When we look at a horse, one of the first things we usually notice is the horse’s conformation, or the way he’s put together. Different breeds produce different types of builds, and each discipline has a type that tends to do the work most easily. There are conformation flaws that can lead to soundness problems, and there are conformation traits that are desirable for one discipline and avoided for another. When stallions are advertised for breeding, the ad often features a picture showing his conformation. When horses are listed for sale, buyers often want to see a conformation picture as well.
We obviously put a lot of stock into conformation, and for good reason. A horse that is well-built for our intended purpose will tend to be easier to train and will usually outperform a horse with poor conformation. Conformation influences movement and how the horse uses his body. Conformation even plays into how comfortable a horse’s gaits are to ride. However, the bones only tell part of the story. How a horse stands and carries himself, as well as how he uses himself under saddle, is also dictated by muscles. And muscles can be changed over time.
If you started a new workout program, you wouldn’t see a change after just a few days, but if you compared a picture from the beginning of the program to one taken a year later, there probably would be a very noticeable difference. If there was no difference, you would probably be questioning the workout program. The same happens with our horses, and this information can be very useful for giving us clues about the correctness of the work the horse is doing.
For example, let’s look at my horse Remy when I first bought him as a 4 year off the track:
He was quite lean, and he was immature. He also had been racing (although not successfully), so he was conditioned for that. He had the longer toe and lower heel that is common in racehorses, and a lacking topline. These all contribute to a rather sad-looking picture, but are all changeable features that it’s helpful to train your eye to look beyond. Even in this before picture you can see that he has a nice angle to his shoulder, and a nice upright humerus. He also has nice angles in his hips and back legs. He’s uphill from croup to withers, and about level stifle to elbow. These are all traits we see in horses the succeed in dressage (and jumping).
Compared to a picture taken 4 years later, it’s almost unrecognizable as the same horse:
In the second picture he’s mature (he actually grew almost 2 inches taller), and he’s put on weight to cover up his ribs and hips. He’s also rounded out with muscle pretty much everywhere. Grown up, stronger, and healthier looking, he stands up a little straighter and has a taller, prouder look to his posture. His withers do not appear near as prominent, and his neck appears to have a better placement and shape. But the wither bones are still in there! The change in appearance is due to the healthy muscle he has put on by doing dressage. The early years with him were challenging because his body kept changing as he grew, making it hard for him to bulk up with muscle. Just in the past year he stopped getting taller and started to really fill out, so I’m looking forward to seeing what he looks like in another year. Correct work really does make a horse more beautiful!