Selecting a Sport Horse Prospect-Conformation
by Suzon Murray
Many will argue that a horse who is talented as a show horse could not possibly be something a dressage person would want and vice versa. While I think there are young horses who obviously are not suited for one or the other, there are just as many who could excel at either. So the next time you get a call from one of those “crazy sport horse people” and all you have for sale are show horse prospects, don’t turn them away by telling them that you don’t think you have anything suitable. Instead, take some time now to learn about what these people are looking for, you may be surprised how your stock stacks up in the world of sport horse prospects.
Like show horses, there are individual sport horses who excel at their profession with imperfect, even inappropriate conformation. However, when people are looking for young horses, good conformation is likely to be the first thing on their list. So what are these people looking for?
As an overall picture, the sport horse crowd desires balance. Stand your horse up square (not parked out) and draw an imaginary square around his body as shown. You should see a horse who is of equal proportions between the length of the hip, the length of the back and the depth of the shoulder. Also, the depth of the body should be only slightly shorter than the overall length of the front leg. When measuring across the level topline, the horse’s withers should be level with or slightly higher than his croup. A horse that is lower in the front end will have more trouble elevating the forehand. Behind, there should be a straight line from the point of the hip to the hock and down the back of the canon. The horse should not tend to stand camped out.
One place many show ASB’s fall short (or rather long) is in the length of the back. Long backs seem to be in style these days. For a show horse, this is not such a bad fault. The show horse drops the back to achieve his up-headed outline, and a long back is actually easier to achieve this position with. However, by the same token long-backed show horses sometimes are more prone to being broken in the middle at the trot.
In the sport horse, a long back is more of a deficit. The long back is weaker and therefore more difficult to round. The horse will be more prone to back soreness and have difficulty in collection, where he is asked to transfer more of his weight to his hind quarters to free the forehand (by lifting his forehand with his back). That does not mean a long-back can not compete. Certainly, Gifted, one of the great stars of the dressage ring, did it all with a long back. However, his brilliance was rather high maintenance because of his physique. When searching for that perfect young prospect, people will be more inclined to shy away from less proportionate horses.
While looking at the back, be sure to include the length of loin in the picture. A horse that is long in the back but has a short loin will have less trouble than a horse with a long weak loin. Look at the back just in front of the croup. Is the back slightly concave or slightly convex? The degree of concavity is equal to the degree of weakness in the back. You don’t want a roach back, but a nice smooth, slightly upward curve.
Perhaps more important is length of hip. A long hip is imperative to the sport horse. If he goes over fences, he will use the strength in his hind end to thrust. If he does dressage, he will need the length of hip to more easily tip his pelvis and place his hind legs beneath him for more carrying power. Don’t be fooled by a horse who looks proportionate but really combines a long back and a short hip.
Next, let’s look at angles, starting with the hip. Draw an imaginary triangle on your horse’s hip.
One point should touch the point of the hip, one should touch the point of the buttock, and the third should touch the stifle. The sides of the triangle should be fairly equal. The angle running from the point of the hip to the buttock should not be short or too flat. This conformation will not harm the show horse who is asked to flatten his hip, but it makes the sport horse’s job much more difficult. The triangle should also tip in such a way that the point at the stifle should be well forward. A deep stifle is supremely important to the ability to step under the body and carry weight. Combined with this hip should be a nice long gaskin ending in a well-angled hock.
The shoulder should be long and well laid back, combined with a relatively short humorous. The angle between the shoulder and the humorous should be fairly open, allowing for greater swing in the stride. As you look at the shoulder, draw a line straight up from the elbow. It should cross well in front of the withers. An elbow which is farther back inhibits the leg from being throw out in front of the body. The ASB is often strong in shoulder quality.
Not so much a measurement of angle as length, let’s look at the head and neck. Proportionately, the neck should be about 1.5 times the length of the head. A neck that is too short or too long will interfere with the balance of the horse. Some modern breeders of Saddlebreds have fallen into the trap of breeding for an extreme neck. This in itself is not a sin, but most often to balance out his swan neck, a horse will compliment it with a long back. The two characteristics seem to breed hand in hand. A breeder may be extremely proud of a young horse’s neck, but a sport horse customer will see only that his back goes on forever. If your babies are of more conservative proportions they will stand a better chance outside of the show horse market.
Of course, your client will be looking for legs which are straight and clean. The horse should travel with his legs swinging in a straight and true path with his hind legs following the front. Winging and paddling, while seen in the dressage ring, are still not something a buyer will be thrilled about since they often foretell of unbalanced stress on the leg when it is loaded in the higher level work.
Other things to note: Length of bottom line in relation to the length of the back. Remember this rule: short on top, long below. A short back is easier to support with the abdominal muscles of a long underline. Also look for a nice upward arch to the neck. You will see the sport horses stood up with their necks stretch forward. This should not deceive you into thinking that their necks are set on lower than a show horse’s. The neck should arch high out of the shoulder. But, there should not be heavy muscling on the underside of the neck. The horse should not have tendency to be stiff in the bottom of his neck, but rather arch strongly out over a soft throat. Another important point is that the horse should be built uphill, which is why a prospective buyer will want to see a horse standing square, not parked out. The withers should be level with the highest point of the croup, or more ideally, even higher than that point. A horse that is rump high will have a much harder time engaging its hindquarters.