Certainty doesn’t exist in the world of horses; perfection is an elusive goal never attained. The best we can hope for in our pursuit of breeding sport horses is some measure of predictability; so that we can decrease our chances of disaster and come close to the desirable, but not perfect, product.
Historically, in the United States, we have been breeding sport horses in rather simplified and haphazard ways. On the higher, more controlled side of breeding, we breed winners to winners – on the track, over fences, etc. – hoping to pass on the talent. Sometimes it works because the conformation which produced that special talent is passed on in the process, but often it does not.
On the more indiscriminate side, we breed the undesirables; horses that didn’t stay sound in work or were not fit for or successful in competition. We try to “use” this animal another way – by reproducing it. The breed deteriorates because we multiply the weaknesses.
In Europe, the success of their breeding program has been based on very different principles. The best representatives of the breed are used to maintain and improve it, and from the results of this breeding come the competition horses. The sport horse type is bred and from this jumpers and dressage horses are produced, depending on individual talent. Structure, temperament, and movement all play an important part in breeding this type. These qualities vary somewhat from region to region, thus giving each warm blood breed a slightly different look and ability to perform. The breed organizations and their knowledgeable members follow certain directions in the development of their breed, based on the necessity for improving the breed and being competitive in the world market and in the world competition.
I want to investigate the sport horse in general considering three main criteria: structure, movement, and temperament.
All horses have the same skeletal structure; that is the bones are equivalent – from the smallest pony to the draft horse. The difference in appearance of the various types and breeds is a result of the lengths of the respective bones and the angles with which they are joined. The sport horse is bred to be athletic, balanced, and strong. He must be able to carry a rider in the demanding high level dressage, over difficult obstacles, or through rugged terrain (as in the driving or combined event horse). If we had the capability of looking “through” the muscle and flesh to the skeleton, it would be infinitely easier to evaluate a horse, since flesh can mask skeletal faults, but not change them. For example, in the fore-quarter (under a large muscle mass) lies the angulation of the scapula (from the point of the shoulder to the top of the whithers) and the humerus (from the point of the shoulder to the elbow) which determines the movement of the foreleg. We can predict how much the shoulder can raise and the fore leg compress over a fence and the capacity the horse structurally has to perform the elevated, round passage.
The length of the humerus determines to a large extent the length of the steps – the longer bone creating more of a “pendulum effect” of the foreleg and longer steps, both to the front and to the side (as in lateral movements), adding necessary “scope” to the dressage horse as well as the jumper.
The structure of the hind quarters is critical, as it is here that impulsion is created and correct balance maintained. The positioning of the joints (hip, stifle, and hock) and the length of the bones, as well as their angulation, determine the horse’s ability to “compress” the hind leg. This is critical for the dressage horse…this compression of the hind leg in the weight-bearing phase of movement is referred to as “engagement” and is a definitive requirement for the balance and power required for higher level dressage. The bending of these three joints of the hind leg allows the leg to step under the center of gravity which lightens and mobilizes the forehand. Straighter joints (straight hock, stifle set back, shallow, steep hip) are obviously not going to allow this to happen, and while a horse constructed in this way may have great propulsion (as in jumping or running), he will be unable to sustain balance on his hind quarters.
The top line or “bridge” from the poll to the tail is also critical. The impulsion created by the hind leg must be carried through a strong loin and back into the neck. While proportions of the neck, back, and hind quarters are important for balance (i.e. long neck/short croup combination will always be balanced on the forehand because of the forward location of the center of gravity), other aspects are even more critical. The way the neck joins the body and the shape of the neck vertebrae are fundamentally important for the sport horse. If the neck is positioned low, the horse will be restricted in his ability to lift his forehand over a fence or elevate in collection. The “ewe-necked” horse (lower branch of neck long; upper branch short) will not be able to carry impulsion through the neck and lift the forehand to form the round frame needed for work “on the bit” or the good bascule over a fence.
Connections between the part of the topline must be smooth and strong in order to achieve the “bridge” that enables lightness, balance, and power – all necessary requirements for the sport horse.
