One of the most important functions of Timeform's team of racecourse representatives is to provide concise physical descriptions of racehorses. The less that is known about a horse's merit, the more useful a physical description can be.
There are four basic categories of descriptions used by Timeform — size, shape, substance and quality, and the most significant of those are size and substance.
Size is the obvious place to start — every horse can be readily categorised by size and three descriptions cover the vast majority — big, medium sized and small. While it is important not to overdescribe early-season two-year-olds (few are likely to be big), the best way of describing a field of horses from scratch is to pick out those above average size (big) and below average size (small).
While this might seem obvious it contains the key to good description — a description should point out the distinctive features of a horse. Being big or small makes a horse distinctive while medium sized is more of a starting point for one not distinguished by its size — there is usually a description in one of the other categories which better defines it. Medium sized offered as the best description suggests a horse distinguished only by its averageness. Similarly, smallish (quite small) is less distinctive than small and there are likely to be more suitable descriptions.
Substance is a category in which the variation of descriptions is far greater than within size, but essentially all the descriptions fall into two main groups. As with size, these are variations above or below average — sparely made and its variants describing a horse lacking substance, strong one with an excess of it. The variants within the two groupings usually contain an element of one of the other categories. For example, well made, used to describe a strong horse, contains a qualitative judgement; and robust an element of size (a horse may be described as small and strong but not small and robust). Stocky and sturdy are similar cases.
Substance can also be more specific. There are quite a few descriptions which relate to parts of the horse — shallow girthed, good quartered (often associated with a sprinting physique) and good topped are examples. Another description in this category is unfurnished, which relates specifically to a horse which hasn't filled out but has the prospects of doing so. By definition an unfurnished horse has scope and so the description excludes the possibility that the horse is also small.
Shape is a more wide-ranging category but again the principal descriptions are derived from variations from the average, in terms of length, height and width. Clearly with height there is some overlap with size and there isn't a general description for a horse of below average height, a short horse being necessarily small. There is also clearly some overlap between tall and big, and tall would only be used in preference when its height is more noticeable, more distinctive than its size.
Length is covered by descriptions which are specific as well as general. Long backed is more specific (and much less common) than lengthy; short backed is more specific than close coupled or compact (the latter also implying size and substance). There are few descriptions related to width, the principal one being narrow.
One description in this category which is deceptively straightforward is neat. While firstly implying a horse's shape, neat also indicates the horse's size (small by definition) and quality (neat suggests a better type than small or small, close coupled).
The most common of the specific shape descriptions is leggy, applied to a horse of above average length of leg in relation to its overall height. Its opposite, short legged, is much less common.
The last description to mention in this section is angular, a description which brings more letters from puzzled subscribers than the rest put together.
It is a good compound description suggesting both leanness and being square at the corners. It is a description of shape but with strong implications for substance. Another useful compound description is rangy, a positive tag implying above-average length, height and quality.
Quality is the fourth and last category. In this one, the task of the racecourse representative is not so much to describe the horse against the others in the field but to picture it against the ideal or ‘standard’ racehorse. Descriptions in this category do not directly convey anything about size, substance or shape but instead suggest an overall impression. Some combinations just wouldn't be seen — sparely-made, good sort, for example — simply because the view one has of the ideal racehorse doesn't include its being sparely made.
There are two basic groupings — good sort, useful looking and fair sort being in one group, and attractive, quite attractive and plain in the other. The former are more concerned with physique, the latter with looks. Attractive and quite attractive tend to be used only on the Flat.
Finally, there is workmanlike which has a tempering role. It implies a functionality, a general solidness without star quality; it tones down usually positive descriptions (e.g. rangy, workmanlike).