The Conformationally Challenged Athlete

A prepurchase exam is an extremely helpful resource for considering a horse's future athletic possibilities.

Photo: Kevin Thompson/The Horse

No horse is perfect, and many with conformational flaws go on to compete successfully. What can you live with and how?

Horse people put a lot of stock in a horse’s conformation, as far as predicting his athletic potential. After all, it’s common knowledge that certain conformational characteristics have the potential to be career-limiting. 

But have you ever come across the horse that never “read the book,” doesn’t know he’s not perfect, and continues to perform soundly and successfully despite his flaws? Or, maybe you’re familiar with the pristinely conformed horse that’s a less-than-stellar performer. 

So many factors determine whether an equine athlete becomes successful that it’s sometimes hard to predict which horse will go far in the competitive world. It pays to look beyond an individual’s structural conformation and also consider the horse’s work ethic, disposition, skills, training, and fitness, as well as the conditions of the day you assess him.

“Generally, when referring to conformation, we talk about form to function—what structural characteristics are desirable within a specific discipline,” says Duncan Peters, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVSMR, Duncan Peters, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVSMR, ISELP, of East-West Equine Sports Medicine who focuses his practice on locomotor pathology and the diagnosis, treatment, and management of sport horse health for optimum performance. “Certain body types tend to work best for different disciplines, but within that discipline there is often a wide variation in conformational changes and other attributes that allow a particular body type to be successful.”

In other words, some horses with conformational defects can still compete successfully. However, “performance horses are expected to perform over a long career, and while a horse may do well for a while, a conformational defect may shorten a competitive career,” Peters says.

If you own or are considering buying a horse with less-than-desirable conformation, how might you find a way to make that horse work for your equestrian pursuits? 

Western vs. English Sports

When reviewing the different general disciplines (i.e., Western vs. English sports), Peters has some thoughts on what minor conformational challenges are likely to be acceptable for each.

Frequently, Western horses exhibit workable imperfections such as being over at the knees, slightly turned out in the front limb(s), slightly cow-hocked (hocks are too close together and point toward each other) and sickle-hocked (hocks show excessive angulation, less than 150-153°), and short and small in stature. These horses often have a smaller foot size relative to their body mass, yet this might not greatly impact performance.

For English disciplines, such as dressage, jumping, and eventing, Peters notes that there is much more physical variety than what he sees with the Western sports. Body types range from a lean, rangy Thoroughbred to a big, heavy Draft-type or Warmblood. A horse with minor variations, such as upright hind limbs or toeing in or out, might perform just fine. A horse with a lower (less upright) pastern angle might have a desirable, springy gait, but this conformation has the potential to result in suspensory ligament or fetlock problems. And because most English disciplines are not solely speed-based or very long in duration, a heavy or “big-boned” body type might not interfere with performance or longevity the same way it would in, say, flat racing or endurance.

“Probably the most variety in body type and conformation occurs in the jumpers,” Peters says. “There seem to be various body types that tolerate this work, but they don’t enjoy as much longevity as other disciplines.”

So, for instance, horses with finer bone, smaller feet, hind-limb straightness, or long backs might be more predisposed to injury and won’t hold up to jumping pursuits as long as horses with more correct conformation.

For distance sport horses, correct conformation is a particularly important asset because of the wear and tear that accompanies training for and competing in these activities. There is not as much room for deviation from correct limb conformation in these horses if they are to remain sound and compete well over time.

