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 past FEH/YEH Championship judge Chris Ryan is sharing his insights into young horse conformation in our Conformation Critique article series.
Chris Ryan’s initial assessment of this 3-year-old off-the-track Thoroughbred gelding is that he’s a “good quality sort. Brown is a great color – a strong color in ‘nature.’ One of the first questions I ask myself when evaluating a horse is if he has refinement. We know the breed type here is Thoroughbred but I still ask the question. It should be obvious – if you have to look for it, the individual is possibly lacking. The refinement or Thoroughbred influence gives forward-thinking and an ability to travel easily. When you look at the warm-up of any eventing phase, your eye will be drawn to quality and to balance. The two qualities don’t necessarily come together, but when they do I start smiling in anticipation!”
“The still photo of this horse has not done this horse’s head justice,” Ryan continued. “You get a better look at his head in the video footage. I like to see a nice face on a horse, especially when what I buy I have to sell!”
“He has a good top line, which will improve again when in work to build up behind the saddle,” Ryan observed. “He looks like he’s about full grown, so he’s nice and mature at three. Horses can still be coming up through their withers in their fourth and fifth year. His neck is nicely set into his shoulder, which should give him a good uphill balance. Horses that are naturally conformed a little uphill have a distinct advantage as they are automatically working from behind and especially when he must also carry the weight of a rider.”
“His shoulder is a little straight but in no way heavy or coarse, and has good depth. He appears to have powerful hindquarters and hind legs and has a strong hock. He should show great power from behind when you put all this together. Can you imagine him at the takeoff of a decent fence with that hind leg well engaged? It’s the coiling of a spring, and all seems very well here.”
“The front leg catches my eye,” Ryan said. “The still photo indicates he’s a little back of the knee, possibly more on the off-foreleg. His front joints look a little rounded and at first I thought he was turned in on both, but unusually the head-on video at the walk suggests both are turned to the right, the near fore a little more so. It looks fractional enough. More often horses have both turned in (pigeon-toed) or both turned out."
Referring to this horse’s video, Ryan said, “This horse has a beautifully balanced trot, light on his feet and with good power from behind as promised. This gives him a lovely rhythm and ground cover. This should also follow into his canter. When watching the Les Ètoiles de Pau CCI5*-L livestream, two standout horses for me were Laura Collet’s London 52 and Tom McEwan’s Toledo de Kerser. Both of those horses have this innate balance. A joy to watch in all three phases.”
Ryan concluded by observing, “This horse is beautifully handled. See how light he is in the contact. This will usually transfer to when he is ridden. This handling is hugely helpful as it set very useful foundations. It’s a frame of mind and good practice for when he’s trotting up for the ground jury at FEI events!”
This 3-year-old off-the-track Thoroughbred gelding is Prince’s Stone (Cairo Prince x Stony Plain Road), known as Merlin in the barn, bred by Harvey Clarke in Kentucky and now owned by Dionne Benson. “Both Cairo Prince and Bellamy Road (Merlin’s damsire) are known for producing uphill horses with excellent gaits and trainable temperaments,” shared Jennifer O’Neill, who sourced Merlin off the track. “Every horse by Bellamy Road I have seen has also been a big horse with tons of bone, which he passed to Merlin through his dam.”
“Merlin was bred to be a racehorse, and my husband was the trainer at the facility where he was stabled for most of his 2-year-old and 3-year-old year,” O’Neill explained. “I happened to see this horse jogging on the track at the end of his 2-year-old year and was blown away by his movement and seemingly easy going nature. I asked my husband, Brian, to let me know when he was done with his racing career because I thought he would make an event horse. Not many months later the bloodstock agent for Merlin told Brian that I could have the horse – they had decided to not race him.”
“At that moment I was not able to take on another horse, so I placed a call to my friend and long-term client, Dionne Benson, and asked her if she wanted another horse,” O’Neill continued. “I may have glazed over how big he was when she asked – Merlin is 17 hands and she did not want another giant horse as we had recently sold a 17.3-hand gelding that she had owned. Not to mention the fact that I had never seen the horse without tack on! I was hoping the whole form and function idea and his breeding was going to prove me right, and it did. He is beautiful.”
Merlin arrived at O’Neill’s farm in January 2020 and, after a few months off to enjoy being a young horse, he started light work in May. “He’s been a lovely horse to ride and train,” she complimented. “He’s so balanced it is easy to forget that he is only a 3-year-old. He competed in the 3-year-old FEH class at the Winona Horse Trials in July [placing third on a score of 74.5]. Our goal for the next few years is for me to ride him in the YEH classes and do some lower levels events. He’s brave and willing to learn, he’s maybe a touch lazy so far but I think he has all the parts to make into an upper-level horse. However, his temperament is also so good that he would make a great amateur-friendly lower level horse for his owner!”
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.
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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