Training in the Right Way: What to Look for in a Dressage Horse, Part 2

This is the second of a three-part series that explores what to look for when selecting a dressage horse. Today’s article focuses on the conformation that lends itself to a successful dressage horse.

You can catch up on the first installment of this series here

Dressage training is supposed to be the process of training ANY horse to be a better riding horse. The more the horse learns, in theory, the easier it is to communicate with and therefore complete more complex tasks with. Although competition dressage training often is more focused on training for the dressage test, that is not what the original intention (and original judging requirements) were for competitive dressage. Initially, it was designed to give riders and trainers a way to determine how their training measured up to the theoretical ideal of the training process. That said, it is critically important to understand the meanings and reasons for some of the terms we use to describe dressage training and what to look for when observing training and competition (and videos and photos), regardless of whether you intend to compete or just train your horse to be a better whatever you do with him. That, ultimately, is the main purpose of my articles. To provide education and knowledge for riders to understand and improve their eye and understanding of what dressage training is supposed to be. While there will always be some differences in practice and theory, good horse training is always recognizable to the educated eye. That said, it absolutely is necessary that we remember and understand that limited knowledge is limited judgment.

“Dressage is for all horses, but not all horses are for dressage.”

When choosing a prospect for dressage, there are some specific traits to look for that allow for a superior performance and make the process of training “easier” on both the horse and the rider. In my last article, I discussed that there are three overall categories that must be taken into consideration; temperament, conformation, and movement. This week we are going to dive a little deeper and focus on conformation.

Conformation refers to the overall shape of the horse and the shape of specific parts of the horse’s body. Judging the conformation of the horse is a tool that helps us predict the longevity, soundness, and capability of the horse in its intended career. It is extremely important that we understand that “good conformation” is not the same thing as “perfection.” In fact, many horses have visible conformational flaws, but it’s important to watch their way of going and note if said flaws affect the horse’s ability to do its job. Oftentimes their other attributes – be they physical characteristics or simply trainability — can make up for less than perfect structure.

This is true for two reasons. First of all, just because a horse has excellent conformation, without rideability (temperament) and adequate to exceptional movement, he will not succeed as a dressage horse. And secondly, there are numerous examples of horses with less than excellent conformation out in the world doing an exceptional job with what they have. The point of judging conformation when CHOOSING your dressage horse is to limit the risk of having a soundness problem – or a dead-end in the training – that you could avoid by choosing a better conformed partner.

Remember: conformation is not an end unto itself and it is not an exact science when predicting quality. It is worth repeating that superior conformation CANNOT overcome an unreasonable temperament or problems in the movement , just as it is worth mentioning that excellent training practices can sometimes improve movement problems despite conformational issues, given the right temperament.

Wenke (Blue Hors Zak x 00Seven) Oldenburg broodmare. This mare has some very good qualities for a dressage horse, and has consistently produced dressage horses.  Photo (c) Gwyneth McPherson.

“High performance” dressage  vs. “Suitable” for dressage

A “good” dressage horse can mean different things to different people. When choosing YOUR dressage horse, it is extremely important to recognize what your priorities are. Do you want to compete internationally? Or do you want to have a horse than can maybe do all the FEI work, but also is equally suited to other sports such as jumping or driving? Do you need to consider a horse that is lighter in the bridle or easier to sit than the average high-performance horse?

A high-performance dressage horse’s conformation is refined more towards strength, power, and elegance. They are built for impulsion, big movement, rounded toplines, and uphill carriage. They are also usually “hot” (light to the aids and, therefore, not resilient in the face of timid riding or mistakes with the rider’s aids), and are difficult for the average amateur to sit given their significant impulsion (particularly in the trot.)

Not everyone wants or needs a horse built for high performance. Most riders need a horse that is simply “suitable” for dressage. The “suitable for dressage” horse is not less athletic in its build and has many of the same qualities of a high-performance horse, but he may be more able to take a joke when the rider’s aids aren’t quite right and his gaits may be more rideable by the average rider. These qualities can be found in all the European warmblood bloodlines, but also in Iberian (Lusitanos and PREs) bloodlines, and in many American breeds (Thoroughbreds, Morgans, and Quarter Horses, to name a few). The build of the suitable horse takes into account the qualities that are necessary to be more than adequate as an FEI level competitive dressage horse but may lack some of the qualities that make the high-performance horses harder to sit and manage. The knowledge of what conformation qualities make a horse harder or easier to ride can really help you determine the most appropriate candidate for your next dressage partner.

As I mentioned in the last article, the KWPN (the Dutch Warmblood breed registry) has a very clear cut and scientific approach to gathering data and judging horses for entry into their registry. I have learned a great deal over the years that I was breeding KWPN horses and like to use their guidelines along with other sources when assessing horses as dressage athletes. While the KWPN is specifically talking about warmblood horses bred from European bloodlines, many of their observations on conformation and performance are applicable to selection of good horses in any breed. Their discussion of the difference between a high-performance dressage candidate and the well-rounded and capable Gelders Horse that will be able to excel in dressage training, but also has conformational qualities that lends it to jumping and driving, gives us an indication of how conformation plays a role in your choices. For more education on this and the differences in conformation in jumpers and harness horses, look at the “Selection for Performance” book put out by the KWPN. You don’t have to be interested in breeding Dutch horses to find this information useful.