Conformational Extremes

“Extremes in lower leg conformation can be performance-limiting in athletic pursuits or, at the very least, may cause flare-ups of musculoskeletal pain that put a horse out of action for a period of time,” says Peters. Conformational issues he says might lead to problems include the following:

  • Toeing in or toeing out subsequent to angular limb deformities (conformational faults present at birth or acquired over time) overloads one side of the foot and joints, leading to osteoarthritis and/or soft tissue injury.
  • A club foot is prone to abscesses, bruising, or laminitis.
  • Cow-hocked conformation strains the hock joints.
  • Offset knees (as viewed from the front, also called bench knees) can lead to splints.
  • Offset feet can lead to foot and lower limb joint pain.
  • Sheared heels (one heel bulb becomes elevated toward the pastern relative to the other) might make a horse prone to hoof quarter cracks and pain.
  • Asymmetrical feet can lead to uneven pressures and tension on the musculotendinous unit within the foot and are a red flag that alerts an owner to manage the feet carefully.

In general, any conformation that departs from the ideal is likely to put stress on other anatomical structures. “For example,” says Peters, “a horse that rotates on the hocks (when moving, which often results from an angular limb deformity in the fetlock or hock joints) then puts stress on the lower hock joints. Or, a horse with long toes and low heels overly stresses the deep digital flexor tendon, and a horse that toes out stresses suspensory ligaments and joints.”

Regarding the back and neck, Peters says researchers are examining how conformational abnormalities in these areas might affect performance. “The predisposition to injury of conformational abnormalities of the axial skeleton (made up of the skull, vertebral column, ribs, and sternum) of the upper body has not been sorted out as much as flaws in the legs,” he says. 

For some horses, certain training regimens—such as jumping too high or training too many days per week—coupled with a flat or low back might lead to arthritic changes and soreness, which impact success and career longevity. “Even so, a long-backed horse may be able to jump well with power and subsequently be successful,” says Peters. 

Owners can manage many of these structural challenges in partnership with their veterinarians and farriers. This requires taking into account each horse’s hoof care needs, the footing on which he trains and competes, the discipline’s exercise demands, the frequency of competition, saddle fit, and rider skill, says Peters.

Realistic Expectations

When managing a horse with conformational challenges, recognize that there might be limitations on what your horse might accomplish and for how long. “There should be a realistic assessment of the horse’s physical abilities for the discipline in which he competes,” Peters says. Modifying your expectations and goals, however, is often the hardest part. 

Assess your horse’s mental and physical abilities within his career discipline continually. And don’t be afraid to seek expert advice. If your vet-farrier-trainer support group works as a team to maximize your individual horse’s performance and makes adjustments to his care and training as needed, he has every chance of being successful. Without realistic expectations and management, however, be prepared for frustration and setbacks, Peters says.  

“For example,” he explains, “if the horse toes out, and this causes hoof rotation, inflammation may develop within a branch of the suspensory ligaments. Therefore, the rider may need to back down on exercise demands and lessen the competitive schedule.”

A horse that isn’t working out well for a particular owner might perform better at another level, in another discipline, or with another owner, particularly if he is having problems performing consistently in his job.

 “Many horses with extreme conformational changes have been managed successfully to perform well over long periods of time,” Peters says, but “don’t be set on a particular expectation of how well the horse does or how often he competes.”

Prepurchase Considerations

A prepurchase examination is an extremely helpful resource for considering a horse’s future athletic possibilities. During this process the veterinarian meticulously assesses a horse’s athletic ability and also carefully evaluates his potential based on conformation and hoof structure. In addition to the veterinarinarian’s insights, you might consider getting input from a trainer and farrier well-versed in your discipline. 

As a buyer, it is important to ask about a horse’s qualities relative to the intended discipline. Take, for example, a horse’s feet: A horse with tiny hooves that you intend to compete on hard surfaces will likely suffer the effects of impact more than a horse with large, robust feet, says Peters. Also consider the geographic location of where a horse will live and compete. For example, a horse with navicular syndrome, which is often associated with small feet, might perform poorly on the hard ground of the western United States, but he might do well if moved to softer, sandy footing in Florida. 

“Often a horse is selected based on what the horse is doing at the particular time he is offered for sale,” Peters notes. “Because the horse is successful, there may not be much focus on conformation. Despite the horse performing well at the current time of the exam, it behooves the buyer to question the potential for that animal to continue a long-term competitive career.” 

