Equine Science Update
Reports from the world of  equine research.
Conformation analysis to predict performance potential.
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A new method of analysing conformation developed in Sweden claims to be able to predict which horses have the potential to become elite performance animals.

There is a clear relationship between conformation and performance. Obviously a Thoroughbred racehorse is not suited to pulling a cart. Conversely a Shire would make a poor racehorse. Such marked differences are easily recognized. It is much more difficult to determine differences in conformation within a breed, and relate them to soundness and performance.

Not all horses have the potential to be elite athletes. Until now, the evaluation of conformation and movement has been largely subjective. But even someone with a good eye for horses is limited by the ability of the human eye to register fast movements and subtle variations.

Dr Mikael Holmstrom has been studying the correlation between conformation and locomotion in young horses and their subsequent performance potential. He has analysed a large number of elite dressage and jumping horses and found that they have a very similar hind limb conformation. The horses have a rather flat pelvis, a forward sloping femur, a relatively large stifle angle and a normal or somewhat open hock angle.

"The differences in conformation between elite and average horses are small" he points out, "so an objective means of analysing conformation is required."

In the last few years he has been involved in developing a computer-based assessment system. He claims it can accurately analyse conformation from a picture. Two reference markers are applied to the horse when it is photographed to allow the computer to make the measurements. The image of the horse is transformed into coordinates, which in turn is used to calculate joint angles and length measurements. The data are used to calculate a Conformation Index, which gives an objective assessment of the overall conformation. The analysis for dressage and jumping horses is available throughout the world over the internet.

"Objective conformation analysis will be an important selection tool for everyone having breeding or riding as a profession or hobby." says Dr Holmstrom. For example, he suggests that it is an invaluable tool for the prospective purchaser in the search for a suitable horse. He emphasises that traditional evaluation such as gait quality, jumping ability, pedigree and so on should be carried out first. Conformation analysis can then be carried out to help differentiate between apparently suitable horses. "By selecting the horse with the highest objective Conformation Index from your sample, the chance of finding the most suitable horse increases considerably."

"Horses with a Conformation Index of less than 8.0 will not make it to the top as performance riding horses" he says. "Breeders should consider analysis of the broodmares in order to be able to determine which ones are the most likely producers of elite sport horses. Most broodmares have not been tested in the sport, at least not at a higher level. An objective tool that gives information about the mares` physical qualifications for top performance is therefore very valuable."

Conformation analysis of foals and yearlings give the foundation for a follow-up of the breeding results and the creation of a breeding plan. Foals can be assessed from about eight months of age.

So far much of Dr Holmstrom`s work has been with dressage and show-jumping horses. He is currently collecting data on racehorses. "It appears that racehorses are very similar to elite jumping horses, especially when it comes to hind limb conformation" he says. " The Conformation Index shows a huge difference between poor and elite racehorses."

"Conformation analysis, as a complement to traditional evaluation procedures, helps you to make a more accurate assessment of the quality of your own horse, the horse you intend to purchase or sell, or the stallion you plan to use to cover your mare".

source: Preventing Racehorse Injuries Seminar . Cheltenham. 2001.