Conformation: What's The Big Deal?
You often hear trainers and vets discussing a horses conformation and suitability for their intended job, but what does it all mean?
While there is no clear answer on whether or not minor changes in conformation can drastically change a horses athletic ability, there are some red flags that should be avoided, especially if you are hoping to purchase a performance horse who's job requires them to jump. First off, instead of focusing on one minor conformation flaw, be sure to evaluate the entirety of the horse because one less than perfect aspect of a horse (i.e. how the neck ties into the shoulders) doesn't necessarily make or break a horses career. Throughout many of my horse searches I encountered wonderful and talented horses but, when vetted I was advised to not purchase due to conformation flaws. Some of the common concerns were very straight pasterns or changes of the navicular bone which was accelerated due to leg conformation. I always took the suggestions of the professionals around me and didn't choose these horses as investments. It wasn't until I furthered my education that I understood the reasoning behind avoiding select conformation flaws, and which ones equine professionals always avoid.
Grand Prix rider John Madden, of John Madden Sales, did a Q&A where he answered all kinds of conformation questions, ranging from hoof structure to shoulder angle. He discussed conformation flaws that were not necessarily deal breakers for him, such as a slight club foot (which can be managed successfully with an educated blacksmith), toeing out, and cold set splints. He also took time to discuss his conformational deal breakers such as a horse who is over at the knee (due to overstressing the tendons when jumping), "no heels" (which he believes to be one of the worst flaws), and too long of a back (as their backs take a lot of pressure when they are asked to perform at any level of the sport).
Dan Marks, former US Equestrian Team Veterinarian, lectured on showjumping horse conformation. In this lecture, he compares showjumping legends Big Ben, Touch of Class, and San Lucas and discussed what contributed to the success of these individual horses. Dr. Marks spends ample time discussing the biceps femoris and semitendinosus, which are muscle groups in the hindquarters that were exceptionally well defined on all of these horses. He regards these muscle groups as the factor for why the horses had so much power, scope, and adjustability- making them exceptional athletes. He also talks about how the weight to muscle ratio is important in considering a horses athletic ability and how many of todays bulkier built warmbloods are not built to last as long as a finer built thoroughbreds. Dr. Marks takes his audience through several more top horses of our sport, such as Shutterfly and Sapphire, and notes the high position of the hip bones, which he believes to be crucial to a horse's success. To conclude his lecture, he speaks to how upright and long shoulders allow a horse to have more power when pushing off of the ground meaning they also tend to have less rails as they can get their knees out of the way substantially quicker.
Professor of Equine Sciences Dr. Wayne McIlwraith of Colorado State University participated in a study that tracked conformation flaws of racing thoroughbreds during their career. They tracked foals from the age of one up until the end of their 3 year old career and noted how conformation flaws such as being over the knee only got progressively worse with age, the study showed that being over the knee was a large factor in soundness issues during a horses athletic career. This conformation flaw is something that can be seen as a young foal and continues to get worse with age. Interestingly enough, foals who are born slightly behind the knee tend to normalize and straighten out as they mature. They also noted that overly long and weak sloping pasterns and knock-knees, also have a large impact on a horses ability to stay sound in their career. Many of these young horses who were studied and presented major conformation flaws failed to establish successful athletic careers.
So what does this all mean for someone who is in the market for a horse? The consensus among professionals is that to be competitive in a jumping career conformational flaws such as being over the knee, having little to no heel, and a long back are all things you should avoid when looking for a long term investment; as these conformational flaws yield horses who are likely to have a shortened career. When searching for a horse, you should evaluate shoulder angle, proportions of weight to muscle (if in a routine program), hindquarter muscle, and position of their hips as these can indicate if a horse is naturally inclined to do the job. These traits will make the horses job easier, allowing them to have the best chances of soundness throughout their career.
Check Out My Sources Below:
John Madden Q&A: here
Dan Marks Lecture: here
Wayne McIlwraith Study Summary: here