Is Conformation Relevant?

By James Tate

This year’s yearling sales are just beginning with Fasig-Tipton July in Kentucky quickly followed by Fasig-Tipton August taking place in Saratoga. Then it is the turn of the monstrous Keeneland September catalogue to lay host to thousands of blue-blooded Thoroughbreds desperate to have their conformation analyzed by trainers, owners and those conformation experts – the bloodstock agents. The 2007 September Keeneland yearling sale sold nearly four thousand horses for just short of four hundred million dollars in seven books, each illustrated with photographs of the current superstars sold at last year’s sale. Does examining a horse’s conformation really give you a better idea as to whether you are looking at next year’s superstar?

If you visit the saddling enclosure before the Breeders’ Cup, you will notice that some of the runners are offset at the knee, toe in or toe out, have long pasterns or perhaps even sickle hocks and curbs. Then you could visit the saddling enclosure before a maiden claimer and you would see just how many of these poor performers have good conformation. The racing media only concentrates on the good horses whose conformation often becomes exaggerated by winning lots of races. The legendary John Henry, the richest gelding in history, was unmistakably small, ugly, temperamental and back at the knee, but there are millions of other horses just as poorly conformed to which our attention is never drawn. In the same way, there are many poor performers with technically perfect conformation but we are led to believe that Secretariat’s conformation is superior because he won the Triple Crown.
 
Many U.S. trainers believe that training methods, tight turns and the unforgiving dirt surface make it difficult for horses to overcome poor conformation. Indeed, an argument could perhaps be made that some of the high-profile poorly conformed European Champions such as the dual guineas winning filly Attraction, may not have done so well on the other side of the pond. However, John Henry is far from the last Grade One winning performer with less than perfect conformation. Real Quiet, who missed out on the Triple Crown by a nose in the Belmont, passed through the sale ring as a yearling with both imperfect conformation and a poor veterinary report. Baffert said “When I bought Real Quiet for $17,000, I didn’t vet him. I just bought the athlete. I’ve had horses that didn’t pass the vet when they were yearlings and then went on to become great racehorses.” Five-time Grade One winner Congaree had poor knee conformation but that did not stop this giant colt winning twelve times in twenty-five career starts. Steve Asmussen will be hoping that his massive superstar Curlin continues his current great win streak, which includes the Breeders’ Cup Classic, the Dubai World Cup and now the Stephen Foster Handicap despite his less than perfect limbs. Ken McPeek purchased him at the yearling sales despite imperfect forelimb conformation as well as an OCD in his front ankle.
 
 
One thing is certain – a perfectly conformed horse in all areas except one bent foreleg will cost considerably less than the same horse with perfect conformation. Is it really correct to pay so much more to have little or no conformational faults, or should we be concentrating on certain faults and not others, or perhaps pedigree, size and stamp are more important? One only has to stand in the Keeneland sales pavilion for a minute to hear the phrase “I couldn’t buy a horse with hocks like that.” At this point, I would like to question the evidence supporting an opinion like this. Mike Ryan, one of the most successful yearling buyers in the history of auction sales believes that “it’s not a beauty contest where we should be looking for the perfect specimen. It is easy to find what you don’t like about a horse and strike him off the list. I go the other way and start with what I like about a horse. Then I look at whatever faults are there and ask myself, ‘Does he look like a runner?’ ‘Does he have the demeanor of a good horse?’ Good horses usually overcome their faults.” This article will attempt to illustrate some aspects of conformation before examining some of the available evidence concerning its scientific relevance to performance.
 
Conformation is defined as the form or outline of an animal but it may be expanded to include its movement. The conformation of the Thoroughbred racehorse today is a result of a combination of natural selection and the demands we have put on it. The assessment of a horse’s conformation is a personal process but many begin with the body, move onto the limbs and then assess the horse’s movement. The conformation of the body assesses the horse’s balance and center of gravity but in my opinion is an underestimated area of the assessment. Conformation textbooks detail limb ‘faults’ for pages after pages, but hardly mention assessing the future athlete’s body as a whole. When examining a yearling as a potential superstar surely it is vital to assess the whole horse– its height, length, width, girth and muscle mass, not to mention its neck, head, outlook and temperament.
 
When examining the biomechanics of the galloping Thoroughbred, one can see that its propulsion comes from its backend, hence the commonly held belief that sprinters are bigger in this area than distance horses. It also makes sense that any horse should have a large body allowing plenty of room for the heart and lungs. Good distance horses do not always have large girths but they are usually long, whereas sprinters are often shorter but stronger with a large girth and a big muscular back end. As a result, professional horsemen tend to use comments such as short-coupled, weak behind, weak necked, narrow and tubular. I would also suggest that this is an area in which so-called amateur owners can provide valuable insight when looking at yearlings, as some ‘experts’ seem to spend too much time assessing minor details and forget to look at the horse!
 
 
The assessment of limb conformation is quite complex but it is not a matter of opinion – a curb is a curb and back at the knee is back at the knee – conformation can change a little as the horse matures, but usually it is the onlooker’s assessment that varies, not the horse. The horse is assessed from a number of angles both at rest and in motion. Both hindlimb and forelimb conformation is important but their functions should not be forgotten – the hindlimb is providing most of the athlete’s propulsion whereas perhaps the most important function of the forelimb is simply not to break under the considerable pressure of training and racing.
 
