Evaluating Form and Function

Last Updated on February 25, 2022 by Allison Price

When shopping for your next horse or training your horse, a little bit of geometry can go a long way.

Kristi Wysocki (right), shows Lynn McEnespy’s 6-year-old Hanoverian mare, Wredford, where the horse’s Center of Balance lies. This center is one indicator that helps predict how easy a horse will be able to achieve and maintain an uphill carriage. It is located at the intersection of two lines. One diagonal line starts at the point where the scapula meets the other diagonal line that runs from the point of your buttock to the point at your hip. The closer this intersection is to the rider’s position, the better. Kim F. Miller

Barn aisles aren’t filled with the terms isosceles triangles (fulcrums), pivot points, and fulcrums. Kristi Wysocki is a dressage and sporthorse breed judge, FEI rider and trainer, and rehab expert. An engineer who worked 15 years in oilfields before becoming a professional horse trainer.

Kristi’s engineering background led to the creation of the Evaluating Sporthorse Form and Function Symposium, which was presented at the California Dressage Society annual meeting in Sacramento, California, January 23-24. Dressageclinic.com sponsored the weekend.

The presentation had multiple purposes. It was about clarifying the relationship between the horse’s shape and his ability to perform the tasks asked at all levels.

* To help riders assess their horses and to understand how they can capitalize on and compensate for their weaknesses and conformation through proper training.

* To help horse buyers remove emotion from the buying process. Not being influenced by the horse’s impressive pedigree or skin-deep beauty. Conversely, don’t be afraid of minor flaws that can either be corrected through training or counterbalanced with strengths elsewhere in your horse’s body.

Evaluating Form and Function

Kristi wanted to show that proper dressage, which is “to train,” can help strengthen any horse’s body and make a significant difference in his ability to go. The horse can also learn to perform the movements he is asked, as long as they are appropriate for his condition.

Kristi created lines between the various points of the horses’ bodies using projected slides. The clinic’s first day saw participants encouraged to use strings placed upon larger images of horses to improve their sight for conformation. The ideas were brought to life by horses moving and representing a variety of breeds, levels of training and physical developments the next day.

The second day began with a Friesian/Dutch cross and ended with Genay Vaughn’s Grand Prix Stallion, the Hanoverian Hanoverian Donarweiss GGF. Between, a Gypsy Vanner and a Welsh Cob German Riding Pony (20 years old), a Haflinger, and a Dutch Warmblood (17.3-hand) displayed conformation characteristics that demonstrated the versatility of the concepts.

A host of training tips were shared to address conformational weaknesses and strengths with the crowd that gathered outside the Starr Vaughn Equestrian Centre in the Sacramento area.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

The Harmony Line measures the horse’s balance. The Harmony Line states that the length between poll and muzzle should be approximately equal to the length of eight dimensions of the horse’s body as shown in the photograph. Kim F. Miller

Kristi outlined the “good, the bad, and the ugly” of conformation after playing the whistling theme tune from Clint Eastwood Western. Positive characteristics can lead to positive predictions about a horse’s potential as an athlete horse. However, they are not guaranteed. She said that horses with good conformation may not be able to move well and vice versa. Graf George, two-time Olympic dressage bronze medalist, may have had less than perfect conformation but he was able to overcome it through good training and perform at the top of his class.

Bad conformation characteristics can include a variety of flaws that may make it more difficult for horses to do the job. However, these flaws can be easily corrected by correct training and strength in other areas of the horse’s body.

The ugly should be avoided in conformational terms, not cosmetic. These are the traits that lead to safety and soundness. Kristi suggested that you “walk away!” If there are “severe flaws”, such as an underslung or narrowed heel, a contracted (narrowed), heel, or a soft (overly flexible), pastern, these can increase suspensory injury risk. If seen in extreme cases, straight hind legs, toes-in/toes-out, small bones, joints, and small feet may be signs of trouble.

Kristi explained that there are often reasons a horse won’t do something because of conformation. “I became a better rider, trainer and coach once I understood the biomechanics. I also became a better judge, judge, and judge of horses.

Conformation is heavily influenced by the horse’s bones. It is important to have a good understanding of the horse’s skeletal structure. Kristi said that not all the 200 bones should be memorized but only the main structures. Kristi recalled that she was able to see an equine skull for the first-time 30+ years ago and asked what kind of horse it belonged to. She was surprised by the attachment point for neck bones near the lower portion of the scapula (see illustration above). It was higher than she thought, at the topline.

Kristi shows you how to check your front legs for straight lines down from your body. This is the best way to see if you have a bent fetlock or toe out. Kim F. Miller

A second structural feature that surprised even experienced horsemen is the absence of boney attachment between shoulder and skeletal system.

Once you have a good understanding of the major skeletal system, it is time to train the eye to locate the bones and connections under the horse’s skin. Parting the hair is the first step. Next, use your fingers to gently dig in with your fingers to locate the point of each hip, shoulder and end of the rib cage. It is easier to do this with a freshly cut horse than with a full-grown winter coat.