Here are two examples of conformation for a deeper look into how conformation choices can effect capability. Watch Me is bred for dressage with European warmblood bloodlines. She is just beginning her dressage career. The other, Dio, is an American cross-bred that has excelled at dressage due to his temperament in spite his conformation. I will use these two examples to help illustrate some useful and unfortunate qualities in conformation.

Watch Me (Furstenball x Blue Hors Zak) 2020 Oldenburg mare, just starting her dressage career. Watch Me represents many of the modern high performance dressage horse ideals. Photo (c) Gwyneth McPherson.

Dio (Friesian Sporthorse). Dio is 12 years old, and currently schooling Prix St Georges with piaffe and passage. Dio has imperfect-for-dressage conformation, but his temperament and intelligence make up for his physical short-comings. He is a classic example of a horse that is not a high performance horse, but is suitable for dressage.  Photo (c) Gwyneth McPherson.

Head: The head of the horse is in fact important. While we would like to have a pretty head and a kind, intelligent eye for aesthetic and resale purposes, the beauty of the horse’s head is not significant in choosing a dressage horse. What is significant is the size. Horse heads are HEAVY. And when a horse does not have enough strength or desire to lug his own head around at a certain height, the rider will find themselves doing it for them. So the head must be proportionate to the size and shape of the neck and the rest of the horse.

The horse’s jaw must also line up with the upper teeth. If the teeth do not line up, or the jaw is longer or shorter than the upper part of the mouth, you will always have bitting and connection problems. If the opening of the mouth is small, you will have difficulty with fitting bits, especially if you need to fit the horse to a full bridle. Additionally, the width of the mandible (jaw bones) near the throat latch must be wide enough that the horse can flex at the poll and not create extra pressure on the horse’s airway. If the horse is having difficulty exchanging air from the outside to its lungs while in work, you will have problems with stamina and energy as well as submission and roundness. In side view conformation shots, it is difficult to asses the jaw alignment and width of the mandible. But both horses in out photos have well proportioned heads to the rest of their bodies and both have bright, alert, attractive expressions.

Neck: While we do not want a slight neck, the neck of the dressage horse does not need to be heavily muscled either. There should be a visible topline of muscle and the whole neck should trend toward and arched shape. The neck should be in comparable (not exactly the same) length to the length of the horse’s back and legs. It should grow up and out from the shoulder of the horse and should be deep at the base of the neck where it attaches to the shoulder. The neck should taper to the throat latch area. A deep throat latch will cause flexion of the poll and breathing difficulties. A low set neck will put more weight on the front end of the horse, and a high set neck will make it more difficult to keep the horse on the bit and supple through its top line. Both Dio and Watch Me have well-formed necks. Dio’s neck comes out of his shoulders a little lower (closer to his chest) than Watch Me’s. But he has a better defined throat latch. Watch Me’s is a bit deep; however, so far, it is not impairing her ability to flex her poll and go on the vertical.

Back: The dressage horse’s back is a critical piece to training success. First of all, any visible abnormalities (lumps, bumps, crookedness, low backs, or roached backs) are of great concern. Choose a horse with a back that is similar to his neck length and appears flexible and well-muscled. Any horse with a low (swayed) back will have trouble with collection and forwardness. A back that is much lower than the withers or hips will be a problem for the same reasons. A high (humped or roached) back will not be supple enough and difficult to sit and keep soft. A horse with a long back will have trouble with collection, as will a short-backed horse (while they might be built uphill, they will lack the flexibility to lower their pelvis and bring the hindlegs under their body). The most common recommendation is that you should look for a horse with a rectangular shape (not a sqaure). This is judged by imagining a square drawn around the edges of the horse from the head  to dock of the tail and from the feet to the tip of the ears. The length of the horse should be somewhat longer than the height, but not dramatically so. My two horses are both rectangular horses. But, Dio’s back is on the outer limits of acceptably long, especially compared to the length of his legs, which are a little short. Watch Me is close to being too square-shaped (her legs are long and her back is a little short).

A (very brief) word about “uphill tendency”: The appearance of a horse being built “uphill” is the combination of his neck coming up and out of his shoulders, the withers being higher than the hips, the front legs being no less than equal to the length of the hindleg, and the chest and shoulder not being larger or deeper than the hindquarters. as always, if your horse is not “ideal”, it does not mean you should give up on him. Excellent training can overcome many (not all) conformational faults, and can make any horse a better riding horse. Do not ever CHOOSE a horse for dressage that is built “down-hill”. That said, there is a point at which a horse can be “too uphill” and this will also cause problems in flexibility and collection.

Croup: The croup is the area of the topline that extends from the point of the hip to the buttocks/dock of the tail. The angle, length, and height of the croup is important to the horse’s ability to engage the hind legs and produce collection. A short croup is problematic for engagement as the horse won’t have the freedom to reach under his body with the hind leg. This can also occur when the croup is too flat. A sharply angled croup will decrease the horse’s ability to be supple through the back and produce impulsion. And a croup that is higher than the withers will put the horse on the forehand, making collection very difficult.

