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Conformation and the Link to Long Term Soundness of the Horse

When we are looking to buy a new horse, we are encouraged to look at its conformation. Horse conformation is the study of the shape and structure of a horse's body. Conformation is influenced by the length and angles of the bones, the size and shape of the muscles, and the balance and symmetry of the horse. Correct conformation is important for long term performance and soundness because it may determine how well a horse can move, carry weight, and avoid injuries.


In this article Allison Lowther interviews Dr Sue Dyson to find out more...


Some aspects of conformation are inherent but other aspects may be influenced by management and/or musculoskeletal health. To delve a little deeper into the role conformation plays in the long-term soundness of young horses Dr Sue Dyson will be looking at whether performance and longevity can be predicted by assessment of conformation at the Horses Inside Out Conference in February 2024. This conference is jam-packed with inspiring and educational presentations from world-leading presenters. There is something for everyone and opportunity to understand more about horses from birth to old age. We're offering an early bird discount which ends on 31st October so don't miss out!



Sue Dyson specialises in equine orthopaedics, with a focus on lameness and poor performance in sports horses. She lectures internationally and is known for both her clinical work and extensive research having published more 400 peer-reviewed papers on lameness and diagnostic imaging in scientific journals. She also co-authored several veterinary textbooks, as well as training and competing at upper national level in both eventing and show jumping.


At the conference, Sue will discuss the findings of several studies she has done on equine conformation. She will also review some other people’s conformation studies and combine this with her own clinical observations of seeing many young horses over a number of years.

If you are looking to buy a young horse, there are a few pieces of advice Sue suggests that you consider, which will help you make an informed choice.

“No foot, no horse is a good a good start,” explains Sue. “Horses with asymmetrical front feet leave the competition arena earlier in life than horses with symmetrical front feet.”

Also, stand back and take a look at the whole horse - it should look balanced. “If the back end is considerably higher than the front end the horse is never going to be find it easy to work in an uphill manner and it is going to have a propensity to overload the forehand,” says Sue.

“I think it's important to recognise that a beautifully formed horse may not move well and movement (limb flight and loading is sometimes more important than absolutely correct conformation.”


When it comes to training young horses, it must be slow and progressive. Many young horse don’t have the musculoskeletal strength and coordination to support themselves unless they are trained correctly and slowly.


Furthering Knowledge For The Good Of The Horse

Sue will be giving another talk over the weekend and we are delighted that she has chosen the Horses Inside Out Conference to present the results of a large scale study she has done in conjunction with the University of Davis, California. The title of this talk is:


Do developmental abnormalities of the cervical vertebrae predispose to neck pain, neck stiffness, forelimb lameness or ataxia?


Sue was busy working on this research when we spoke to her for this blog and we are keeping everything crossed that she will get the go ahead to present the results in February. Obviously, she can’t reveal very much at this stage but she did give us a few little nuggets.


“There is currently some controversy about the potential clinical significance of some anatomical variants that are seen in the neck vertebrae. I am hoping to present the results of a very large study comparing horses with clinical signs and control horses. This will demonstrate whether or not there is a relationship between these anatomical variants and the development of clinical signs. I think the results are going to surprise some people.”


Sue goes on to explain that with more effective equipment we are now able to get better quality radiography (x-ray) images of the neck. However, there are a myriad of clinical problems which are blamed on the neck, which may or may not be true. She stresses that we have to be very, very careful about how we interpret the findings from radiography and correlate it with the clinical observations.


“I think that you always have to remember that a rider’s perception of where the problem is, isn’t necessarily correct. For example, if a horse is difficult to turn and feels stiff in the neck, it doesn’t necessarily reflect a primary neck problem,” says Sue. “It is often related to something else such as hindlimb lameness. Once that is treated then the issue the rider was feeling is often rectified.”

This is why it's always important to look at the whole horse and the horse - rider combination. Once a problem is identified, the management of the problem is a team effort – vet, farrier, trainer manual therapist, saddle fitter and the rider. However, Sue also strongly believes the prevention of problems should be a team effort as well.


The Horses Inside Out Conference is two-days of amazing guest speakers who will be presenting the latest research and thinking connected to the grown and development of horses. You can join us in person or online - book before 31 October 2023 and save on ticket prices with our early bird discount!



If you enjoyed this article you may also be interested in the on-demand seminar: Recognising Pain Related Poor Performance with Dr Sue Dyson which is available in the Horses Inside Out Academy.



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