With horses that are extremely sensitive, it may be difficult to determine the location of the reference points. Safety is paramount so you might need an experienced eye from a vet to identify the points.

Once the bones are located, it is time to draw straight lines between them in order to assess how the parts of the horses will work together. You can practice with string on larger pictures of horses to develop your eye. Kristi uses straight sticks to align the body of the horse with her hands, provided she has a willing horse.

Get the Wide-Angle Lens

For hind-end conformation evaluation, draw a triangle connecting points of the hip, buttock, and stifle. A triangle that has the top line shorter than the two sides is the best for dressage horses is the one with the highest quality. Kim F. Miller

A side view of the horse, standing straight, is an example of how an evaluation starts.

The horse’s overall length should be greater than its height (measured at the top of his withers) and his leg length (measured behind his elbow to the ground) should equal or exceed his body depth (measured with his belly to withers, starting at the same point just below the elbow). 45 percent of the overall length should be between the point where the withers meet the point at which the croup is located.

A shorter back can cause less flexibility and make it more difficult to do lateral work. A longer back makes it more difficult for horses to engage and for riders to control the hindquarters.

You want your neck to curve smoothly upwards from the wither. This should look like a spread fan entering the poll. The neck’s topline should be twice as long as the neck’s lowest line. If the top and bottom neck lines are not equal, it can be difficult for horses to reach the bit.

The ideal hock angle for the hind legs is approximately 154 degrees. This allows the vertical lift to bring the hind leg up and under the body.

It is important that all three sides of a jumping horse’s hind-end triangle are equal for success in the jumper rings. Kim F. Miller

Kristi says that the forelegs of a horse are its “pillars of support” and should be placed to support the horse’s weight. They should not be angled forward or back from the side. A forward-sloping, forearm-length humerus attached to a long radius (forearm), and a short cannon bone in the lower leg are good indicators.

Another view of the support pillars can be seen from the front. Check for straight lines down from the body. This includes the cannon bone and knee. This view is the best way to see if there are any twisted fetlocks, toes-in or out. You should look for an even development of the chest muscles, and the width of the legs with an eye towards a placement that supports the horse’s weight.

Look at the back and you will see straight lines in the leg and hoof. Also, the hindquarters should be balanced. A flat, straight tail is desirable. A crooked tail could indicate crookedness within the body. If your legs are long, you should look for a well-sprung cage to give you a place where you can rest your leg and apply your leg.

Tools of the Trade

Kristi’s Harmony Line evaluates the horse’s balance and his potential as a sporthorse. It also assesses whether he can produce that “wow” factor when saddled. Many people found it eye-opening.

The Harmony Line states that the length between poll and muzzle should be approximately equal to the length of eight dimensions within the horse’s body.

These are:

1. To the point of shoulder

2. Heart girth is the circumference of the horse’s chest that lies just below the elbow.

3. Point of hip to stifle

4. Stifle to Hock

5. Hock to the ground

6. Chestnut to ground–front leg

7. From the elbow to the fetlock

8. Length of the back (measured from the rear end to the point at the hip).

The big-picture evaluation includes indicators of natural uphill and downhill carriage. Dressage’s desired uphill carriage is dependent on hindquarter engagement, strength, and conformation. The Center of Balance is one of the few indicators that can help determine how easy a horse can attain and maintain an uphill carriage.

Carol Kvingedal’s Romantique neck could be more defined and set lower in the chest. It could also indicate difficulty in getting on the bit due to her thick throatlatch. Dressage is quite easy with her hindquarter triangle. Energy transmission will be easier if the back and loin are developed. A slightly steeper croup is better than a flat one for power generation. Kim F. Miller

The intersection of two lines is the Center of Balance. A diagonal line starts at the point where the scapula meets the hip and runs from the point where the buttock crosses the point. The closer this intersection is to the rider, the better.

Kristi pointed out that equine biomechanical specialists place the horse’s centre of gravity in the exact same spot, but they differ on the exact location. She believes center of gravity is the same as Center of Balance, but she uses the latter to discredit the debate.

These measurements do not guarantee uphill carriage, but encouraging results are not guaranteed. Kristi stated that these measurements indicate that the horse will have a better time performing its task and be more stable while doing so. “When a horse makes it look easy, it’s often because it is.”

Power Points

Arianna Barzman–Grennan worked on the transitions, circles, and leg-yields. The Haflinger mare was now going in a through connection, with a relaxed head carriage, and an elevated swinging rear that will allow for more flexibility in the gaits. Kim F. Miller

Kristi zoomed in on the horse’s power train and hindquarters. She created a triangle connecting the points of hip, buttock, and stifle. This is ideal for a dressage horse. The triangle is an isosceles triangle, in which the short side is the line connecting the point of hip with the point of buttock. It is better for all three sides to be equal in jumpers.

“A dressage horse must carry and lengthen and the jumper must carry and leap.” A good “hindquarter triangle”, in either horse type, can compensate for other conformational weaknesses. Another indicator that a horse is able to engage his hindquarters is a well-angled hip bone or femur.

