I really feel there is less focus on conformation than there should be when making decisions to buy a horse. For horses in the higher price ranges, yes, that is definitely considered, but then again, how many of us can afford a $20,000 horse? When looking at horses in a slightly (ahem) lower price range you can find a WIDE variety of conformations, depending on what you want to do, this can have a serious impact on your performance. If you have a good eye, you can get a fantastic horse for a good price.
To start, lets look at the word conformation.
con‧for‧ma‧tion from www.dictionary.com
1. manner of formation; structure; form, as of a physical entity.
2. symmetrical disposition or arrangement of parts.
3. the act or process of conforming; adaptation; adjustment.
4. the state of being conformed.
5. Chemistry. an atomic spatial arrangement that results from rotation of carbon atoms about single bonds within an organic molecule. (contrasted with configuration).
I really like the first three definitions and how they work together for what we see in the animal world. When conformation is being judged we are looking at the shape of the animal (its structure), how well it conforms to the breed standard (the act of being conformed), the overall picture of the animal (symmetrical disposition).
In the dog show world, conformation is THE test. Most breeders want to 'finish' his/her dog before pursuing other titles and definitely before breeding. When you make your dog a champion by 'finishing' him or her, you are proving that you have appropriate breeding stock. Conformation is king (or queen).
In the horse show world, halter classes (Bella Forma for Paso Finos) are the conformation test. Bella Forma, however, just isn't popular. The style is not hard to teach most horses, I taught Santana in a week. The first day was tough, but he started to get the knack. Santana is a classic fino horse, a prized possession in the show world and had never earned any Bella Forma points, so I don't think he had much training. I'll detail Bella Forma training in future blogs if you are interested. Even if you are just into schooling shows, it is a very unique presentation that is very flattering for the breed. I have even seen pictures from the Rose Parade where they took one Paso Fino in Bella Forma, I bet it was an awesome site!
In other breeds, Halter classes are much more prevalent. Winning halter horses are very prized and valuable, often bringing home large purses for their owners. Sometimes halter horses are not even ridden! There is a high level champion QH mare here in Eugene (I am sure there are many) and I have never seen a horse with a bigger butt.
Monty Roberts in his book The Man Who Listens To Horses attributes MUCH of his success in choosing young potential racehorses because of his knowledge of conformation. He uses a triangle system, some people use the quarter system, some use the third system. Before you start with your system, look at a lot of horses and pick up this book: Conformation and Performance: A Guide to the Performance Consequences of Common Conformation Points by Nancy S. Loving, Bob Langrish (Photographer). When you read this book, keep in mind it is NOT about judging a horse good or bad, but rather saying, 'this is the possible implication' for a particular conformation trait. For instance, there are a few items that have negative impact for dressage or jumping that occur in many gaited horses that are GOOD for gaiting. It isn't a bible either, no horse is perfect and as we learned with Seabiscut, there is no substitute for heart. But it doesn't hurt to think about conformation, so first, think about what you want to do with your horse.
Once you have sorted your way through the book, go to a local show (and another and another) and watch. It takes time to develop good conformation eyes. I'll detail in later blogs how to take conformation photos, specific conformation issues and more.
My mare Precious doesn't have great conformation. She is structuraly sound, but light in the hind end, long in the back (making collection difficult). Her shoulder is very upright giving her difficulty in extending her stride. BUT, Precious is willing to work and willing to try for me, so while I wasn't looking at conformation when I bought her, the other qualities made up for whatever flaws she has. Remember, good conformation is vital to performance, but without heart from both you and the horse, there is no reason to perform.