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A FEW THOUGHTS ON CONFORMATION
A small beginning on an endless subject - I'll add to it now and then

Dealing with "the public" a little, I've noticed that people sometimes try to make decisions about horses, whether to buy or breed, without factoring in good ability to "read" conformation. That puts the focus on peripheral issues, while conformation is the "issue" at the center of everything.

Pedigree and show records don't prove that much about an individual specimen. A superlative pedigree does not make for a superior animal in every case, far from it. Nature always tries to return to an average - in breeding, we struggle constantly against that. The "quality gene" is elusive quarry, and while regal pedigrees are an interesting feature, only the animal itself counts in actual use. Dudley Moore and Richard Simmonds undoubtedly have kings and conquerors somewhere in their pedigrees - to say no more.

As to show records, unless it involved some spectacular performances, it only proves that an adequate animal somehow made it past the usual gauntlet of human issues - bad strategies, bad handling, financial constraints, etcetera.

Since
the middle 80's many animals have sold cheap, often to new players, who bought, bred, and assessed quality on little more than "image" - pedigree and presentation. That will be significant in marketability, but that animal's brains and the mechanical details of its construction are the only "real" facts - the rest is of subjective value.

Latest trends and peculiar styles usually don't last - good horses and good horsemanship are generally the same as they always have been. Here are a few animals that made quite a sensation in their day - and they still do.

King P-234

Buckskin Joe

Three Bars

Question Mark Peppy San Doc O'Lena

The truly good hands who train western have always had more in common with basic dressage than anything like rodeo. Like the animals themselves, the base-line rarely changes much, while "clever" variations come and (thankfully) go. For me, it's a tossup between Peppy San and Doc O'Lena. Peppy San may be the better horse, really, but Doc O'Lena has a kind of "eye-appeal"...

We aren't out at the events much anymore, but had noticed an increase in winning done by some very little, slightly odd-looking animals. This comes up more often in conversation lately, and has been the subject of a few articles. Good.


But, how do we pick a likely winner, one with a good chance of remaining sound, one that will stand up to close inspection? For a start, listen to the people who often do.

On the right is a snippet from an article that appeared in the Southwestern Horseman, October 1994. In it, Don Dodge reflects on things in general, horses he has known, and so on. He has sufficient know-how to make himself one of the best, and he is one of the few who will tell the blunt truth. Many never mention negatives because some residents of fantasy land show really unpleasant reactions if anything threatens the game of make-believe. At the least they will reject anyone who challenges the "Gospel" according to Legends, volume 1, and maybe Disney, too. This will cost a trainer market share. Dodge doesn't cater much to those idiots. Extract from article by Sally Harrison, entitled Diamond in the Rough.


And here is one from "The Working Lines" by Larry Thornton, which appeared in the FQHJ. Matlock Rose made this comment in relation to Peppy San, and it speaks volumes.


And, this may be the one thing of real importance that I can offer on the subject. Pay *close* attention to what guys like that are really saying. Pick up on the fullest meaning in their remarks.

In the second sentence, Matlock Rose alludes to six of the things needed for a "safe-bet" contender. Length of hip, configuration of rear end, chest, shoulders, legs, and back. In the first sentence, he has touched directly on how the rear end unites with the body - "strong over the loin". Key details that can make all the difference. In conversation, these people often reveal the little distinctions and delineations of understanding that made it possible for them to get where they are. While the rest of us invest in the kind of understanding that keeps us where *we* are. Personally, I never aced it like those guys, and don't plan to - it requires *way* too much time and effort. Well, okay... but these options exist - we *choose* to pay the dues, or choose not to.


There are a few selections below from an article called "The Balled of Don Dodge" by Jim Jennings, which appeared in the Quarter Horse Journal, May 1979. There is enough good information in the article (well, it suits my opinions, anyway) that I may someday contact them in hopes of getting permission to present the entire thing here. (The quotes are Don Dodge speaking.)
"Now, when I'm looking at a prospect, the first thing I want to know is his breeding. I want as much successful, proven cow horse blood as I can get. Then, I look at the horse and try to determine his athletic ability. And while I'm looking at his athletic ability, I'm looking at his conformation to see if he is of the conformation that lends itself to athletic ability, because the two are tied very closely together."

"There are certain things, conformation wise, that are a must. If a horse is going to be a good performance horse, basically, a cutting horse or work in a reined cow horse class with cattle involved, he must have a number of things."

"Not necessarily in order of importance, but he must have a long hip, he must have good withers and they must be set well back with a good slope
of shoulder, and he must be forked up well in front. Then I'd like a relatively thin neck in proportion to the rest of his body, with it carried somewhat out in front of him and coming out at a natural angle, rather than too high."

"Naturally, it goes without saying that you like a horse with good feet, you like a short cannon bone and you like for his hocks to not be too high off the ground."

