October 6, 2013

Sunday Conformation Series #2: How We Got Here and Why It Matters

I know, you are all excited to delve into conformation photos and angle analyses.  Me too!  But before we do that, we need a frame of reference for understanding how we got where we are today, conformationally, and why that's important.

Back in the days of horse-powered transportation and farming, soundness really mattered.  Functional conformation is sound conformation when a horse is working for a living, and just like you wouldn't buy a car  model that you knew was prone to engine failures, you wouldn't breed a to stallion that was prone to soundness problems when you were breeding your next car/tractor equivalent.  I'm not saying there weren't unsound animals back then, but unsound animals were selected against on principle.

Now that horses are luxury animals bred for sport and play and appealing to judges, things are different.  For example, take the Quarter Horse, a breed that has undergone dramatic changes in the last fifty or sixty years.  (Disclaimer: I like Quarter Horses.  I'm using them because they're a very visible example of what I'm trying to illustrate, and because we discussed this particular phenomenon extensively in college.)

Here's Royal King, an influential Quarter Horse sire born in 1943:

Royal King
Check out this sweet video from 1943 of Royal King cutting a cow (sorry for the Italian slides in there - Italy LOVES American Quarter Horses - but the footage is very cool.):

Royal King was 14.3hh, compact, solid, good bone, and was slightly downhill with a nice hind end, allowing him to stay low, sit and chase a cow.

Fast forward a few decades.  Taller Quarter Horses become very fashionable as different sports like Western Pleasure gain in popularity.  People start selecting for taller Quarter Horses.  But how do you add height to a historically short breed?

You breed the angles out of them.  If you were only looking at height - single-trait focused breeding - you breed for height and ignore everything else, so when a horse comes out slightly taller than his parents because his hind legs are straighter, it's a success.  Then because a single stallion can influence a whole breed so heavily, that one trait can spread like wildfire if the judges decide they like it, and become magnified in the breed over time.

The horse above wouldn't stay sound enough to do daily ranch work and wasn't bred for that!  His breeder didn't intend for it - this is an important point.  But he might be just what a Western Pleasure rider or halter handler is looking for.

Pick any breed and you can see evidence of single-trait focused breeding based on show-ring influences - not in every breeder's herd, of course, but generally speaking.  Thoroughbreds: speed at the age of 3, hang the soundness/foot quality.  Welsh Cobs: big trot, hang the back conformation.  Arabians: super dished face, hang the ability to breathe.  Paint horses: color, hang the everything else.  Breeding for color can get you in a lot of trouble if you're not careful.

As you look at horses with the intention of learning more about conformation, keep those questions in the back of your mind: Why was this horse bred?  What was he bred to do?  What traits were desirable to his breeder?  What show-ring forces might have influenced the breeding decision?  Sometimes the answers to those questions are simple, and sometimes they are very complex, but they all have an effect on why a horse is formed the way he is - you can't look at the individual without also looking at the big picture.


  1. Nice explanation of the terrible legs we see in the QH world.

  2. Loved this post! Now thinking about my own pony and the "whys" of his conformation. GRP's are kind of a mashup of a lot of different horses and ponies, but the end result needs to be able to PERFORM in jumping & dressage, so they are generally really balanced little horses. Looking forward to more conformation goodness. :)

  3. Ive got 2 quarter horses. One that I've had for 13 years and the other for 3. Ace(the one I've had the longest) is 17 now. He's the 'old school' type QH. He was trained as a roping horse/working cow horse. The kind that will just sit and watch cows in his free time. He's had 1 issue with his feet in the 13 years I've had him and it was when we moved pastures. He's over 15 hh but I'm not sure what exactly. Dante, the younger one turned 3 this year and is pushing 16hh. He's the 'newer sporty' type of QH. While he's beautiful, his legs are straighter and he has more of a thoroughbred with a giant butt look to him. He can fly in straights and curves but he is unable to out maneuver the old man because of his hocks and pasterns. Give me the old bulldog quarter horses anyday