No one has a crystal ball for peering into the future, but at least have a conversation with your veterinarian about what might potentially go wrong with a prospective horse and what management techniques you might need to apply to maximize his athletic performance and longevity.

How to Manage Issues and Prevent Injuries

In general, any horse with limb rotation or club foot conformation is at risk of developing soreness in the joints and/or soft tissue structures of the limb. Compensatory lameness problems can also develop, such as back soreness due to stifle or hock pain. A thorough veterinary exam helps identify the source of lameness so you and your veterinarian can make a plan to improve the horse’s comfort. A medical plan for a conformationally challenged horse is no different than one for a lame horse with correct conformation. The difference is you might see the lameness issues develop sooner in the horse with poor conformation. Further, that horse is likely to need ongoing maintenance to remain comfortable once problems develop. Recognizing these issues early and being proactive with your care are key strategies for getting the best out of a horse’s performance for as long as possible.

“Recognition of a conformational challenge is important,” Peters stresses. If you know what you are dealing with, then you can design strategies to maximize a horse’s potential and reduce his risk of getting injured. For example, “For a horse with an upright pastern conformation or straight hind legs, concussion amplified up the limb has a potential to elicit osteoarthritis,” he says. “For such a horse, it is critical to shoe him well, train on good footing, manage competition schedules appropriately, and use supportive joint supplements. Regular evaluation and flexion tests by your veterinarian are important strategies to check for subtle changes before they become full-blown problems.”

As another example, “A horse with a long pastern may be best served by having the veterinarian look him over at least twice a year,” Peters says. This routine evaluation might include palpation and flexion tests to help identify subclinical (not yet evident) soreness, especially in the fetlocks. “Such surveillance does not necessarily need to include radiographs or ultrasound exams, but is dependent on a thorough hands-on examination by a knowledgeable vet,” he adds.

Another important strategy for managing all horses—those with good as well as flawed conformation—is to have ongoing discussions with your farrier about hoof care and ways to reduce concussion. Trimming and shoeing techniques are especially critical for managing horses with angular limb deformities, such as toeing in or out, or club feet.

Progressively building your horse’s condition and fitness will also help build strength throughout all his musculoskeletal structures. Advancing your horse’s performance level gradually will help him develop his skill set at a safe pace according to his abilities. And don’t forget about the importance of ample warmup and cool-down periods. 

Besides fastidious shoeing practices to help the hooves land evenly and balanced, your veterinarian might also recommend a variety of medical treatment options for joint-sore and/or muscle-sore horses. These range from intra-articular joint injections and regenerative therapies (stem cells, platelet-rich plasma, IRAP) to shock wave therapy, massage, chiropractic, and acupuncture.

Take-Home Message

“Based on our conformational education in different disciplines, if we consider what we look at as a breed or show conformationally ideal horse, it turns out that many of these ‘ideal’ representatives are not successful athletes,” says Peters. “Many other factors are critical for equine athletic success. It is noteworthy that very few halter horses make good performers with long careers. This tells us that there is a disconnect between what suits our eye as the ideal compared to which horses are able to perform and for an extended time.” 

There is no set recipe for dealing with a conformationally challenged equine athlete. So much depends on the individual situation, the degree of conformational flaw, the discipline in which the horse works, and rider ability and expectations. The important thing to note is that while all equine athletes prosper with diligent management, one with conformational challenges will fare better with a team of competent professionals’ expertise. 

About the Author

Nancy S. Loving, DVM

Nancy S. Loving, DVM, owns Loving Equine Clinic in Boulder, Colorado, and has a special interest in managing the care of sport horses. Her book, All Horse Systems Go, is a comprehensive veterinary care and conditioning resource in full color that covers all facets of horse care. She has also authored the books Go the Distance as a resource for endurance horse owners, Conformation and Performance, and First Aid for Horse and Rider in addition to many veterinary articles for both horse owner and professional audiences.

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