"And you want him to travel good and straight. But if you ask for all these things you would probably never buy one, because there are not very many who have them all."

"So you have to sacrifice some things, but the things I don't want to sacrifice are the first ones I mentioned."


Some of the details:

The attendant benefits and liabilities of specific physical traits may be subject to some debate, but many things are clear enough.
Personally, I am content to be acquainted with what "good" is, without letting it rule my life - BUT - I am not staking my hopes and dreams and financial future on half a point's difference in the show ring.



This picture helps make a point. (Apart from one about photography - wrong focal length, wrong viewing angles, dopey facial expression, and so on.) Letting go of that, notice the way his legs tie in on the inside under his chest. Although the "V" is narrowed by his angle to the camera, it shows an animal that "ties in deep", as the saying goes. It is an example of  leverage, mechanical advantage, as was discussed in elementary school, and as we have understood since remote antiquity. [My thanks to the state for bringing me up to speed there - how *would* I cope without public education?] We and our livestock are all equipped with the sort of levers that offer the least mechanical advantage. But - even with these, approximated below right, some can apply force more effectively than others, depending on where the muscles are "tied in".


The illustration on the right is offered to clarify what I am going on about - I don't intend to insult with something so elementary. Greater mechanical advantage is had when exerting force along line "A", less along line "B" - simple leverage. An overly simplistic but clear demonstration of *why* it really matters where the muscles "tie in", the length ratios of one bone to another, and so forth. The principle applies to any athlete in a very real way, horse or human, and whether the focus is athleticism or sound construction, leverage is the principle thing. Example - low hocks equal better leverage - power delivery.

These mechanical things key into a broader matter too. Goods and services, including horse-related, are frequently presented, and sometimes received, on the basis of "image" and superlatives, and an appeal to hopes and dreams, rather than objective understanding and presentation of the actual merits, for better or worse.



Overworking physical inadequacies will at best only cost the owner almost everything invested in the effort and cause the animal needless hardship. At worst, that and cripple the animal mentally and/or physically, and present a *huge* dollar loss. Any number of people will lead you down that path, many with genuine good intentions. Of a careless sort.


Pay special attention to rear ends. This isn't just a "guy thing" - with horses, unless you intend to eat them, it is not just a question of how much beef happens to be there. The length ratio of one lever (bone) relative to another, the angles individually and in relation to one another, (all the way to the ground) where and how force can be applied to those levers are all parts of the mechanical equation that dictates what kind of performance is possible. There are usually significant little differences between the skeleton and muscling of a halter horse and that of a winning performance horse. No question that the halter horse has power and impressive looks, but it isn't often as versatile an athlete. The details of construction are the largest factor, although there is also mental aptitude. While some people have the ability to analyze the mechanical things in detail, I don't, and can only define it as a "look". There is a difference - I can see it, but can't articulate it. I can tell you that if you truly wish to have something winning in "the big time", then you had better learn precisely what those differences are. And a few dozen other things, from the spectrum of human issues down to horseshoe nails, in equal detail. I think the best bet is to attend the major league shows and examine the best until the eye becomes educated - what details do most of them have in common? 


How the shoulder opens up or limits the length of stride, and "reach" in general, are among the things that will dramatically affect the performance and feel. Of course the more upright the shoulder, usually, the more upright the pasturn. A choppy, jolting gait, and a real limit on top speed. On harder surfaces the joints are pounded all the way up the leg, and back down it - the animal's weight comes down hard on every part, and the propulsive forces also hit harder.

The limit that build imposes on top speed can be critical. There was an amusing story going around about a son of Poco Tivio who was an awesome cutting horse. It was decided that he would prove his versatility in a prominent stock horse event, and it was his singular misfortune to draw a long-coupled cow that would look at home on the track. The image of little Poco churning furiously along in hopeless pursuit of his fleet quarry provided the community entertainment for awhile, and he kept to the short end of the arena after that.



Matters of basic conformational soundness are dealt with by O. R. Adams (DVM) in his book "Lameness in Horses" better than I could hope to. As old as it is, it is so excellent that it remains a must read for anyone involved with horses. (It can be found for sale online, and there is quite a spread on prices, so shop around.) No horse is perfect, but we need to know what we are getting, what can reasonably be asked of it, and how to best manage that conformation for maximum service life. 


None of the pasterns here are intended to be anatomically accurate representations, they just illustrate a principle. For the sake of discussion let's say that pastern "A" is "normal", or close enough. It is desirable that a horse have "good short pasterns", but too short is a serious fault. I don't presume to tell you where that difference lies, here again, in my eye, it just "looks right", or not. Length and angle not only determine much about characteristics of travel, but are critical in regard to soundness.

Pastern "B" is short and upright, and illustrates a fault sometimes found in quarter horses, particularly in some older bloodlines. This greatly increases concussion, there being almost no "spring" in it, it is conformation prone to osselets, ringbone, and navicular.

