Dressage horses are the ballerinas of equine sport; they must possess strength and balance, yet remain supple and relaxed even during the most difficult movements. While most horses are capable of competing at the lower levels, a well-built horse has the potential to go much further. Conformation is not an exact science, but using these tips to evaluate dressage prospects can help you separate average from exceptional.
Before you begin insure the horse is standing square on level ground. Stand back and observe the overall proportions. Look for balance and symmetry, and the proportions of the head, neck, back, legs and hind end. Ideally the horse should be built ‘uphill’, meaning the withers are higher than the croup, which allows the horse to properly collect and engage the hind end. Level or downhill builds can make it more difficult for the rider to lighten the front end. However, when evaluating a young horse it’s important to remember that growth spurts can cause them to appear higher in the croup.
Look for a strong and smooth topline, with the neck and back of average length. The withers, which are often overlooked, should be well defined and set into the back. This allows the rider to stay in the center of gravity. While a short back can restrict movement, a long back can be a sign of weakness and possible soundness issues. The shoulders should have a gentle slope with the joints free of the saddle area.
Although minor flaws in the front legs are acceptable they should be reasonably straight. A long, sloping pastern creates suspension and helps protect the fetlock joint from injury. Since a dressage horse should carry itself with the hind end, this is an area where strength and soundness is the most important. Look for short loins and a long, slightly sloped croup. The hock should also flex easily and appear strong.
Since near-perfect conformation is rare; strength, soundness and overall balance should be the main focus of the evaluation. It’s also important to assess your goals and the level you hope to achieve. Because dressage is both physically and mentally demanding, the horse must be capable and willing to do the job. Beyond the basic conformation, the top dressage horses also have an undeniable ‘presence’. Whether it’s an endearing personality or flashy markings, they commend attention in the show ring and often gain high marks for expression. Horse shopping can take some time and patience to find the right match, but a talented prospect will be worth the wait.
What do you look for in a young dressage horse?