Conformation of the three-star horse (Houdini at Fair Hill 3-start this year)

Conformation of the upper level event horse (Katie Ruppel’s Houdini at the Fair Hill  International CCI*** jog this year)

Whenever you get a group of horse people together, conformation is such a dry subject you’re not going to get many takers on a heavy duty discussion of equine body parts. This past weekend, however, I was fortunate to be included in a roomful of young horse judges who do find this exact discussion fascinating, and were excited to be teaching others all about how to judge event horses.

I know that one of the criticisms of the USEA’s Young Event Horse and Future Event Horse programs is that the judging is inconsistent, and I can now see why. I think the wide variety of horses that people think are “event horse type” causes some of that criticism. The experts stressed over and over this weekend that the program is still in the formative stages, and entries are low but increasing in number each year. Finding the right type of horse will get easier and easier to define and find as more and more horses are shown in front of the judges, and breeders and buyers select for more and more of those traits. Are there many opinions as to type, and style, and movement? Of course. But it is not as widely varying as one would think. The expert judges were rarely off among each other more than a half point or so, while I was WAY off many times on many of the judging criteria, both in the classroom on the power point pictures shown, and on the live judging. That judging stuff is HARD. And you don’t get shown easy-to-pick horses that line themselves up. The horses that we saw, at High Point Hanoverians in Chestertown, were gorgeous animals primarily of warmblood breeding. So we were able to see beautiful trots, lovely walks, and nice bodies of yearlings, two-year-olds and three-year-olds. I think the judges that were in attendance brought with them years of experience. Many are breeders in addition to being event judges and dressage judges. Many were already judging and have been judging a long time, and I felt very out of place — it’s funny when you’ve been in the horse world about 40 years and feel like a complete and utter novice! I tried to act like a sponge as much as I could.

Lucky at about one year

Lucky at about one year after starting in work

In addition, my poor old racetrack rejects at home have some pretty obvious conformation flaws, but the beautiful horses we were seeing in person were quite correct and had very few flaws, and for me that was even harder. The judges really loved judging, you could tell. They had a wonderful time discussing scores with one another and when you hear the reasons for the scores, you learn  a huge amount about how people see things and what they are looking for. I think it was important to note that the experts were looking for what they call, “refining blood” in event horse prospects, meaning, basically, the Thoroughbred outline, but at the same time rewarding good bone and the uphill build whenever possible, which are not always a couple of characteristics modern Thoroughbreds can provide. So it looks to me like what they want as “the event horse type” is somewhat Thoroughbred, but still a solidly built horse with strength and power. Opinions as to what angles where best for jumpers, what angles were best for dressage horses, etc. were sprinkled throughout the entire seminar. It was very interesting to listen to the experts on those subjects. It was clear that the “event horse type” is a fluid base that the judges want to keep an open mind about, to allow for the individual horse with a fault or two in conformation, that nonetheless defies its own body type and goes out and wins Rolex or Badminton. (No one wants to be wrong.) So the takeaway – there’s a lot of “right” out there, and the “correct type” is a pretty big area, but getting clearer and more defined on a constant basis. One of the things doing that are seminars like this.

The speaker on Saturday was the learned professor of equine anatomy, Dr. Deb Bennett. Her talk was interesting at times when you could winnow out the information that was relevant to you and your experience, but that is the way many professors discuss subjects. Rather than tailor their talk to their audience, they bring a perspective that is not always on point, but important for seeing in the light of our world with an animal who is nothing but giving and obedient and only wants to please us despite the things we do to it to hurt it. Her points were succinct and her opinions based on years of study, and however uncomfortable to hear, it was useful to remind us all that horses are the reason we do this and their welfare should always be foremost. One or two of the major takeaways: more bone, more bone, more bone in the young horses; better hocks; and if we are looking for sport horse types we have to find horses that can lift the base of the neck, a critically important ability to a jumping and dressage horse. Then we need to learn to ride them.

This mare was purchased off the track, and won an Oldenburg inspection this summer.

This mare was purchased off the track by USEA Breeder of the Year Dr. Elizabeth Callahan, and won an Oldenburg  mare inspection this summer.

I learned a great deal about scoring the way the USEA FEH/YEH sheets are designed. Taking a look at horses, you first notice the topline, the way the neck, withers, loin, and hip are connected from stem to stern. Then the experts take a look at the way the joints are hooked in, the angles in a couple of places, the build (uphill or downhill), and then they examine the legs and all the various ways legs can be incorrect (and there are a bazillion faults for legs.) When you go through that, and walk around the horse as it stands, looking at the pieces and parts, you start getting an idea in your mind as to how to score it on type and conformation; then when it moves you get to see how the parts work at the walk, and then the trot. Now I can’t help it. I’ve been scoring my own horses at home since I got back from the seminar, and we were warned by one of the experts that we’d be doing that!

One thing we all noticed was the subtle differences in handling the young horses. When Klaus Schengber, manager at High Point and experienced young horse trainer, ran the horses, they were often better than when they were handled by the less experienced. The way a horse can be moved on the line is very critical to how high a score they can get when judged, something that we all could see pretty clearly — so those who might be disappointed in a young horse score, knowing it’s a better mover or nicer looking horse than the scorecard represented, ought to go home and practice and learn a bit more about running their own horses. Creating a beautiful horse and then showing it correctly is an art.

Leslie Law and Billy Wiz, in the CCI**

Leslie Law and Billy Wiz, at the Wednesday jog up in the 2013 Fair Hill CCI** – looking for this type of horse is what it is all about

They touched on judging demeanor, too, how to act when someone brings in a non-traditional eventing breed of horse to be judged, and where you put a horse like that in the class, and what to tactfully say on the score sheet.  Judging is not just judging, often it is organizing thoughts, then writing tactfully, while ordering a competition, helping keep the competition flowing and safe, and yet be the authority in the ring. Again, not an easy task, and the experienced judges in attendance had lots of good tips and advice for sticky situations.

I have been looking over my notes and trying to summarize the weekend in a paragraph, and you know, I just can’t do it — there was so much information, and so many great things in our packets that I haven’t read yet (but it’s on my pillow at home so it will be something I’ll read every night before bed for a while). My own horses are going to get scored and inspected. I’m going to work on refining my eye, and look religiously at all the event horses I see. I’ll also be looking online for any comment or information I can garner from the presenters that were there (Faith Fessenden, Susan Graham White, Robin Walker, Marilyn Payne) to  keep learning about “the event horse type”. And maybe I’ll get to scribe for one of the FEH/YEH competitions this coming year and learn even more. It’s a start!