A less critical part of the horse’s structure is the size and shape of the head. However, a strong poll of adequate length is a necessity for the self-carriage an advanced dressage horse must exhibit. Depth and width of the body is of lesser importance, as long as it does not affect the correctness of the legs (i.e. narrow bodied horses might be more likely to interfere, etc.).
Finally, the correctness of the alignment of the legs and the relative length of the bones must be addressed in order to choose strong, correct legs (not deviating in alignment as they pass through the joints) that will support and move the horse. Bone and feet must be adequate for the size of the horse. Slope and length of pastern determines shock-absorbing qualities which contributes to elasticity with either extreme (long or short) being undesirable. Any unsoundness or fault must be considered, for the structure might predispose toward such unsoundnesses, such as curbs, spavins, navicular, etc.
Agility and power are not possible without good balance; therefore, movement must always be viewed with this fundamental principle in mind. It is not possible to lighten the forehand unless the hind leg can move under the center of gravity and the hip joint bend. Therefore, strides must be ground covering and the hind leg move in a “pendulum” arc, or equally forward and back from a vertical line. Sometimes noted here will be movement where the backward phase of the step will be longer than the forward, and this horse will not be able to carry himself in good balance. Freedom and mobility of the shoulder should be present, with bending of the joints of the foreleg and some lifting of the knee. The “pointed toe and locked knee” movement, often in evidence in certain breeds, is not conducive to good ability in either dressage, jumping, or cross country. Exaggerated lifting of the knee, though, is not desirable because it decreases economy of motion.
Regularity of the walk, trot, and canter must be clearly evident. The walk, having two lateral and two diagonal phases with no suspension must have exactly the same time lapse in between each beat. If not, the pace is produced in which legs on the same side move almost or exactly together, and this is a grave fault. As the steps become long at the walk, this tendency to lose regularity becomes more marked, as the horse protects himself from interference and the foreleg might be lifted too quickly. Freedom of the shoulder and hip joints must be evident, and the best movement at the walk is produced when the horse pushes through the topline without hollowing the back.
At the trot, in addition to clear regularity, we have suspension after each beat. The regular, deliberate beats form “cadence,” a very desirable quality as it denotes regularity and balance. The pendulum swing of the limbs with good articulation of all joints should be evident. One often sees good suspension, but not much bending of the joints, and this becomes a problem in engagement later on when the horse is required to “carry himself.” The hind leg must show the ability to carry the horse forward, not just push. Uphill movement produced by compressing the hind leg is very desirable.
A lack of suspension (if fore quarters and hind quarters are sufficient) usually indicates problems in the topline that make it difficult for the horse to carry the impulsion through his back and neck from his hind quarters.
The canter is perhaps the most important gait in which to assess movement because it indicates most clearly the horse’s innate balance. The walk is always balanced because there is no period of suspension. Likewise, the trot, even though it has suspension, is more stable because the beats are diagonal pairs and are identical. The canter, however, has two phases where only one leg is grounded and the balance is much more precarious. The rotation of the hind leg under the center of gravity following the stride when one foreleg supports the whole body clearly indicates the horse’s ability to carry himself “uphill.” The loin and croup must be able to round or “arch” in this process which provides impulsion and power.
With good structure and movement, we must select our breeding stock with trainability and consistency in mind. The character of the horse, or his desire to perform willingly for the rider, is often undervalued or unknown, and training such animals that lack this willingness is difficult and frustrating. However, if the structure of the animal makes the work we require of him possible, it makes his attitude infinitely better. Requiring the animal to do what is physically very difficult for him is obviously going to elicit more resistance throughout training.
A reasonable, tractable temperament that allows the horse to focus on the rider without undue tension is obviously the most desirable and is especially important for the dressage horse; for everything that he does must be controlled and directed by the rider. Jumpers and event horses can “see” to a certain extent the job they are faced with, and the presence of tension is less of a problem, provided the animal is able to perform willingly. Lazy, dull, and sluggish horses are generally not suitable for sport at the higher levels.
Perfection is never attained, but knowledge of structure, movement, and temperament will allow us to make good decisions in the pursuit of excellence.
READ MORE ABOUT AUTHOR ARLENE RIGDON