Why conformation matters
By Jennifer O. Bryant
Reprinted from April 2015 USDF Connection
At the 2013 Adequan/USDF Annual Convention, USEF dressage sport-horse breeding (DSHB) judges Kristi Wysocki and William Solyntjes packed a meeting room for their session on evaluating dressage-horse conformation.
The session was so successful that Wysocki and Solyntjes reteamed at the 2014 convention in Cambridge, MA, for an encore. Also called “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” the 2014 session mined material from the experts’ USDF Sport Horse Seminars to delve deeper into the topics of conformation and movement. Their highly visual presentation contained numerous tips and tools any prospective buyer or breeder can use—and it included a few surprises, as well. We’ll summarize the key points in this article.
The Sport-Horse Triumvirate
There are three major requirements in assessing a horse’s potential as a dressage mount, said Wysocki and Solyntjes: temperament, conformation, and movement. It’s important to note that they list temperament first—because, as anybody who’s trained horses knows, all the talent in the world won’t get you far if the horse isn’t interested in your desired career path, or whose nature makes him incompatible with the intended rider.
In some breeds and disciplines, conformation classes (“halter classes” and the like) are a bit of a beauty contest—assessing a horse’s looks largely for appearance’s sake. DSHB judges take more of a utilitarian approach, aware that, in dressage, function often follows form.
Generally speaking, horse breeds were developed for specific purposes— driving, hauling loads, racing, as easy-to-sit pleasure mounts, and so on. Aside from the Thoroughbred and the Standardbred, purpose-bred mounts for sport were largely nonexistent in the days of working horses and mounted cavalry troops. The advent of horses bred solely for sport gave rise to the breeds known as warmbloods, which were selected for dressage-type movement and jumping ability, among others.
Over time it became clearer to breeders, riders, and judges which types of conformation best lent themselves to the demands of equestrian sport, and the sport-horse breeds and their standards have been refined accordingly. The popularity of dressage has also led some breeders of “nontraditional” dressage breeds to select for conformation and movement conducive to the demands of dressage—a point that Solyntjes and Wysocki emphasized at the conclusion of their presentation, as we’ll discuss later.
As the experts explained, what horse people call “good conformation” really means “built appropriately for the intended use.” Appropriate build not only makes it easier for the horse to do the desired job, but that ease also means less stress on his joints and soft tissues. Therefore, we’d expect a well-conformed racing Quarter Horse to look different from a well-conformed dressage horse.
The way a horse is built affects the way his body is balanced over his four legs. “Why does balance matter? Because the horse moves more efficiently and has a lower risk of injury,” Solyntjes explained.
Some aspects of conformation are universal, with certain flaws spelling a high risk of soundness trouble, regardless of breed or intended discipline. Crooked legs, weak pasterns, club feet, sickle hocks, and other major structural defects are always to be avoided, Wysocki and Solyntjes said, and are penalized harshly in DSHB competition.
The experts’ third criterion, movement, refers to the way a horse uses his entire body when in motion. Although movement trumps conformation in dressage competition—in a ridden dressage test, conformation is not judged—more often than not, good conformation is a predictor of the kind of free, active movement that we like to see in dressage.
“Teach your eye to look at how things are working through the whole body,” Solyntjes advised. A good mover uses his entire body in a loose, supple, swinging way—not unlike a certain legendary sex symbol, which is why Solyntjes refers to “the Marilyn walk” and “the Marilyn trot.”
Conformation Analysis: The Plumb Lines
When you evaluate a horse’s conformation, “Go from a wide-angle lens down to a telephoto lens. Don’t start with a telephoto lens and work your way up,” said Wysocki.
To get that wide-angle view of a horse’s overall build, start by visualizing what Wysocki and Solyntjes call his balance points. Doing so requires drawing some imaginary lines—so, until you develop a practiced eye, you may want to draw the lines on a photograph with a pen and ruler.
These imaginary lines are “used to identify points in the horse’s anatomy, to visualize correct or incorrect conformation,” Wysocki explained. Using photos of various horses of different breeds, she demonstrated the technique.
Natural balance point: This is the point at which a horse’s mass is balanced longitudinally. For dressage, which requires the horse to shift his balance rearward as he collects, a natural balance point located higher and further back is desirable.
To find the natural balance point, start by finding the intersection point of a line representing the horse’s shoulder angle and a line representing his hip angle (it will be somewhere over top of the horse). Draw a vertical line from the intersection point to the ground; the place that it crosses the horse’s body is his natural balance point.
