Have you ever wanted to look through the judge’s eyes and see what they see during the conformation portion of a USEA Young or Future Event Horse competition? Now is your chance! Using only a photo and information on age and breed, legendary horseman and prior FEH/YEH Championship judge Chris Ryan is sharing his insights into young horse conformation in our Conformation Critique article series.
“For me, there is no doubt that correct conformation increases soundness and therefore longevity,” said Chris Ryan, legendary horseman and FEH/YEH Championship conformation judge. “In breeding stock it is also essential. Conformation is just that, no matter what breed.”
Correct conformation is the bedrock on which a horse’s successful future is built. As Ryan stated, correct conformation increase’s a horse’s soundness, extending the length of their career. In the USEA Young Event Horse Championships and Future Event Horse classes, conformation is taken into account when assessing a horse’s potential for the upper levels.
“It helps to have a set routine in assessing conformation, especially when a big group of horses is coming at you one after the other,” Ryan said. “I gauge my first impression of model and type. It takes about three seconds. Does the horse have quality/refinement or not? Quality brings its own traits, as does lack of refinement.”
“When I have noted that first impression, my eye will nearly always be drawn to any obvious weakness or imbalance and note where it can be mentioned under the four headings: head and neck, body, legs and feet, and overview,” Ryan explained. “The overview is a very short summary impression of the individual's strengths and weaknesses. Ideally, then I would see the horse move to study how the physique and biomechanics deliver. Here we will just assess the horse through a photo which can still be an excellent source of information.”
“Wow, What a beautiful athlete!” Ryan began his assessment of this nearly 2-year-old Thoroughbred. “This shows the refinement of the Thoroughbred. The Thoroughbred has been the essential refiner of nearly all studbooks. It transformed a harness/carriage/work horse into the high performance competition horse. The greats such as Rantzau (sire of Cor de la Bryere), Lucky Boy, Cottage Son, Furioso, and possibly the greatest, Ladykiller, are in the back pedigree of so many of the jumping and eventing stars. They give the gifts of athleticism and forward thinking.”
From an evaluation of model and type, Ryan turns to the head and neck first. “This horse has a lovely quality head, great eye, and big ear,” said Ryan. “He has great connections of head to neck and neck to shoulder, giving the impression scope and reach in stride. This horse should have a good natural balance also through the set of his neck to shoulder and the angled slope of his shoulder. He has a well-defined jugular and nicely defined withers.”
Next, Ryan’s eye moves to the body. “Lovely length and good depth,” Ryan observed. “Still up behind, indicating further growth. At 1 year 10 months old, his legs have attained full length. Horses mature from their feet up – after about 18 months they only come up in their withers, their leg bones are fully formed. A useful measurement can be made of a youngster (over 18 months) to work out his potential height, from the cap of his elbow to where the suspensory ligament inserts into the fetlock joint. This measurement will equal the length from the cap of his elbow to the top of his withers (over his shoulder, not vertical) in a mature horse.”
“This horse has a lovely angle to his shoulder indicative of a very good length to his stride,” Ryan continued. “A horse with that good length of stride is covering more ground with no extra effort. Of course, a balance must be met with the effort a horse must make to also shorten a stride in front of a fence. That ability normally comes from a free and loose shoulder.”
Looking to the legs and feet, Ryan said, “There is quite a lot of daylight under him, but this will improve when he matures to full height. The cannon bones are a fraction long but have good constitution. Pasterns are a fraction long and sloped which will put a little extra pressure on the back of the knee but will give good suspension. Lovely hind leg with good hock. His feet look okay but might lack a little heel.”
“What a beautiful model,” Ryan concluded. “This horse gives the impression of range, scope, and looseness. He should have good natural balance with plenty in front of the saddle and plenty behind with good power.”
This lovely horse is At The Moment (Saketini x Shezagreatgal), a 2-year-old Thoroughbred gelding owned and bred by Audrea Dyer. As a yearling, At The Moment won his FEH qualifier in Ocala in March on a score of 84.37 before going on to take home the FEH Central Yearling Championship title on score of 81.0.
“At The Moment is my homebred by my Thoroughbred stallion Saketini (Bernardini x Mining My Business, by Mining),” said Dyer. “He is out of my Thoroughbred mare Shezagreatgal (Albert The Great x Crouching Thunder, by Thunder Gulch). Currently, at 24 months he is 16 hands in front and about 16.1 behind – he will likely finish between 16.3 and 17 hands.”
“I started Saketini off the track and finished 10th at the Thoroughbred Makeover in 2016,” Dyer shared. “He moved up to the Preliminary level in 2019 and just started the 2020 season with a second place in Modified at the Ocala I Horse Trials. At The Moment is his first foal with a sibling due this year. Saketini is standing to the public this year, based in Ocala, Florida.”
“Shezagreatgal raced 30 times and earned over $100,000 on the track,” Dyer continued. “She had four foals before I bought her in 2017 at the Ocala Breeders Sale auction. Despite no sport record, I loved her conformation and pedigree for eventing and good movement, and my gamble has paid off.”
“At The Moment (barn name "Miso," like the Japanese soup) is exactly what I was breeding for,” Dyer said. “He is nearly a carbon copy of his sire, with good movement and an exceptional mind. His walk is huge with swing and a big overstep. His trot is correct with rhythm and push. And the canter is very well balanced with power. Most importantly, Miso has a great mind and willing attitude. He is independent and brave in new situations. He is also VERY food motivated and has learned a few tricks like giving kisses and bowing.”
“I am considering getting my training license and racing Miso a few times as a 3-year-old,” Dyer shared. “I have already started him lightly under saddle, and he enjoys regular hacks in the woods. I realize this is earlier than most sport horses are backed, but studies show racehorses who are started as 2-year-olds have longer, sounder careers. At this age, their bone is best able to adapt to the intended use. The key is to manage the horse as an individual.”
“Regardless of whether he races, I look forward to beginning his eventing career as a 4-year-old. Miso is a fun horse to have with a bright future.”
Interested in submitting your horse to be critiqued? Send your high-resolution conformation photos to Jessica Duffy at [email protected] for your chance to be featured.
About Chris Ryan
Chris Ryan comes from one of the most storied families in Ireland. Following in his father’s footsteps, Ryan hunted the legendary Scarteen hounds for 28 seasons. The Scarteen hounds have been in the Ryan family for more than 400 years. From racing in his youth, to huntsman, and now judge and commentator, Ryan has become a regular part of eventing life in Ireland and Europe. One of the foundation selectors of the Goresbridge Go for Gold elite event horse sale held every November in Wexford, Ryan has developed a keen eye for young stock, many having gone on to great things in Ireland, England, and Europe. He is best known in the United States for finding McKinlaigh, the horse with whom Gina Miles won the individual silver medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, and producing him from a 3-year-old to a 5-year-old at his first Preliminary level event. International winning and placed horses including Copper Beach, Cooley Rourkes Drift, Cooley SRS, November Night, Prince Mayo, Glencento, Reenmore Duke, Ballymurphy Mark, and many others all came under his eye and passed the test. All this experience is blended with an instinct for what is required and the genetics to operate at the highest level.
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