Isosceles triangles, fulcrums and pivot points are not terms commonly bandied about in barn aisles. But they should be according to Kristi Wysocki, dressage and sporthorse breeding judge, FEI rider, trainer and rehab expert. And—oh yes—an engineer who worked in the oilfields 15 years before turning to horses professionally.
It was Kristi’s engineering background that led her to develop the Evaluating Sporthorse Form and Function Symposium presented during the California Dressage Society’s annual meeting, Jan. 23–24, in Sacramento, California. Dressageclinic.com was the weekend’s sponsor.
In clarifying how the horse’s form relates to his ability to perform the functions asked at all levels of dressage, the presentation’s mission was multifold:
• to help riders evaluate their own horses and understand how their conformational strengths and weaknesses can be capitalized on or compensated for through correct training.
• to help horse shoppers remove emotions from the buying equation. For example, not being overly influenced by the horse’s skin-deep beauty or impressive pedigree. And, conversely, not getting scared away by minor flaws that can be addressed through training or might be counterbalanced by strengths elsewhere in the body.
Above all, Kristi sought to demonstrate that correct dressage, which means “to train,” can strengthen and supple any horse’s body for significant improvement in his way of going. It also makes it easier for the horse to do the movements asked of him, provided they are reasonable for his conformation.
Working with projected slides of various horses on the clinic’s first day, Kristi used lines between various points on the horse’s body to illustrate their relation to each other. Attendees were encouraged to develop their eye for conformation using strings laid upon enlarged pictures of horses. The next day, the ideas came to life when applied to horses in motion and representing an array of breeds and levels of training and physical development.
The second day started with a Friesian/Dutch-cross and ended with Genay Vaughn’s Grand Prix stallion, the Hanoverian Donarweiss GGF. In between, a Gypsy Vanner, a 20-year-old Welsh Cob German Riding Pony, a Haflinger and a 17.3-hand Dutch Warmblood displayed conformation characteristics that proved the broad applicability of the concepts.
In addressing conformational strengths and weaknesses, a slew of training tips were shared with the attentive crowd gathered outdoors on a crisp day at the Vaughn family’s Starr Vaughn Equestrian Center in the Sacramento area.
The Good, the Bad and The Ugly
After cueing up the whistling theme song from that same-named Clint Eastwood Western, Kristi laid out “the good, the bad and the ugly” in conformation. Good characteristics lead to positive predictions about the horse’s potential as a sporthorse. They’re not guarantees, though. “Horses with good conformation are not always good movers and vice versa,” she said. Two-time Olympic dressage bronze medalist Graf George, for example, may have had less-than-perfect conformation, but through proper training, he overcame it and performed at the top of his game.
Bad conformation characteristics include a range of flaws that will likely make it harder for a horse to do what’s asked but that can often be compensated for through correct training and strengths in other parts of the body.
In conformational terms (not cosmetic), the ugly is to be avoided. These are traits that usually lead to soundness and/or safety problems. “Walk away!” Kristi advised of “severe faults” including an underslung heel or a contracted (narrowed) heel or a soft (overly flexible) pastern, which, together or on their own, increase the likelihood of suspensory injuries. Straight hind legs, toe-in/toe-out, small bones and joints and small feet can also be red flags when seen in the extreme.
There’s often a conformation-related reason a horse won’t do something, Kristi explained. “Once I began to understand the biomechanics of the horse I became a much better rider, trainer, coach and judge—a better horsewoman.”
Because conformation is largely dictated by the horse’s bones, a clear understanding of the equine skeletal structure is critical. Not all 200-plus bones need to be memorized, Kristi noted, but the major structures should be. She relayed that 30-plus years ago, she looked at an equine skeleton for the first time and had to ask what animal it was. The attachment point for the neck bones, near the lower part of the scapula (see illustration, above) surprised her. She had assumed it was much higher, along the topline.
Another structural aspect that surprises even experienced horsepeople is the lack of boney attachment between the shoulder and the skeletal system.
With a clear sense of the major skeletal systems, the next step is training the eye to see where the bones and connections are under the horse’s coat. This hands-on step involves parting the hair and gently digging in with the fingers to feel the location of the point of the hip, the point of the shoulder, the end of the rib cage and other physical reference points. It’s easier with a freshly clipped horse and harder with a winter coat in full bloom.
A hands-on determination of where the reference points are may not be possible with a super sensitive horse. Because safety is a top concern, you may need a veteran’s experienced eye to help identify the points instead.