A so-called uphill build—with the horse’s withers higher than his croup—predisposes him to a greater ability to collect. “A line between the point of the hip and the thickest muscling in neck will indicate an uphill or downhill tendency,” Wysocki said.
Pillar of support: This plumb line shows how the horse’s forelegs are positioned beneath his body. An ideal position is more conducive to soundness.
To find a horse’s pillar of support, draw a vertical line corresponding to the naturally occurring groove in the forearm. Ideally, the line should fall in front of the withers and through the rear quarter of the hoof, right behind the fetlock, Wysocki said.
Harmony line: This was one of Solyntjes’ and Wysocki’s newer concepts. As Wysocki explained it, the harmony line is an angle that “should be reflected throughout the horse’s body: the shoulder angle. Depth of body. Stifle to hock. Hock to ground. Elbow to fetlock.”
“The horse’s frame should display harmony and proportions from ears to tail,” she said.
The Fine Points
Rectangular vs. square. Books and articles on equine conformation will tell you that the ideal horse shape is rectangular, not square. But “is it rectangular or is it long?” Wysocki said. For dressage purposes, the ideal rectangular frame is one in which the horse’s body length is about 10 percent greater than his height at the withers, she said.
Long legs. These are a desirable sport-horse attribute because a long-legged horse can cover more ground and extend his stride more easily. The leg length should be greater than the depth of the body.
“The emphasis in dressage was always on the hindquarters, but the front legs play a pretty important role,” Wysocki said. As biomechanics researchers like Dr. Hilary Clayton are discovering, horses do not collect simply by shifting weight to their hindquarters; they also use their front legs to push their forehands up off the ground.
A dressage horse’s front legs should be longer than his hind legs, said Wysocki. “Draw a line from the elbow to the stifle. The elbow should be higher than the stifle.” At the same time, the hock should be higher than the knee, she said.
Head, neck, and shoulders. Wysocki described the ideal poll as fan-shaped. An imaginary perpendicular line drawn from the horse’s shoulder should point toward his poll. “The neck should be set on 90 degrees from the angle of shoulder slope so the horse can carry himself up in front. A horse whose head is too long may tend to curl and come behind the vertical,” she said.
“Neck position is so important,” said Solyntjes. “If the horse can lift its head and neck and front legs, it can compensate for a lot of other things. A horse with an overdeveloped under-neck [the muscles on the underside of the neck] will have a lower balance point. That’s why judges penalize it when we see a bulging under-neck.”
DSHB judges want to see “well-defned withers sloping gradually into the horse’s back,” Wysocki said. “A long, sloping shoulder with a free elbow, and an open angle from the point of shoulder to the elbow.”
Another of the experts’ visuals is what Wysocki called the shoulder pivot point. “The shoulder rotates clockwise around the pivot point. The higher the point is above the hip joint, the more freedom and movement the horse will have in the shoulder.” And unlike the plumb lines, “the pivot point is easiest to see when the horse moves, especially at the trot and canter.”
Back and loin. A long back equals a weak loin, making it difficult for the rider to stabilize and control the horse’s hindquarters, Wysocki said. And the loin is critical because it is the horse’s “energy-transfer station,” she said. As such, the loin should be relatively short and well muscled. And like the shoulder pivot point, the loin is best evaluated in motion, she said.
Hindquarters. Th croup angle should be at least 15 degrees, Wysocki said. The hindquarter angles should form an isosceles triangle, with the ilium side (point of hip to point of buttock) shorter than the femur side (point of buttock to point of stifle).
Angled for Success
Toward the end of their presentation, Solyntjes and Wysocki showed photos and video of two horses competing successfully in upper-level dressage—one of which made it all the way to a continental FEI championships. After the USDF convention audience admired the horses’ lovely movement, balance, and talent for collection, the presenters challenged them to guess the breeds.
Warmbloods? That’s the obvious choice, but wrong. The horses in question were a Belgian cross and a Friesian-Quarter Horse cross. These horses are proof, Wysocki said, that dressage talent can crop up in any breed, especially when the individual is blessed with advantageous conformation that makes the movements come more easily.
“When all the angles are there, the muscles start developing in the right place,” said Solyntjes.
Meet the Experts
Kristi Wysocki, Elbert, CO, is a USEF “S” and dressage sport-horse breeding “R” judge, as well as an FEI 3* dressage and para-equestrian dressage judge. She is the chair of the USDF Sport Horse Committee. William Solyntjes, Hamel, MN, is a USEF “S” and DSHB “R” judge. He is a member of the USDF Sport Horse Committee. Together they have presented the USDF Sport Horse Seminar and have become popular speakers at USDF conventions.