Ideal is a croup slope between 15 and 18 degrees. Too steep makes it difficult for horses to move and too flat can cause problems with the ability of the hindquarters to transfer energy forward. It can also stress the lumbosacral joint.

In Motion: Conformation

Peperooga’s Parnoo Ori is owned by Sara Bartholomew DVM. It has a strong hindquarter as well as a long but not too thick loin. The thick neck and shorter front legs may make it more difficult to collect. Although her shoulder angle is slightly higher than average, she still has good forearm connections. Kim F. Miller

The second day was dedicated to training techniques that address conformational pluses or minuses. Although the horses were all different, Kristi’s advice was consistent in urging riders to move from fake engagement to genuine engagement. Kristi said that the former is a high neck with no support from the back muscles or hindquarters. Kristi called this “absolute elevation”. Kristi would prefer to see a lower neck develop throughness, and then for a rider to achieve uphill balance through honest engagement.

For throughness and honesty, lateral and gait exercises were key to increasing flexibility and relaxation. Kristi required that every rider take their horse through exercises, including leg-yields in a straightaway or on a circle, and, for more advanced horses, shoulder-in. There were some horses with unusual dressage breeds that had exceptional warmbloods. However, their conformation was not impressive but the riders took them to movements and gaits that were highly praised by Kristi and the crowd.

The demo horses were hand-picked by her while she was judging in California prior to the symposium. They are all accomplished dressage horses, with very different conformations to show the importance of proper training.

Here are some examples.

Romantique, an 11-year old Haflinger, was ridden to the 2015 First Level Reserve Champion (18-21), at the Northern California Junior/Young Rider Championships.

Romantique was a lovely dog, and he did a great job in hand. Kristi, however, had some challenges with her conformational evaluation.

Romantique’s neck may have more definition. It is also set lower in the chest. It could also indicate difficulty getting on the bit, due to her thick throatlatch. These issues could be counterbalanced by training techniques that help her improve her topline. Dressage is possible with her hindquarter triangle. This horse will be able to transmit energy more easily if it develops its back and loin. A slightly steeper croup will generate more power than a flat one.

Romantique returned to the ring in saddle. She was short-strided, her gaits were not synchronized and she was as stiff in the topline of almost every other demonstration horse.

Ori, riding with Rachel Wade, defied all predictions. Kim F. Miller

Kristi encouraged Arianna to “post large but not fast” at the sitting trot and to visualize her body as the effort to bounce a basketball. The USDF bronze medalist rider was encouraged at the canter to make a jump in every stride. Jump! Jump! Jump!”

The golden horse was soon able to transition, circle and use leg-yields to get into a relaxed, low head carriage with a swinging back and a beautiful, elegant gait. Kristi gave her trot a 8. She pointed out that the canter’s ability loosen the lumbosacral joint means that the trot always improves after it has been cantered. Romantique’s canter improved from a “barely 6” to 7 after the exercises. Kristi said that it’s the canter where they need to be more honest through. They can also cheat in the trot.

Kristi rhetorically asked the audience, “Does this Halflinger belong to dressage?” “I bet she does!”

Peperooga’s Parnoo Ori, a 10-year-old Gypsy Vanner mare, was trained by Rachel Wade to make her debut at Prix St. Georges. She is owned and ridden by Sara Bartholomew (DVM).

“Ori” has a lovely hindquarter, with the desired isosceles hindquarter triangular and strong loin. Her loin is a little too long, and her neck is too long relative the topline. This suggests that she has difficulty getting on the bit. It is slightly steep at the shoulder, but it shows good reach in motion, thanks to a strong forearm connection.

Ori surpassed all expectations under saddle. She was able to overcome her obstacles thanks to good training and “an amazing work ethic.” The walk ended with a nice overtrack, which included an elastic topline as well as plenty of activity in the hindquarters.

Rider Rachel was instructed to consider her seat “the metronome”, setting the pace for each gait. “The faster the seat, the faster the tempo. Don’t let the horse dictate your pace. You can decide with your own seat.

Ori’s long neck and longish croup made her canter the most difficult gait. Kristi advised that you don’t close the front door to get Ori to come to your house. Kristi advised that she get her to sit down and not to shorten her neck.

Kristi warns that too much emphasis on a horse’s development, or incorrectly trained, can lead to dangerous collection. It won’t be honest.

Ori showed amazing uphill speed in flying changes and schooling pirouettes. Ori showed that the mare’s original breed was bred to pull heavy wagons.

Kristi said that Rachel and Ori “exemplify harmony in dressage.” Kristi said Ori’s willingness to be a part of a team reflected another message that horse attitude is as important as conformation and gaits. She said that the best temperament is one that suits the rider.

Allison Price
Allison Price

I’m Allison, born and raised in San Diego California, the earliest memory I have with horses was at my grandfather’s farm. I used to sit at the stable as a kid and hang out with my Papa while he was training the horses. When I was invited to watch a horse riding competition, I got so fascinated with riding!