Thursday, November 15, 2012

Conformation of the Event Horse: Thoroughbred Edition

I've been mulling this idea over for a while, and I think I now have a pretty cool progression to show as far as Cuna's conformation, how it affects him competitively, and how he's changed while with me. However, because I am an average student of conformation, I thought that I would include a perspective from one of my favorite experts, who also happens to be my favorite photographer, the wonderful EllieA. (All shots by EllieA.)

In order to illustrate how conformation and muscle structure relate to athletic output in performance, I've included a trotting and cantering shot taken the same day as each conformation shot. While Ellie is a smashing photographer who makes us look awesome, I'd say that the pictures were representative of where we were at in our training at the time.

Basic stats:
Hakuna Matata (Cuna)
17 years old
Thoroughbred (OTTB)
Career eventer


March 20, 2012
TSB: At this point, I'd had Cuna about a month and in all fairness to him, he'd been out of work all winter and the month he'd spent with me was not terribly intense. I was building confidence over low fences on the flat and he was toting me around. As an out of shape, unbalanced adult ammy, I was not the picture of balanced perfection.

EA: In this photo, Cuna looks like a horse just getting back into regular work. His overall structure is good, if a bit unbalanced front to rear. Ideally, the structure of a performance animal should be balanced, with equal angulation in the front and hindquarters. In layman’s terms, I'd like to see the shoulder angle (from the wither to point of shoulder to the elbow) match the rear angle (from the point of hip to stifle to hock). A horse built this way is generally a more stable athlete, less prone to injuries, and has an easier time with collection.

Cuna is built nicely uphill. He is straighter in the hind end (notice the straight line between stifle and hock), but has a nicely sloping croup. He has a decent shoulder, and is long bodied with a lovely long (some might say giraffe) neck. He is ever-so-slightly over at the knee. You can see the beginnings of muscle development in the shoulders and hindquarter, but his neck and topline aren’t quite there yet. I don’t like how his neck ties into his shoulder/withers in this photo… it looks abrupt and awkwardly set. You can tell he isn’t completely comfortable.

March trot
TSB: I probably never posted this picture before because it's not the most stellar trotting shot ever, but it's how we were working. Loose rein, in an arena, going forward. I was determined to learn everything I could from Cuna, so I neglected fitness work in favor of jumping small things several times a week.
March canter

EA: Much of what I discussed in the conformation shot holds true in motion. At this point, he hasn’t developed the muscle tone and condition to carry himself properly. In the trot photo, he is moving downhill, and not tracking under as well as he does in later photos.. His neck is kind of hanging there awkwardly and his topline appears underdeveloped. He has more reach in front than drive in the rear, and if you were to draw triangles between his front and rear legs, you’d find the rear triangle to be smaller. At the canter, he looks a little better, but you can still see the imbalance and his discomfort at being asked to be light in the front and track up in the rear. This is partially due to structure, and partially due to condition.


May 20, 2012
TSB: The next set of shots is from May, a mere 60 days later. I have to say, the first thing I notice is just how much I love Cuna's summer coat. He is fit and shiny, with ribs well covered in flesh. Cuna and I had progressed from putzing around the arena 5 days a week to trotting and galloping in the hills for fitness regularly.

EA: The change in muscle tone between this picture and the last one is dramatic. Everything looks “tighter” and more defined. Cuna looks much more comfortable in his own skin, and has a much softer and pleasant expression than the last photo. His shoulder and hindquarters have continued to develop and strengthen. However, his neck and topline are perhaps the most strikingly different part of him. His neck is well muscled—especially along the top—which helps it to tie into his shoulder/withers more smoothly. His topline shows obvious muscling from withers to croup. Even his abdominal muscles are showing definition, and his belly is tighter and more athletic looking. Really, his whole “framework” appears much stronger. All of these improvements will make dressage/flat work much easier and more comfortable for him, because he now has the physical ability to lift his front end and have it be supported through the topline and hindquarters.

