May 06 2016

What Makes a Good Looking Horse a Good Horse?

Brad Dowling BVSc MVetClinStud FACVSc
Registered Specialist in Equine Surgery
North Queensland Specialist Equine Service
Townsville Veterinary Clinic

As horse people we all have an image of the ‘perfectly built horse’ in our minds. For many years breeders have strived to design a well conformed horse that not only looks good but can also do the job it was designed for. However, until recently we have had no real hard data to support the benefits of breeding well conformed horse other than years of experience anecdotal evidence. Researchers in the United States of America, lead by world renowned equine surgeon Dr. Wayne McIlwraith examined the role of conformation on lameness and injury. In this study the authors evaluated 115 racing thoroughbreds and 162 racing quarter horses. The purpose of the study was to make objective measures of conformation and correlate these with the risk of injury.

The relevant findings of the study included:

  • As carpal valgus (i.e. ‘knocked knees’) increased, the risk of carpal/knees joint swelling and fracture was reduced
  • The further a carpus was offset (i.e. ‘benched knees’), the greater the chance for fetlock problems
  • Long toes and underslung heels increased the risk of carpal/knee bone chip fractures
  • Every inch increase in the length of the underside of the neck increased the risk of fetlock problems
  • A longer scapula (shoulder blade) reduced the risk of carpal chip fracture
  • In quarter horses, a shorter distance from the shoulder to the ground reduced the risk of carpal fracture
  • In quarter horses, a straighter shoulder increased the risk of fetlock fracture but decreased the risk of carpal damage

Conclusions: Conformation is important. It would appear different aspects of the conformation become more important in different equine disciplines. Further studies are required to validate present findings however, straight legs appear not necessarily to be ideal and in fact some carpal valgus may be a desirable feature. Offset carpi are a feature worth noting and properly maintained hooves with regular shoeing intervals are important to minimise a long toe low heel conformation.

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