We can find blog posts, articles, books, and chat lines all loaded with tons of advice from lots of people dying to show their prowess at drawing a straight line via Photoshop so I know which horses are crap and which are worthy of our consideration.
There are unending descriptions, using lots of big words about muscles, tendons, angles and bone, proper hoof shape, tail set and the length of the back.
I'm not arguing about the validity of good conformation. It's a fact that the better the build the better the chance of achieving the levels of performance we're looking for. Good conformation helps a horse stay sound, gives us a smoother ride, more loft, less knee, a higher jump or a quicker cut out of the herd.
The thing is, I've had a lot of horses in my life with less than ideal conformation. OK, I'll be honest, none of my horses have had the perfect build. I bought my first horse Mort, because he had a pretty head. It wasn't until after I owned him I found out his feet turned out, his neck was too thin and set too high, he was apple-butted, narrow and I'm sure there was a bunch of other stuff I just don't remember.
I loved Mort like nobody's business and I rode the living tar out of him. I rode him until his shoes fell off and then I rode some more. I didn't know enough to tell when he was foot-sore or that I could kill him with grass clippings. I kicked him out to eat spring grass 24/7 every year after keeping him corralled every winter. Cringing yet? Me too.
The thing is, he was sound his entire life. He never foundered, never limped, never missed a step. He had incredible wind and endurance, was agile and quick. What he wasn't was fast. He didn't outrun many better built quarter horses, but he certainly outlasted them.
My second horse, Oakie, was built the way they "should" be. He had some fancy breeding and I didn't hear the comments about his faults like I did Mort. He developed massive navicular and died when he was eight years old from a reaction to blood thinners.
The next horse was a little mustang we called Belle Star. She was maybe 14 hh in her shoes (if I let her feet get long), weedy, a little ewe-necked, cow-hocked and long backed. She weighed about 850 pounds. She was loaded with heart, packed me through the mountains without complaint or problem, and her crooked little legs caused me no trouble at all.
Annie, one of the best horses ever born, was long backed and had a short, level croup, not what you'd look for in a quarter horse. Plus, SHE WAS LAME. We babied her bad foot, kept her comfortable with glucosamine, but without drugs, and used her with respect. She raised my daughter, taught me tons and there are hundreds of former kids who have loving stories to tell about learning to ride on her.
Sonita had lovely conformation. A little high headed,a little short necked, but everything else was pretty darn good. Her nice short back made her quick on a turn, but didn't help with her stops in any way. I always had to hope her spins and cow work would make up for her 15 foot stops. And then there's the fact she was nuts.
Loki had great legs. She was low-hocked, had nice straight canon bones, great reach and good feet. She was also incredibly long-backed. I mean looooong backed and narrow. Her turn arounds were effected, but she had flawless lead changes, could do lovely, level tempi changes and won a slide stop contest against the Big K with a 30 foot slide. She was a solid cutter and decent down the fence.
Madonna is close to my ideal of a perfect build. Yet she's over the knee, pigeon-toed and her right front foot is slightly clubbed. She has slightly higher knee action than I like (it adds to her "my pretty pony" look). She is sound and athletic and the best horse I've ever had.
Odin is turning out to be wonderful. Loki is his mom and his dad is also a foundation bred quarter horse. He is showing signs of having his mother's slide stop and his father's elasticity through his turns. His back shorter than Loki's, he's much stouter and has his daddy's pretty head. My foundation bred, nothing fancy, colt may be the most correct horse I've ever owned. Don't disagree with me, I might have to kill you.
My point is correct conformation is not the end all. I learned what to look for from my 4-H hand book when I was 12. I haven't varied much from it since. It was a good handbook.
When I look to buy a horse I have my own way of doing things.
I buy bloodlines for specific tasks.
I'll try different bloodlines if I don't end up with what I want.
I look for basically correct conformation.
I'll try out a horse with faults anyway.
If the horse moves in a way that appeals to me I'll giver her a go, don't care about shoulders or pasterns if the horse feels the way I want.If a horse rides in a way I like, I'll accept many, many conformation faults.
I check stride length, stopping ability and cattiness. If it all feels good I'm on board, conformation be damned.
There are things I won't accept.
Extreme cow hocks. Ewe necks. Severe clubbed feet, or more than one club foot. Stick necks (short, upright, thick), off-set canon bones or narrow-based hind ends.
The rest is up to the horse.
If I had a better trained eye I would have missed many, many good horses.
All that being said, I wouldn't buy without a vet check, unless it's a horse I know, or it comes from a person I trust.