Aug 28, 2018

Conformation 101 with Helen Brettell

By Claire Kelley - USEA Staff
One of Helen Brettell’s favorite four-star horses, Mr. Medicott, jumping to fourth place at the 2017 Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event. USEA/Leslie Mintz Photo.

“I like a horse to look athletic and balanced even standing still and I have to say Mr. Medicott checked nearly all the boxes,” described Helen Brettell of her favorite four-star horse. Brettell can be seen at events across the country as the President of the Ground Jury, a dressage judge at the national and international level, or a Young Event Horse (YEH) and Future Event Horse (FEH) judge. Born and raised in England, Brettell has years of experience competing at the upper levels both in Europe and the United States. An advocate for proper, correct foundation in young horses, Brettell looks for an “overall balanced athlete with clean straight limbs, good feet, an alert eye, and a big shoulder for reach and uphill balance.”

In 2018, the United States Eventing Association (USEA) YEH program went through several significant changes including the removal of the conformation phase at YEH qualifiers. Conformation is still judged at YEH Championships and is a focal point of the USEA FEH program. As stated in the YEH Championship Scoresheets, judges base their scores on several factors including straightness of the legs, a proportional frame, the condition of their feet, and the biomechanical efficiency to move well, stay sound, and compete at the highest level.


Mr. Medicott placed in the top five with three separate riders at the four-star level. His international career started in 2005 and he officially retired at the 2018 NAYC. His correct conformation helped him stay sound for 13 years at the upper levels! USEA/Leslie Mintz Photo.

Event horses can come in all shapes and sizes, but the conformation can influence their biomechanical efficiency and performance. “A short neck can sometimes have difficulty with flexion through the throat latch area. A short back will be easy to engage and collect but may not lengthen as easily. A longer back is often more scopey,” said Brettell.

“Short legged horses tend to be tougher but may struggle with stride length in combinations. Long legs have longer levers and can cover the ground well but can have soundness issues. Sloping pasterns make for a more comfortable ride but tend to throw more stress onto tendons as they have a lot of flexion. Short pasterns tend to give a ride that lacks shock absorbers.”

Since dressage, show jumping, and three-day eventing are three separate sports, a horse bred for pure dressage or pure show jumping can have different conformation features. Brettell explained, “Dressage horses can be the Warmblood [type] as there is no need for speed and stamina and need to shift weight onto their hind leg. A show jumper needs a good shoulder but also needs power from behind to push upwards instead of forwards.”


Pawel Spisak and Banderas demonstrating an uphill flying change at the 2018 Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event. USEA/Leslie Mintz Photo.

An ‘uphill build’ can be a selling point for event horses and Brettell explained why it’s a favorable trait: “An uphill build is more of a Warmblood trait and is easier to train in dressage. Thoroughbreds tend to be downhill as they are bred to gallop and reach forward. A horse that is not uphill will take longer to learn to shift weight back and lift shoulders. Downhill conformation can put extra stress on front limbs. It’s preferable for one who appears balanced over all four limbs.”

Regardless of the conformation, Brettell emphasized, "The only addition I would make is the horse has to have a trainable brain otherwise all of the above is of no consequence.”

About the USEA Young Event Horse Program

The Young Event Horse (YEH) Program was first established in 2004 as an eventing talent search. The ultimate goal of the program is to distinguish horses with the potential to compete at the three- and four-star levels, but many fine horses that excel at the lower levels are also showcased by the program. The YEH program provides an opportunity for breeders and owners to exhibit the potential of their young horses while encouraging the breeding and development of top event horses for the future. At qualifying events, youngsters complete a dressage test and a jumping/galloping/general impression phase. At Championships, young horses are also evaluated on their conformation in addition to the dressage test and jumping/galloping/general impression phase. Click here to view the jumping standards and specifications.

The USEA would like to thank SmartPak, Standlee Hay Company, C4 Equestrian Belts, and Merck Animal Health for sponsoring the Young Event Horse program.

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