Much is said about the side-on conformation of the knee in relation to the rest of the forelimb and everyone seems to have a different opinion. The 2007 Consignors and Commercial Breeders Association ‘Vet Work Plain and Simple’ booklet interviewed a cross-section of leading trainers with regard to conformational faults. Christophe Clement believes that “training methods in the U.S. make it difficult to overcome being back at the knee” and Carla Gaines, Eoin Harty, Bob Hess, Larry Jones, Richard Mandella, and Kiaran McLaughlin all supported his view to some extent. Yet in the same publication, Todd Pletcher is not so concerned by this conformational fault, stating that a lot of his best horses have been back at the knee and John Kimmel goes so far as to say that he would not buy a horse who was significantly over at the knee. From a veterinary perspective, horses who are over at the knee have extra strain placed on their sesamoid bones and the suspensory ligament, whereas horses who are back at the knee have extra strain placed on their knee ligaments, as well as having extra force placed on the front of their knee bones, thus knee chip fractures should theoretically be more common in such horses. However, statistical evidence for such injuries is severely lacking and as an anecdote, the over at the knee colt in the photograph has fairly major knee problems, whereas the back at the knee filly is a winner who has barely taken a lame step throughout two years of training!
 
 
Many buyers will also not buy a horse with long sloping pasterns, but is this sensible? A long sloping pastern theoretically predisposes a horse to injury of the flexor tendons, sesamoid bones and the suspensory ligaments. However, upright pasterns, which are not considered to be anything like such a serious fault, theoretically predispose a horse to fetlock joint injuries, ringbone of the pastern joint and navicular disease. The pastern angle is also irreversibly linked with the horse’s foot. This is a part of the horse that is often underestimated by non-professionals but trainers cannot help but notice poor feet as they seem to spend their entire lives trying to keep them right. Club feet are hated by trainers but also severely disliked are boxy feet, flat feet, contracted heels and unbalanced feet just waiting to form quarter cracks when training commences.
 
 
When looking at a yearling’s forelimb from the front there are several terms that are widely used – base-wide/base narrow, toed-out/toed-in and offset/rotated from the knee and/or fetlock, not to mention whether the horse is considered to have enough forelimb strength or ‘bone’. In order to be accurate, the yearling must be standing squarely and in most circumstances the horse’s gait will mirror its forelimb conformation. While none of the conformations listed above are considered desirable, all are seen in the paddock for most Grade One races, which is hardly surprising when it is remembered that although the forelimb has great relevance to the future superstar’s soundness, it has very little relevance to its future ability.
  
The hindlimb of the racehorse is where the majority of its propulsion comes from and therefore, despite the fact that there is slightly less lameness here than in the forelimb, their conformation is every bit, if not more, important. Whilst some of the forelimb conformational points carry relevance to the hindlimb, for example, pastern angle and foot-path, some new points have to be considered. When assessing the horse from side-on, the hindlimb/hock position is generally considered to be either ‘sickle-hocked,’ ideal or ‘camped behind.’ Sickle-hocked horses are predisposed to curbs (injury of the plantar ligament) and considered to have weak hind legs. However, it is also considered a ‘fault’ to have the limb too far behind the body as it is likely to be associated with upright pasterns. Also, there are horsemen who believe that a horse should not have an excessively straight hindlimb as this theoretically predisposes the horse to hock arthritis and a ‘locked stifle.’
  
When assessing the horse from behind, the onlooker is assessing pelvic and muscle symmetry as well as hindlimb conformation. ‘Cow-hocked’ horses are criticized because there is excessive strain on the inside of the hock joint, which may cause hock arthritis. This comment should be taken lightly when assessing yearlings as to some extent this is a normal conformation in weak, growing, young Thoroughbreds. ‘Bow-legged’ yearlings are also criticized as it is believed that excessive strain is placed on the outside aspect of the limb. These bow-legged horses which are base-narrow behind are often prone to knocking themselves at exercise.
 
Having considered some of the conformational faults of the Thoroughbred and cited some of the reasons why these may cause veterinary injuries, it would now make sense to advise potential purchasers to avoid horses with any significant conformational faults. However, the statistical evidence must be considered first. In 2002, one of the most renowned equine orthopedic surgeons in the world, Dr Wayne McIlwraith, presented the findings of his research into Thoroughbred conformation leading him to famously question corrective surgery performed on foals. His research concluded that “a perfectly correct leg is not ideal for soundness” and some degree of carpal valgus can be a good thing. The extensive study came up with several mildly unexpected conclusions. A longer toe increases the odds of knee problems, a longer shoulder decreases the odds of a fracture and offset knees lead to fetlock problems, not knee problems. The study also found that a longer pastern predisposes to forelimb fractures, Thoroughbred foals achieve 95% of their full height by 18 months of age and manipulating the knee for cosmetic reasons is not helpful and can actually contribute to unsoundness.
 
McIlwriath is not the only person to have carried out valuable research into this area. The late English veterinarian and trainer Peter Calver conducted a much more extensive survey of the conformation of Thoroughbred yearlings seen at the British sales. The study categorized and looked for statistical differences in the performances of many different conformations, for example: Back at the knee, offset and weak hocks. It concluded that the pedigree was more important than any conformational fault and that it was difficult to determine if conformation actually affected performance at all, or if horses performed poorly due to other, inherited characteristics, such as heart and lung function or size.
 

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In summary, assessing the conformation of a Thoroughbred yearling is complex, personal and of questionable relevance. The size and shape of a future athlete should be relevant, as should its limb conformation. However, neither is proven to be relevant in determining whether or not it can win a Grade One race. This is the beauty of the sales – what one man loves, another hates, and no-one knows for sure who is right until at least a year or two down the line!