How Important is Conformation When Buying a New Horse?

Courtney Cooper shares her evaluation criteria when shopping for horses.

Question: I am horse-shopping for the first time without the help of a trainer. All my friends say I should focus solely on the horse’s conformation, but I’m having a hard time finding a horse that has perfect conformation and is within my price range. How much should conformation factor into my horse search?

When shopping for your next horse, it’s helpful to bring a knowledgeable friend along to provide another point of view. Amy K. Dragoo


Answer: You’re going to love my number-one piece of advice: Don’t shop alone! If at all possible, bring someone along with you even if that person knows nothing about horses. We all get excited when we find new horses we like, and it’s easy to rush to purchase one before thinking everything through. That’s why it’s always helpful to have someone there who’s not emotionally involved to provide another point of view and remind you to ask important questions.

Buying a new horse is a little like dating. Everybody wants to find someone who’s tall, dark and handsome! But that’s just as unrealistic in horse matchmaking as it is with humans. I believe that every horse in the world has a job—and there’s someone out there who’s just right for each horse. It’s just a matter of deciding what’s most important to you.

When I shop for horses, both for myself and for clients, I use five evaluation criteria: age, rideability, soundness, experience and potential. I take conformation into consideration, but only based on the job I’m hoping a particular horse will do and where he is in his career. For example, if I’m evaluating a 4-year-old as a potential four-star eventer and he has boggy ankles that don’t flex well and shows a bone chip in his X-rays, I’d think twice about buying him. But if I’m looking for a mount for an adult amateur to ride at Novice level and come across a 13-year-old with the same ankle issues who’s winning at the Preliminary level, I wouldn’t hesitate to buy that horse, pending a veterinarian’s evaluation in a pre-purchase exam.

Horses don’t always know they have conformation defects. I often see ones with undesirable traits—for example, a slight swayback, pigeon toes or a neck tied in too low—who have long track records of being sound and performing well. They’ve obviously made adjustments in their bodies to compensate for their conformation faults. I would not prioritize these issues over my other evaluation factors. If you find a horse who is doing the job you want to do—or, even better, doing the job at a higher level than you intend to do—and is demonstrably sound, that’s the best proof that he’s suitable.

Having said that, I always recommend conducting a thorough pre-purchase exam on any horse you decide to buy. Ideally, hire a sports-medicine veterinarian who has lots of experience diagnosing and treating soundness problems. He or she will be the best judge of whether or not a conformation defect might cause complications for the horse down the road.

Finally, as you juggle all of these factors, remember that choosing a new horse is not a black-or-white decision. It’s all shades of gray. If you single out one characteristic to avoid during your selection process, you might miss out on a great match. Just imagine if world-class riders McLain Ward and Michael Jung had refused to ride mares: McLain would not be a World Cup show-jumping champion and Michael would not have multiple CCI**** titles.

About Courtney Cooper

Before turning professional, four-star eventer Courtney Cooper supported her riding pursuits by working as an insurance broker for Northwestern Mutual, achieving Million Dollar Round Table status. In 1996, she and her husband, Neal Camens, founded C Square Farm, where Courtney is the head trainer and instructor. They also breed sporthorses and run a busy sales program, matching about 50 riders of multiple disciplines with suitable horses each year. Courtney and their first homebred, Who’s A Star, finished third in the 2013 CCI*** at the Jersey Fresh International Three-Day Event and completed the 2016 Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event CCI****. She and Tender Bravissimo won the Training Horse Championship at the 2016 American Eventing Championships and the CIC* at the 2017 Fair Hill International. With another up-and-coming star, Caia Z, she was reserve champion in the Training Horse division of the 2017 American Eventing Championships. C Square Farm is based in Nottingham, Pennsylvania, in the summer and Aiken, South Carolina, in the winter.

This article was originally published in the March 2018 issue of Practical Horseman. 

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