|A FEW THOUGHTS ON
A small beginning on an endless subject - I'll add to it now
|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
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.
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
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.
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.
|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
|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."
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.
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".
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
| 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.
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
|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.
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
|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.
|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
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
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
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.