Thursday, February 23, 2012

Conformation - Let's All Get Paranoid!

Sorry about the title. I didn't want anybody to think this was yet another blog post about the rights and wrongs of how our horses are put together. There are puh-lenty of those available.

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.


Judi said...

There aren't many "perfect" horses, and how many of us can afford them?

There are good horses and horses that are good enough, though. I'm with you. As long as there is nothing extremely wrong, the horse is worth a chance--because it is what is between the ears that usually counts the most.

Author of "Trail Training for the Horse and Rider" and "Trail Horse Adventures and Advice"

Anonymous said...

I have a horse with long-g-g-g- withers giving him a short back. Saddle fit has been interesting what other problems can this cause?

Stasha said...

I love this post. Long, long ago when I first started reading the Fugly blog I would look at my then unbroken 2 year old and get that nervous feeling in the pit of my stomach. I bought him because I loved the way he moved - big trot, floaty canter, just big, beautiful movements. My knowledge of confirmation was "pretty good" from the knees down, but my eyes were opened by reading all of the 'pleasant' fug comments on confirmation posts. Suddenly I could see his straight shoulder, his long back, his slight ewe neck and I thought on all the terrible things that people were saying about those faults and I panicked on the inside. You're right, though. Conformation does not make the horse. I'm very happy with my boys, faults and all!

SweetPea said...

Isn't it funny what we learn as we grow older? Flash is my *heart* horse and I love him with everything I have. He and I have gone thousands of miles together and have done everything I ever wanted to try.

That being said... he is an Arab that has crappy feet, no heels, low-slung pasterns, slightly cow-hocked, very narrow through the chest and rear, no butt, straight shoulder, slightly ewe-necked and has a head that is probably too big for his 14.1HH frame.

But he will go mile after mile at an easy trot on a loose rein and has never come up unsound. He is my version of "mort".

And I will love him until the day he dies.

horsegenes said...

I think I still have my 4-H handbook! Loved that thing.

I did some apprentice judging in the day and learned to look at horse backwards. I still look for faults first then look for what is positive.

I love the look of a very well put together horse and am kind of a horse snob when it comes to poor conformation. But I do agree with mugs - even horses with some major conformation flaws can be extremely talanted. And today - I would take a horse with heart and brains over perfect conformation every time. Great post.

SnarkyRider said...

Hells yeah! The natural athletic ability of an individual horse and their *desire* can overcome a number of conformational "faults". There are definitely some red flags and insurmountable obstacles. And a lot of people misjudge - ie. think the horse has cow hocks when, in fact, it doesn't.

maryka said...

I bought my present steed 16yrs ago,took one look at him & I was determined to have him.He's a pedigree Highland Pony, bred in the purple.His conformation is not perfect but is still good enough to be in the first 4 every time shown.Sadly his temperament has always stopped us from doing as well as he should at dressage.He's the worlds most moody so & so ( think premenstrual to the extreme ).Why have I still got him all theses years after you ask? He was bought to break school & sell on but as he's prone to being a first class pain in the arse he's unlikely to find another fool & he's my responsibility for the rest of his moody grumpy life. On a good day he's awesome for a little pony(13.3 1/2hh )& if I can get in his head he can really move.
I must have done something really bad in a past life to deserve him but you know stubborn & stroppy as he is he's still teaching me loads & has his good points,for a start he's really really good in traffic,will pass a combine on our narrow country lanes without turning a hair. Mind you he can be a damn pain about passing pink flowers & has been known to spin,dropping his shoulder as he goes,& gallop off .So I would say no conformation isn't the be all & end all.

FD said...

Mmmm, conformation, one of the many things no two horse people are likely to agree on!

My take on conformation is to separate it into functional, useful and bonus, according to what you want the horse to do.
Functional, (applies to anything I want the horse for) evaluating the extent to which the horse is balanced overall and moves straight - I like to see hooves land/push off with as minimal a degree of rotation as possible. A horse can have quite odd looking legs/feet but still have quite straight efficient movement through its stride.

