Conformation Of The Racehorse (1)
On the Flat, an understanding of a horse’s conformation – the way its body is put together – is especially
useful when assessing two year olds, either early in the season when there’s little public form to go on, or
later on, when they’re trying a longer trip. Breeding is obviously the most important factor when deciding
whether a horse will be suited by a certain distance, but a horse’s physical make-up also provides clues,
since certain body shapes are more indicative of sprinters, and others of stayers.
Likewise, large fields of three year old maidens can be a nightmare to assess on the form book alone, but
if you can recognise which of the horses are too backward in condition to do themselves justice, or are likely
to be unsuited by the prevailing ground conditions or the distance of the race, you can often put a line
through half of the runners.
Both over jumps and on the Flat, the size, strength and scope of a horse will directly impact on its
ability to carry weight, whilst the angulation of the shoulders can indicate a preference for firm of soft
When assessing a horse’s conformation I look at the head and neck; the shoulders; the back, flanks and
loins; the hindquarters and the limbs. In this month’s blog we’ll look in detail at the horse’s head, as
this can give clues to its temperament as well as to its racing ability. The head and neck of a racehorse
act like a pendulum, counterbalancing the propulsive power of the hindquarters. So the head needs to be in
proportion to the rest of the body. If it’s large and heavy, and set on a weak neck and light-framed body,
the horse will be unbalanced, and both its speed and agility will be compromised.
The conformation of a racehorse’s head has an impact on its breathing, since a free flow of air through
the respiratory passages is vital. Many racehorses encounter breathing problems at some stage of their
career. There’s been a lot of debate recently about wind operations for racehorses, and whether or not
they’re effective. There are various kinds of operation, but limited research on outcomes. Instead of
resorting to surgery many trainers fit a tongue-tie (also termed a tongue-strap) in the hope that it will
aid their horse’s breathing. However, there doesn’t appear to be a consensus within the veterinary community
on the effectiveness of the tongue-tie.
‘Maybe the biggest concern is that we as breeders are producing an increasing number of horses with wind
issues’. (Fiona Craig, bloodstock advisor to Moyglare Stud, quoted in the Racing Post). If Fiona Craig is
correct, then favouring stallions with good conformation of the head and neck should be a priority. That
means a reasonably broad forehead and face, which allows for a good width of nasal bones; plenty of room
between the two sides of the jaw bone for efficient working of the respiratory tract; and large, open
nostrils, since horses breathe through their nose, not their mouth).
A broad forehead has historically been considered by horsemen to be a sign of intelligence, perhaps
because it allows more room for the brain to function. Most of the space behind the forehead, though, is
actually taken up by sinus cavities, with the brain being situated deeper in the skull. The corollary to a
broad forehead is that the eyes are set wide apart, which gives the horse better side vision. While this is
a vital asset to the prey animal in the wild, it’s perhaps debatable that it’s an advantage in the racehorse.
Some would argue that forward vision is more important as it helps a horse to concentrate on the race. After
all, blinkers, visors and cheekpieces are used for precisely that reason. So a narrower forehead, with the
eyes not so wide apart, may be best for the racehorse.
Perhaps more important than the spacing of the eyes is what they tell us about a horse’s character. A
large, bold and generous eye denotes genuineness, honesty and courage, whereas a small, piggy eye is a sign
of stubbornness, and may indicate a nervous or unpredictable disposition. Although some horses may show the
whites of their eyes when afraid or angry, it is often just because they have small irises, which means that
their eyes show more white than normal.
I like to see large, generous ears on a racehorse, which are the sign of a kind and willing nature. Some
racehorses have ‘loppy’ ears, angled out more to the side than forward; again, this is the mark of a genuine
horse. By contrast, small ears set close together are not ideal, and may indicate a difficult temperament.
More important, though, is what the horse is doing with its ears as it walks around the paddock. If they’re
pricked and facing forward the horse is alert, interested and on good terms with itself. But if they’re
constantly flicking this way and that, the horse may not be totally focused on the job ahead. It would be
unusual to see a horse in the paddock with its ears pinned back flat against its head; if they were it would
indicate anger, aggression or a reluctance to co-operate.
More about the head and neck next month.