Forecasting Foals for Dressage

Will the weanling you like now develop into a good future dressage partner? International breed show judge and Olympic veteran Hilda Gurney helps boost your odds of predicting accurately. By Hilda Gurney and the editors of Practical Horseman magazine.

Buying a weanling (which I think of as age three to six months) is an opportunity to get the quality in a baby that you may not be able to afford in a mature horse. But it’s risky too–you really don’t know the horse you’re buying until you can ride him. So what can you tell about a weanling’s future potential for dressage from the way he looks and moves, and what’s likely to change as he grows?

There’s an old horseman’s saying that the best times to evaluate a baby are at three days, three weeks, three months and three years. I would extend the three months window to six months; after that stage, babies, especially those that will grow up to be big adults–get gangly and harder to size up until they are around three years old.

Here’s what I like to see in a dressage prospect at the three- to six-month point:

  • Long legs. At this point I want the weanling’s legs to look very long in proportion to his body, because he’ll grow into them, and legginess is a plus for a dressage horse. I want the legs to be straight, too–meaning that when viewed from the front, the leg is a nice column of bone that’s aligned through the forearm, knee and cannon bone. (I don’t worry if a weanling toes out a bit, however; see why below.)
  • Uphill build. He won’t have defined withers at this stage of his development. But in motion, the weanling I see as a good dressage prospect elevates his shoulders and carries them up so that the place where his withers will be is higher than his croup. (I don’t worry if he is a little croup-high to look at while standing–as he may be at this stage–as long as he works uphill.) Completing the picture is a neck that is set on high, with no dip in front of the wither area. A dip would cause him to need to carry his neck and head lower than is ideal for dressage, or else hollow his back when elevating neck and head to a desirable angle. Even at this age, I like to see the neck well shaped, with a topline that’s longer than the bottom line.
  • Roomy throatlatch. The weanling’s head will grow, but you can already see whether there is a couple of fingers’ width in the triangular area defined by his jawbones and his neck muscle, giving him the future ability to flex and come on the bit without choking.
  • Forward-sloping femur. The femur is the large leg bone connecting the hip joint to the stifle (the equivalent of your knee). If it slopes well forward from hip to stifle (rather than being more up-and-down), it will aid the ability to collect.
  • Good muscling over his loin, back and haunches. Yes, you can see the development of these muscles, as well as the “pants” muscles–the big hamlike muscles on the insides of the hind legs–even in a weanling. Look for muscling that reaches well down to his hocks.

In many cases, a horse moves better as a weanling than he’ll ever move again in his life. At this age, he has mastered his long legs, yet he has very little body mass to keep him earthbound.

If you see the following hallmarks of good movement in a weanling, and if his parents and their other offspring exhibit the same traits as adults, chances are he’ll “hold” his movement as he matures.

  • Free shoulder. This is signaled by the ability to lift the forearm for a good reach in front.
  • Uphill thrust. Active hind legs that reach forward under the body create this.
  • Three forward moving gaits. Look for a four-beat walk with an over step (the hind foot hits the ground in front of the print of the preceding front foot), a big “boingy” two-beat trot with a moment of suspension, and a three-beat canter that also has a moment of airtime. (Never buy a weanling that can’t canter!)

Videotape the weanling in motion so you can slow down the playback and see whether he has “Advanced Diagonal Placement” (ADP) at the trot: whether the diagonal hind foot lands a fraction of a second before the fore-foot. Swedish veterinarian Mikael Holstrom, who pioneered the ADP concept, believes that this movement characteristic indicates a greater probability of success in dressage because a horse with ADP can more easily shift his balance to his rear legs and collect himself.

Flaws to Avoid
These characteristics would cause me to steer away from a weanling:

  • Short legs. If they look short on a youngster at this age, they will most likely be downright stubby by the time he grows up.
  • Hind legs that drag. A weanling with this flaw (sometimes called “sternwheeling”) appears to be pushing his back legs out behind to propel himself forward, instead of reaching up under his body from behind with each step.
  • Flat short way of going. I call this a “dinky” movement; the shoulder isn’t free–able to roll up and back and lift the forearm–and the stride is small and close to the ground.
  • Developmental disorders. Between about four months and a year. Check for clubbing, an abnormality in which the heel grows very long, the front of the hoof wall approaches vertical and the foot becomes box-shaped. Also, look for signs of physitis, which causes painful swelling of the growth plates above the knees, hocks or fetlocks, and which can indicate osteochondrosis, a defect in the way new bone is produced from growth cartilage.

Apparent Flaws that Self-Correct
It is my experience that, because a weanling is still very much a work in progress, some traits that would count against an older horse are apt to go away as the baby grows.

  • Toeing out in front. As a weanlings narrow chest broadens with development, toes that have been turning out may straighten.
  • Base-wide stance. Front feet placed far apart. Also usually the result of a narrow baby chest, this tends to disappear with maturity.
  • Cow hocks and hocks that look too straight when viewed from the side. As the “pants” muscles of the hindquarters and back legs develop, a weanling’s cow hocks may straighten. And hocks that appear too straight tend to become better-angled as the baby grows and they start to bear his increased body weight.
  • Upright pasterns. This is a common characteristic in weanlings; but as the body gets bigger and heavier with maturity, the pasterns may come down to a correct angle.
  • Tiny feet. Weanlings don’t yet have much in the way of feet, so don’t worry if they look small at this stage.
  • Pacing at the walk. If you observe this fault–in which the foreleg and hind leg on the same side move almost simultaneously–in a weanling who’s very long legged and short-backed, the tendency will probably go away when his back lengthens and his legs are proportionally shorter.

Personality Signposts
You can’t tell much about the future temperament of a foal by his baby personality. He may be wild as a foal and gentle as a grown horse, or vice versa.

To forecast the weanling’s future training ability, your best bet is to check out his parents and their other offspring, especially in terms of how well those offspring are doing with amateur riders. One good source of information is the U.S. Dressage Federation’s website, where you can find the year-end standings for Adult Amateur riders at every level. Along with competitive results, the site gives the breeding of the amateur’s horses. From there you can research the parents online through breed associations, locate other offspring and learn whether a line produces consistently trainable horses.

Breeder, trainer and judge Hilda Gurney judged the 2004 World Young Horse Championship in Verden, Germany. In 2004 and 2005, she rode Luminence, a gray Oldenburg gelding she bred and trained, to win the USEF/Markel Young Horse Dressage Western Selection Trials. Luminence, whose co-owner is Mary Contakos of Moorpark, Calif., also won the 2005 California Dressage Society and U.S. Dressage Federation Region Seven Open Third Level Horse of the Year awards. Renowned for her devotion to her students and her ability to “multi-task,” Hilda–who has only gotten more deeply involved with every aspect of the sport of dressage since representing the U.S. in the 1976 Montreal and 1984 Los Angeles Olympics with her legendary Thoroughbred, Keen–says she is “as busy as ever” these days.

For Hilda’s perspective on dressage at the 2006 World Equestrian Games, see the November 2006 issue of Practical Horseman magazine.

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