t artists be “keepers of the grail” when short–term breeding fads threaten the distinct phenotype of a breed? Even so, sometimes homogenization can be an artistic blindspot caused by a fixation on a particular physique that seeps into the expression of others. For example, an artist enamored with Arabians may “arabian–ize” the sculptures of other breeds, even drafters and stock horses. Artists can also become so fixated on a certain type within a breed that other variations are excluded within their body of work. This is fine, of course, if this is what we consciously intend, but if it’s unintentional, that’s a systemic blind spot. For all these reasons then, knowing the ancestral types of a breed can help us create within context to better express a breed’s diversity and distinction.
- Breed type: We need to remember that the concept of breed type—or “points of type”—is a relatively new invention born of the Victorian era. Being so, the thinking of the time turned breed type into a kind of branded market identity, improving a breed's profitability in a market veering away from utility. This resulted in a progressive exaggeration of type in many breeds, to the point today that many specimens, especially from the halter venue, are nonviable. So what’s the most responsible way to regard these points of type? Capriciously according to our tastes? Or skeptically with the equine blueprint firmly in mind? For this, familiarity with a breed’s factual history and historic archetypes, firmly rooted in biology, are good balances for making informed decisions.