The long upright pastern is a fault more common in Thoroughbreds and racing quarters - I may post a picture of Leo which underlines that point. This fetlock also lacks shock absorption, and is a candidate for arthritic and navicular problems. Be sure not to trim the heel down too far, as the resulting break in angle increases likelihood of trouble with the navicular. 

Long and low equals likely damage to flexor tendons, sesamoids, and suspensory ligament. This is far short of comprehensive treatment of pasterns, and I'll do more with it someday.

   

At right - borrowed from an article by Marvin Beeman DVM, the QHJ, Dec. 1972. An excessively thick neck is more than just cosmetic. Not only a factor in suppleness, balance, and agility, but the neck just behind the head  must be able to flex without excess "beef" restricting the free flow of blood and air.
Some of the reasoning in that article seemed a little muddy, but I certainly agree with this bit, and he also brought up a point which I had not considered at all - that adequate width of the jaw is also a factor in this matter. 


On that subject, the mare below may not be the "halter ideal", but has enough refinement there that there is no "constriction" or rigidity whatsoever. The gelding on the right would occasionally have a little fit of temper (usually tuning up on trail obstacles, which he considered tedious) and when pulling his nose back and under to smother the revolt his breathing would soon become short, harsh and loud. These two also demonstrate something about the shoulder. This mare was fast - enough reach for speed, enough behind to drive it, enough suspension to feel good under you, and to remain sound. By the time he was 15 or 16, Grimy (the gelding) had developed side bone, ring bone, stiff knees, a little trouble with the stifle, and God only knows what else. It is easy to see the why behind these things, when looking at their construction side by side.


Photo Docs Cassandra taken at 22 or 23 years. She was by Doc Bar, and out of Mimi Warner x Lucky Blanton   Me - on Grimey, who was maybe 9 or ten at the time.
Unflattering snapshot taken at 22, maybe 23 years. NCHA Top Ten Open, and countless miles on her, even so, she remained 100% sound her whole life.  

I can't find a picture that includes his feet. Take my word for it - the pasturns were just as upright as the build above would suggest.



Does the animal have sufficient space in the rib cage? Even a deep but "slab-sided" configuration imposes some limit on performance. 

There is a fine line between a powerful animal and one that is overbuilt - muscle bound, as the saying goes.

Withers are a functional plus - we have bought and sold some that had a dimple instead, and I recommend that you saddle that sort with super glue. Others comment that this is also a factor in physical capability, although I have no opinion to offer either way on that. I imagine that it has to do with "lever ratios" and where the muscles are attached.

 
- Breeding horses -
This should be expanded on, as the subject of a separate page, but for now...

It is not responsible to offer assurances of what any given toss of the genetic dice will produce. If a person "needs" to know exactly what they will get, then they should buy an adult horse. Period.

When breeding, it's a lot safer to say only that the best bet is to breed good horses to good horses, for as many generations as possible. This may serve to screen the garbage out of gene pool - but - even then, not every combination is ideal by any means. While I believe that the entire family tree of any given animal is an important aid in guessing the likely quality outcomes of breeding, there are too many variables, and too many "bad crosses" out there to safely make predictions.

Full brothers and sisters can be very different, either in person, or as producers. Doc's Malbec, below left, and Doc's Acey Duecy, below right, are both by Doc Bar and out of Isla Tivio. However different in type, both are quality animals, bred from quality animals, and they reflect that, and reflect types that appear in their family background. More Tivio/King on the left, more Doc Bar/Lightening Bar on the right.




Anyway, we should have a much better understanding of genetics in the next ten years or so, and maybe even generate some data on what actually makes a "good cross" versus a bad one.

I suspect that unusually prepotent studs produce sperm which on average have an uncommonly "fat" midsection - this, we are told, conveys mitochondrial DNA from the sire into the egg.
Yes, we are constantly told otherwise, but I guess that just means we shouldn't believe everything we see on TV. (Or read in "Time/Newsweek".) The Eve theory has been revised in an effort to make it fit growing evidence to the contrary, now the 7 Eves theory, in an effort to support a questionable assumption. A page on the subject by the good people at Murdoch U offered a photo and links to fascinating discussion, but it is no longer available, at least not at the original address.

It is interesting to consider that King and Doc Bar both had full brothers, whose existence is rarely mentioned. So many questions arise that I hesitate to form any opinion at all. Were they nearly equal in quality? Did they also have an opportunity to sire foals out of really good mares? If so, were the babies at all comparable to those sired by the famous siblings?

Volumes could be - and have been - written on the subject of selecting horses, and in the future I will devote more time to this page. Meanwhile, there are plenty of really nice animals out there - compare them in careful detail. I'll close on the point where I started - don't be carried away by paper or presentation, even some conformational problems can be managed quite successfully. The animal that gives you a thrill, that "clicks" with you - that is the one to have and use.



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