May trot

TSB: I was addressing confidence issues over fences, so Cuna was coming off our first cross country schooling together (hot mess) and a two week jumping intensive to address issues raised. We were still a new partnership, but with consistent lessons and five or six days a week under saddle, we were starting to really do well together. Because the root of my issues was jumping, he and I spent lots of time with the sticks and did little-to-no dressage work in the proper sense of the word.

May canter
EA: Cuna is moving in a much better and more attractive frame at the trot. His whole front end looks smooth and efficient, and he is tracking up better in the rear, although not perfectly. He appears a bit stiff in the hocks, which would make sense knowing his age and work level at this point in time. His topline looks lovely, and he appears relaxed, happy, and workmanlike. At the canter, he looks much smoother and lighter in the front. His neck and topline are beautiful, and you can see the muscle development in his chest, also. He is in beautiful condition with a lovely, shiny coat.


November 12, 2012
TSB: As much as we loved our last barn, we moved with our trainer to a new place in a flatter locale at the end of October. We have taken several dressage lessons and worked hard on improving connection and engagement. That said, all of our trails are now flat, so that steady hill work that was a major part of our workload four days a week is no longer a regular thing.

EA: In this photo, Cuna’s condition tells me that he has experienced a change in the type of work he is getting. While he still has fairly even muscle tone, he has lost some of the dramatic muscling on his neck and topline. You can tell this by the way his neck and back tie into his withers, as well as the increase in slope from croup to tail. He seems to have kept similar muscling in the hind end, but perhaps lost some in his shoulder. His abdominal muscles appear even tighter than the last photo, though… this tells me that he has been doing a lot of work involving that area. He still has a pleasant, kind expression and seems like a very happy guy.

TSB: We are constantly improving--I can feel changes in how Cuna and I work together from week to week. It's exciting, and now it's documentable. We do spend more time in the arena now, working on connection (that elusive outside rein) and we've even developed some baby lateral motion. Cuna is not the most supple horse in the world, but the more we work, the better he is.

EA: Cuna is noticeably lighter in the front end than in any of the previous shots. At the trot, he shows marked improvement in rear flexibility and drive. He shows lovely engagement and is tracking up in the hind end very well for a horse of his conformation. I would bet you that if the photo was a straight side view, the triangles between his legs would be about even, front to rear. That is great. At the canter, he is using his front end well but doesn’t seem as strong looking as he does in May’s canter photo. At both the trot and canter, he is carrying himself in a decent frame, and looks much more comfortable using his body like this—something that is much changed from the March photos.


TSB: Working with Cuna has been a fun adventure. I didn't realize just how much he'd changed until I put all these shots side by side. Many thanks to EllieA for her insights!! Also, check out her blog for a post on our last photo session together. Super fun stuff. :-)

EA: It was very interesting to see how different types of work influenced Cuna’s muscle development, quality of gaits, and attitude. Generally, what I noticed in the conformation shots held true in the movement photos. Overall, I feel that the May photos show Cuna at his most fit. However, the November photos present a picture of a more supple horse that has an easier time staying collected and engaged. I am intrigued to continue following their progress!


  1. This is so fascinating! I really want to keep track of my horse's conformation shots now. It's nice to see work pay off

  2. Lovely! I've attempted to keep a confirmation shot track record for Cadence (without much success, mind) but I love your idea of taking 'working' shots with them. Perhaps adding a jumping shot into the mix too... something to think about for the future perhaps.

  3. Wow awesome post! I really need to have photos of me and my horse taken more often...

  4. Cuna is looking really good :) Awesome post.

  5. Wonderful progressive photos and storyline! You have done a great job with Cuna.

  6. How cool is that? I had never heard of putting triangles on the front and back end to judge the balance in their step. I had looked at the knee and hock level in comparison (on my pony) and the topline to see if he was balanced and moving in an uphill frame. Great tip there! Runs back to look at pony pic's for triangles.

  7. This is the most awesome post ever! I love it! And you're right his dark summer coat is just gorgeous!!!


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