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 ground.

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.

May 2018Conformation Of The Racehorse (4)An understanding of a horse’s conformation – More About Backs
April 2018Conformation Of The Racehorse (3)An understanding of a horse’s conformation – Back, Flanks and Loins....
March 2018Racehorse bridles and bitsRacehorse bridles, bits and nosebands
February 2018Conformation Of The Racehorse (2)An understanding of a horse’s conformation – Neck and Shoulders....
January 2018Conformation Of The Racehorse (1)An understanding of a horse’s conformation – the way its body is put together – is especially useful....
December 2017An Introduction To HeadgearRecent performances of horses wearing blinkers, cheekpieces, a visor or a hood....
November 2017All About Tongue-tiesA tongue-tie, also called a tongue strap, is usually a soft cotton, nylon or leather band....
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