Useful are your things like long/short pastern, jumper's butt, ewe necks, shoulder freedom etc. Their importance is very context dependent. I also place cow hocks and dishing into this category.

And then there's bonus; girth depth, clean throatlatch, pretty heads.

Heidi the Hick said...

I don't think I'm any good at judging conformation.

I maybe shouldn't admit that on the internet just in case I get a job judging schooling shows....

All I know is, some horses are good at a certain job and some aren't. They way they're put together has a lot to do with it.

Anonymous said...

Am currently horseless and looking - not breed specific. Horse must be good minded enough though to not accidently kill non-horsey husband if he feels moved to interact with the beast. There are a boat load of horses out there who need a amazing number of them are of modern show pleasure breeding. An appalling number of them have really, really high hocks, some of which rotate as the horse moves. A bunch have really narrow fronts and upright shoulders. I don't want to show, I just want a pleasure horse - arrgh. AND I AM NOT BEING PICKY !!! Again just using basic 4H rules....

Anonymous said...

Yet another excellent post. While there are certain things about conformation that actually go to the truth of soundness, horses like Mort and the old rope horse I rode as a kid really make me wonder how many things matter and how many are just weird human ideas about what's pretty. I know that horses, when winnowed by nature, seem to revert pretty fast to, well, Mongolian ponies. Of course, there's a difference between what works for being a horse and what works for carrying a rider, but it would be interesting to see an unbiased study of which points were actually related to long-term soundness.

As for my own absolute no's, I will never, never, never own another mutton-withered horse. The pig mare has her points, but it's awful trying to keep a saddle on her. I swear, my next mount is going to be one with a shark fin. I know it requires worlds of padding, but at least the blasted saddle stays where you put it.

Joyce Reynolds-Ward said...

I admit, one of the big things for me is a good-sized heart girth. I hate seeing a base-narrow horse. It's a bias my first horse mentor pounded into me--forelegs need to be at least one hand's width apart, if not 1 1/2 or 2. Mocha comes close to 2.

Sloping shoulder is my other big thing. I purely don't like riding straight-shouldered horses.

Otherwise, short back, relatively square body (back and legs proportionate). Pasterns neither too sloping or too straight.

Mocha's got very low-set hocks and she's definitely cow-hocked. It contributes to her need for hock injections, but damn, it also gives her some nice stops and nice turns.

MichelleL said...

Loved the line about missing out on good horses if it was just about conformation.

My "Mutts" were healthier then my "pure" breds, irregardless of conformation "flaws".

Love to know the line breeding of my current Money Pit. Just by how defective he is I am guessing he is "Royally Bred"

Glad I didn't miss out on him though

nagonmom said...

This reminds me of something my daughter said. We were at a National Arab show in the crowd. After each class, the winner's entire crew, family, hangers-on would travel across the arena for the championship photo op. Took forever. And watching the parade of humans, waddling, limping, mincing, walking, jogging the distance to and from the photo session, daughter complained "We don't need to see the conformational flaws in the people. They should do this outside the ring."
With gentle humor, I wonder how our horses would blog about the optimal rider conformation. (Which could be different from optimal owner/feeder/groom.)If we give ourselves a conformational "pass", I think being less rigid with our equines would be only fair.

JenInMN said...

Great post! I am fairly new to the horse world, but when I began my foray my trainer recommended Dr. Deb Bennett's early books. Your post reminds me of those. In my (relatively newly formed) opinion, conformation is more about seeing what a horse is best suited to than nit-picking every fault. There is no such thing as the absolutely perfectly built horse. Someone, somewhere, will find a fault with any horse.

Through my studies on horseback, I have learned that the #1 most important thing I want in a horse has much less to do with its bodily build and a whole lot to do with its mind and attitude. Save for cases of a conformation fault (or faults) that creates severe and chronic lameness, a good brain with somewhat poor conformation will get you much further than great conformation paired with a flighty brain with no work ethic.

Francis said...

Never fail to learn something here.. today about myself. Horsegenes said I did some apprentice judging in the day and learned to look at horse backwards. I still look for faults first then look for what is positive. and slam, like a ton of bricks it hits me..

