Sunday Conformation Series #1: Your Conformation Hit List

L. Williams suggested in my 'Nature vs Nurture' post that this blog should do a few conformation posts, and that sounded like a lot of fun to me!  Developing an eye for conformation makes our favorite activity, staring at horses, into a fun new game of 'I Spy' - who doesn't like that?

Conformation is important because:
1. It will decide whether or not your horse stays sound in the sport you have chosen for him.
2. It will dictate whether or not he can easily physically succeed at the sport you have chosen for him.

Every horse has conformation flaws, without exception.  Recognizing your horse's conformation flaws is important because you need to understand what's going to feel like simple addition and subtraction to your 'student', and what's going to feel like calculus - "I'm never going to get this!"

When you're horse shopping with a goal of buying a competitive athlete, or just idly playing Canter Cutie Bingo, I believe you should start with a "conformation hit list".  This list is going to look different for every sport- in cutting, being built downhill is advantageous, while in Dressage, it makes life very difficult.

Here are the three categories in my conformation hit list:

Jen's Conformation Hit List
Group 1: Wish List (The Green Category)
Remember when you daydreamed about the traits your ideal husband/wife/partner would have, knowing that maybe you wouldn't end up with someone who had all of those traits?  This is that list.  Dream big!  This list should contain conformation traits that would provide an advantage to a horse competing in your sport and anything you really want to see in your future equine partner - knowing your future horse won't have every single one.

This fellow has several green-list qualities of mine, including a nice open, sloping shoulder, hocks nicely balanced and angulated, short cannon bones, good pastern angles, and good angulation in his hind quarters.


Group 2: Things You Can Live With (The Yellow Category)
You might not define this group as explicitly as you do the other two.  This category is comprised of both traits that are neither advantageous nor disadvantageous, and also traits that maybe aren't ideal, but you feel that you can comfortably manage them.

Slightly over at the knee - it would never be on my green list, but if he was otherwise awesome I wouldn't cull for it (in a jumper), so it goes in my "yellow" category.  Behind at the knee, on the other hand, is on my red list for a jumper.


Group 3: Things You Would Cull For (The Red Category)
This should be an explicitly defined group.  What would make you pass over a horse?  What will set a horse up for failure in your chosen sport?  That's this list, and it will be different for everyone.  For example, a couple of things on my 'cull' list are things that increase concussion: small feet and upright pasterns.  Also on my list are things I just don't want to deal with, like poor quality feet.  But on someone else's list, poor quality feet might be in the "Yellow" list because they feel they can manage it, or the horse is otherwise worth it, and that's totally fine!

Small feet and upright pasterns - this is a cull for me as an eventer, but not in Western halter where concussion isn't a factor.
After I've culled for the 'Red List' traits I can't live with, I can then weigh non-conformation factors like brain, temperament, bravery, etc against the Green and Yellow categories.  It's really important to first cull 'red traits' before culling for brain traits.

Say you're choosing between one horse with 2 green traits and 5 yellow traits that is smart, patient, and brave, and a second horse that has 5 green traits and 2 yellow traits but he's crazy.  In this case, you might choose against the better conformed horse to pick the better brain, and since you've already culled everything in your 'Red' category, you know you'll be conformationally okay no matter what you decide.  This saves you a lot of heartache and possible injuries down the road.

I would really like to encourage open discussion on these conformation posts, so feel free to ask questions or call me out or engage in discussions.  I love chatting about conformation!

12 comments:

  1. Great post! One other thing to remember is that chronic pain can cause some "conformational faults." For example, a horse with chronic heel pain will exhibit as over at the knee. The over at the knee fault may not be a deal breaker, but whatever is causing the heel pain might!

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    1. Sure, you're absolutely right, and I would say that that isn't a structural conformational fault at that point, but a lameness presenting as one. There should be more signs than just being OTK, and either you'll decide he's worth fixing or you'll move on to another prospect. Great point!

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  2. What about dynamic conformation?

    While I would agree that red traits should not be compromising points, natural balance and ability can go a long way to offset less than textbook conformation traits.

    I am glad you mentioned the brain, because I also consider this to be a huge factor in weighing in a prospect. A well put together horse who is disinterested or lacks trainability and work ethic is not going to be any fun to work with as a serious partner.

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    1. You are absolutely correct, I should have put something about conformation not always having the effect you think it will on movement. Connor's breeder was a great example of this one year, with two similarly bred babies. Baby 1 made you catch your breath while standing still, and Baby 2 made you catch your breath while he was moving. You'd never think Baby 2 could outmove Baby 1, but he totally did.

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  3. Yay I am soooo excited for this series :D

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    1. Good! It was a really good suggestion, thank you so much! Let me know if there's anything specific you'd like to see.

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  4. It's very personal too--after all that time struggling with my mare, my #1 attribute was a solid mind. I do not have the time and interest to fight through another one like her. I think it would be less of a big deal if I hadn't been through that mess, but I wasn't going to go there again.

    After that, yes, absolutely look at conformation. I spend a lot of time talking with friends about it. I watch it in action at the barn and at shows, and I read books about it at home. Horses have been in work for centuries now, so there is a wealth of information out there and it is accessible. The study is definitely worth it.

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    1. I remember that very clearly, it was so heartbreaking I almost stopped reading your blog. There's no question brain is the most important thing. I think a lot of people don't realize when they're culling, though. Just putting a list of breeds you're looking for into DreamHorse is culling characteristics in your "red" category. I hope Izzy is doing well wherever she is now!

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  5. This is a great post, Jen! I shop rather similarly -- I have my "no way" conformation points, but I also keep in mind that a snapshot is just a snapshot. I want to see it walk. But NUMBER ONE, ALL TIME, MOST IMPORTANT, I believe, for almost everyone is a brain they can work with. It may have all the talent in the world, but if it's batshit crazy and your blood pressure rises 30 points with every ride and you have to take out an extra insurance policy....not worth it. We're supposed to be able to at least smile between vet bills!!!

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    1. You gave me a good laugh with the 'smiling between the vet bills' line! Thank you! Seriously though, you are so right, temperament matters so much. I keep telling my husband he should thank me for not having a crazy horse, but he doesn't understand..

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  6. Great post and I love the way you say CULL IMMEDIATELY if there's anything on the Red List.
    It's so easy to be distracted by a pretty head or a kind eye but a pretty head and a sweet temperament is not going to matter if your potential jumper develops spavins due to wonky hocks.

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    1. Thank you, I can tell we're on the same page on this! I don't question that brain is important, but you're exactly right, if it's sweet and unsound it's doing you as much good as it would if it were crazy and always sound. It really does matter.

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