With the bones located, the next step is drawing straight lines between them to evaluate how the horses’ parts will be able to work together. The eye for this can be developed by practicing with string on enlarged pictures of horses. In real life and provided a cooperative horse, Kristi aligns straight sticks on the horse’s body to determine angles and proportion.
Start With the Wide-Angle Lens
Looking at a side view, with the horse standing square, an evaluation begins with the big picture.
The overall length of the horse should be greater than his height (measured from the top of the withers), and his leg length (measured from behind the elbow to the ground) should be greater or equal to the depth of his body (measured from the withers to belly, starting at that same point just behind the elbow.) The distance between the point of the withers and the point of the croup should be 45 percent or less of the overall length.
Short backs usually lead to less suppleness and more difficulty with lateral work. Longer backs make it harder for the horse to engage and harder for the rider to control the hindquarters.
Look for a neck topline that curves smoothly upward from the wither, ideally forming the shape of a spread fan going into the poll. The topline of the neck should be about twice the length of the neck’s bottom line. A more equal length of top and bottom neck lines, especially if coupled with a thick throatlatch, can make it difficult for the horse to get and stay on the bit.
In the hind legs, the ideal hock angle is about 154 degrees, allowing the vertical lift needed to bring the hind legs up and underneath the body.
The forelegs are the horse’s “pillars of support,” according to Kristi, and should be positioned to support the weight of the horse’s body. From the side, they should not angle forward or back. Good indicators include a forward-sloping humerus (upper forelimb) attached to a relatively long radius (forearm) and short cannon bone (lower leg).
A front view provides another look at the pillars of support. For the front legs, check for a straight line down from the body, including the knee and cannon bone, that is in-line rather than offset. This is the best view to check for a twisted fetlock, toe-in or toe-out. Look for even development of the chest muscles and how wide the legs are set apart with an eye toward placement that supports the horse’s weight.
From the back view, look for similarly straight lines through the leg and hoof, balanced development of the hindquarters and a tail that lies flat and hangs down straight. A crooked tail can suggest crookedness in the body. Look for a well-sprung rib cage that will give you a place to rest and apply your leg, especially if yours are long.
Tools of the Trade
Kristi’s Harmony Line assesses the balance of the whole horse, and thus his potential as a sporthorse and the likelihood of producing that “wow” factor under saddle. It was an eye-opener for many.
Per the Harmony Line, the length between the poll and muzzle should roughly equal the length of eight other dimensions in the horse’s body.
1. Wither to point of shoulder
2. Wither to heart girth (the circumference of the horse’s body that is just behind the elbow)
3. Point of hip to stifle
4. Stifle to hock
5. Hock to the ground
6. Chestnut to the ground—front leg
7. Elbow to fetlock
8. Length of back (for this purpose, measured from the rear end of the scapula to the point of the hip)
Part of the big-picture evaluation is looking for indicators of natural uphill or downhill carriage. Dressage’s desired uphill carriage requires hindquarter engagement and strength, and conformation can make that easier or harder. The Center of Balance is one of a few indicators that help predict how easily the horse can achieve and maintain uphill carriage.
Center of Balance occurs at the intersection of two lines: A diagonal line starting at the point of the scapula and a diagonal line running from the point of the buttock through the point of the hip. The farther back this intersection is toward the rider’s placement, the better.
Kristi noted that some equine biomechanical experts place the horse’s center of gravity in the same area but differ on its exact location. She considers center of gravity and Center of Balance essentially the same thing but uses the latter label to distance her system from that debate.
Encouraging results in any of these measurements are not a guarantee of uphill carriage. Instead, they indicate that “the horse will have an easier time doing its job and staying more sound while doing it,” Kristi said. “When a horse makes something look easy, it’s usually because it is.”
Zooming in on the equine power train, the hindquarters, Kristi created a triangle of lines connecting the point of hip, point of buttock and point of stifle. In a dressage horse, this is ideally an isosceles triangle in which the short side is the top line between the point of hip and point of buttock. In jumpers, it’s typically better that all three sides be equal.
“A dressage horse needs to carry and lengthen, and the jumper needs to carry and leap.” In either type of horse, a good “hindquarter triangle” can make up for many other conformational weaknesses. A well-angled hip bone and femur are another indicator the horse can easily engage his hindquarters.
A croup slope of between 15 to 18 degrees is ideal. Too flat makes it hard for the horse to carry himself and too steep weakens the hindquarters’ ability to transfer energy forward and it can stress the lumbosacral joint.