I judged all my life, 4-H, College and beyond.. judged horses, livestock, meats, chickens.. you name it.. and it becomes a mindset! I LOOK for the faults before I look at the package! I am always cautioning and poopooing folks who get hung up on a pretty color and can't look past it to see the horrible conformation.. well, I am just the opposite.. I can't look past a bad front end to see the total package.. case in point, I married a man with a great speed racking horse.. Standardbred.. toughest horse I have ever ridden mentally (in a good way) but I pick him apart .. he runs down hill (which does hurt my back) but lordy, when he is engaged, he flattens out and is the most comfortable ride ever.. I gotta get over this!! Let it go! Enjoy each horse for the good in the package!!

Ah.. never stop learning :)

scsarah said...

I'm not geat at discussing conformation. I can't claim to know about angles of shoulders etc. In fact I feel so ill-equipped and non-intelligent when I read posts on conformation.

I do know I like a horse that looks balanced and it looks look one horse and not two or three put together.

The eyes for me can overcome most small defects. Those windows to the soul ......

The one defect a sweet, calm, kind, intelligent eye cannot overcome are two front legs coming out of one hole in the chest. To me seeing that is equivalent to hearing nails on a chalk board.

I also like well sprung ribs, a deep heart girth, clean legs......but those eyes that can melt you.......*sighs*.....I'm a sucker.

luvredponies said...

I had an Arab as a kid who was pretty cow hocked, but he was tireless! I sold him to a lady who used him as an endurance horse, and took him to a win at a 50 miler within a week after buying him. I have a super sweet QH gelding that can climb a mountain with the best of them as is super fast on the turnaround, but he toes out a bit. There are some leg issues I would stay away from just because of long term soundness issues, but I can live with less than ideal conformation if the horse has a good mind.

Becky said...

I will never be a good judge of conformation.

I try and I try.... but I always have a bad habit of slipping out of analytical mode into "Look! A horsie! Hi, horsie!" mode.

scsarah said...

I laughed over your comment, Becky.....and still am chuckling.

My eyes gloss over when people start drawing trapezoids,vertex angles, and alternate exterior angles (yes! I just looked all that crap up!), etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

As you can tell, I did NOT do well in high school geometry class which was over a 100 years ago. I certainly did NOT retain any of it.

Give me balance and a pretty horsey......*grins*

Valerie said...

Thankyou :) My arab/saddle bred cross is kind of funny looking when you look at her. She has what most would call a ewe neck (even though I know the muscling part can be fixed by correct work) she has a longer back and her butt looks like it belongs to a different horse. But that horse has an AMAZING trot and canter that is effortless. She can carry a large rider for 10 miles easy. She is sound and has a cute head. Will she ever when a conformation contest? no, but she is my back up endurance horse!

Anonymous said...

My Thoroughbred mare has perfect legs, it was the first thing I noticed when I first went to try her out before purchasing. Great feet, she's shod with corks in the summer for added traction (a lot of our showing is on grass) but she is equally happy and comfortable barefoot. In the two years I've owned her she tore a suspensory, bruised her ankle, popped a splint, developed a blind splint in the other leg and is on her way for emergency x rays tomorrow morning after walking out of her stall tonight on 3 legs. So let it be known that perfect conformation does not guarantee soundess! A horse with enough common sense not to run itself silly in the field will probably be comfortable much longer than my harebrained horse. And no, I don't do much jumping or overwork her. She receives regular vet and farrier care, I am paranoid about leg protection, fitness, safe turnout and the works. She's just one of those kids who would be better of living in a room with padded walls, or a giant plastic bubble!

Jen said...

I remember when my first horse hopped off the trailer (he was a free lease at the time but eventually became MY horse). He was 17hh, ribby and his head/neck conformation most resembled a furry shoebox attached to a toothpick. He was 5, nearly 6 at the time. Now at 11, I often get asked what type of warmblood he is. He's filled out and reasonably attractive, but I loved him even when he was homely as heck. Pretty is as pretty does. I wouldn't trade him for a million dollars.

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