Conformation in Motion
The second day of the symposium was devoted to training techniques addressing conformational pluses and minuses. The horses were very different, but Kristi’s advice was consistently centered on moving from fake to honest engagement. The former comes from a locked-up topline in which the neck is held high on its own without the help of the back muscles and hindquarters—which Kristi described as “absolute elevation.” She would rather see a lower neck to develop throughness and then have a rider produce uphill balance through honest engagement, or “relative elevation.”
Gait transitions and lateral exercises were the keys to increasing the suppleness and relaxation required for throughness and honest engagement. To one degree or another, Kristi asked every rider to take her horse through exercises including leg-yields on the straightaway and on a circle and for the more advanced horses, brief periods of shoulder-in. In addition to some spectacular warmbloods, there were horses of unconventional dressage breeds whose conformation suggested no wow factor but whose riders brought them to gaits and movements that received high praise from Kristi and the crowd.
She had handpicked the demo horses while judging in California well before the symposium. All are accomplished dressage horses with very different conformation to illustrate the impact of correct training on any horse.
Here are a few examples:
Romantique is an 11-year-old Haflinger ridden to 2015 First Level Reserve Champion (18–21) at the Northern California Junior/Young Rider Championships by Arianna Barzman-Grennan.
In hand, Romantique presented a beautiful overall impression, while an evaluation with Kristi’s tools showed some conformational challenges.
Romantique’s neck could have more definition and is set relatively low in the chest. Coupled with a thick throatlatch, it could indicate that she might be hard to get on the bit. Training techniques to help her develop her topline would help counterbalance these issues. Her hindquarter triangle is fairly good for dressage. Development of the back and loin will make energy transmission easier for this horse. Her slightly steep croup is better for power generation than a flat croup.
Returning to the ring under saddle, Romantique began short-strided, lacking suspension in her gaits and locked up in the topline as nearly every demonstration horse was at the outset.
Kristi coached Arianna to “post big but not fast” and, at the sitting trot, to imagine her body as the uplift effort in bouncing a basketball. At the canter, the USDF bronze medalist rider was encouraged to create a “jump in every stride. Jump! Jump! Jump!”
Transitions, circles and leg-yields soon brought the golden horse into a low, relaxed head carriage and an elevated, swinging back that produced beautiful gaits. Kristi gave her trot an 8, pointing out that the trot is always improved after the canter because of the canter’s ability to loosen up the lumbosacral joint. Romantique’s canter went from “barely a 6” to a 7 after the exercises. It’s the canter, Kristi added, where they have to be more honestly through. “They can cheat in the trot.”
“Does this Halflinger belong in dressage?” Kristi asked the audience rhetorically. “You bet she does!”
Peperooga’s Parnoo Ori is a 10-year-old Gypsy Vanner mare, trained by professional Rachel Wade to debut at Prix St. Georges last year and owned and also campaigned by amateur rider Sara Bartholomew, DVM.
“Ori” has a nice hindquarter with the desired isosceles hindquarter triangle and a strong loin. Her loin is a tad long and the bottom line of her neck is too long relative to the topline, suggesting difficulty getting her on the bit. Her shoulder angle is slightly steep but, with a good forearm connection, it indicates good reach in motion.
Under saddle, Ori defied predictions that could have been made without Kristi’s evaluation tools. With good training and “an awesome work ethic,” she overcame her challenges. A nice overtrack at the walk came with an elastic topline and ample activity in the hindquarters.
Rider Rachel was told to think of her seat as “the metronome,” setting the tempo of each gait. “The quicker the seat, the quicker the tempo, and don’t let the horse talk you into too fast or too slow a tempo—you decide with your seat.”
Ori’s heavy neck and long-ish croup made the canter her toughest gait and collected gaits something to be approached with extra care. “Don’t shut the front door to get her to collect,” Kristi advised. “Get her to sit down, not shorten her neck.”
Emphasized too early in a horse’s development or trained incorrectly, collection can be dangerous, Kristi warned. “It won’t be honest.”
Ori demonstrated lovely uphill carriage in schooling pirouettes and flying changes. The mare’s breed was originally bred to pull heavy carts, making the first impression that they wouldn’t be suitable for dressage, but Ori proved otherwise.
Ori and Rachel “exemplify the harmony part of dressage.” Kristi concluded. Ori’s willing temperament reflected another of Kristi’s messages that a horse’s attitude is, in most cases, equally important to his conformation and gaits. The right temperament, she added, is the one best suited to the rider.
This article originally appeared in the April 2016 issue of Practical Horseman.