Both Dio and Watch Me have well formed croups. Dio’s hindquarters are smaller and his croup has less angle than Watch Me’s. Watch Me has much more powerful looking (muscular) hindquarters. Her croup may show a bit too much angle, but she also has a supremely superior use of her hind leg than Dio does. Neither of these horses are built with an “uphill tendency.” Both have croups that are close to level with their withers, but it is not to a detrimental degree in their movement. This is one of those places that watching how the horse uses its body is important before you condemn it for not being built well-enough.

Shoulder: The shoulder of the dressage horse must show a visible angle from the withers to the top of the chest. If the shoulder is too upright (straight up and down) the horse cannot reach its front legs out in front of him for exercises like flying changes and extended trot. It will also be inherently more on the forehand. It is rare to see an extremely horizontal shoulder. At the very least this will be structurally weak and effect the horse’s balance and suppleness. The size (or depth) of the shoulder and chest area in relation to the overall height of the horse, and in relation to the size of the hindquarters, is very important. A horse with a big front end in relation to its hind end will not be able to produce collection, and will always be on the forehand. Both of our examples are well-balanced in the ratio of their shoulders to their haunches and both have adequate sloping to their shoulders, but Dio’s is a little more “upright” than Watch Me’s. This does effect his ability to extend the front leg in the extended trot.

Legs and Feet: The legs and feet of the horse are the foundation. If the horse’s legs or feet have problems, it is irrelevant how nicely he moves, is conformed, or how good his temperament is. Feet and legs that are weak or crooked will break down over time, even when handled with great care. To do the subject justice would require way more time and space than we have here, but I’ll note some of the highlights.

The feet must be sturdy and large enough to support the horse’s weight. They should be mostly symmetrical, although most horses have some small variations left to right. Things like sole depth, amount of heel, and the thickness of the hoof wall are also important, though perhaps less obviously visible at first glance.

All of the angles in the horse’s front legs are important and work together to facilitate correct movement and balance. That being said, attention should be paid to the pastern, which is the suspension system for the horse’s weight. It should not be too upright or so steeply sloped that the column of the leg is behind the hoof. An upright pastern will cause the trot to be murderously difficult to sit. A long severely sloped pastern will not be supported by the hoof and runs a greater risk of suspensory ligament and tendon injuries. From both front and side views, the front leg should “drop” straight out of the horse’s body through the hoof to the ground. The pastern should be the only visible angle.

The hind legs have very similar requirements, but due to the biomechanics of producing impulsion, and collection, the placement and angles of the hind leg in a dressage horse are critical. The hind leg is the pushing and carrying device of the dressage horse. The angles of the hip, femur, and hock all play roles in creating the ability to extend and collect. If these angles are too straight the horse will have a hard time with impulsion and collection. If the hocks are “sickle-hocked” (too much angle) the hind leg will be weak. Pasterns that are too low, and allow the fetlock to sink behind the hoof show weakness. Too straight a pastern limits the flexibility needed for power. Also, the placement of the hind leg structure as it drops out of the hindquarter is critical. If the hocks are always behind the dock of the tail, when standing naturally and in motion, you will have difficulty with getting the hind leg under you weight in the saddle, and therefore with collection. Look for a hind leg that appears to be under the weight of the hind leg and its ability to reach toward the horse’s mid-back not limited by the structure of size of the abdomen or hindquarters.

When considering my two horses, I would prefer Dio’s front legs and Watch Me’s hind legs (though due to the difference in their length, I would not choose them for the same horse, however). To be picky, Dio’s canon bone is a bit long, but his legs are sturdy in appearance. His weight is well balanced over the column of the leg, and his knee is not bent forward or backward from the forearm and canon bone. He has a fairly straight line through the length of his leg from the elbow to the hoof. Although you cannot see it from the side view, his knees, fetlocks, and hooves are centered over each other from the front view. The pastern is not long or severely straight or sloped. His feet are well-shaped, not cracked or broken and support the weight of his body. To use Dio as an example, his upper hind leg and hindquarters are well-formed for our purposes. His lower hind leg shows some weakness in the fetlock pastern area, evidence by the angle of the pastern and the fact that the fetlock sinks in the direction of behind the hoof. In reality, he does have a tremendous ability to collect, but has difficulty with impulsion. Watch Me has a more athletic hind leg. You can see that between the length of her leg and the length of her back, and the size and shape of the hindquarter, that she will be able to reach under where the riders sits without difficulty. I am not saying her hind leg is perfect, it is not, but it is very functional for dressage, when viewed as part of the whole horse.

Ultimately, conformation is an essential part of selecting your dressage horse. Along with a good temperament and good quality of movement, it can help predict a horse’s chances at success and longevity in a dressage career. Noting that however, keep in mind that seeking perfection in conformation will not provide insurance of a perfect dressage partner. Whether you want to compete internationally, or just have a proficient dressage partner, looking for a well-rounded package that includes an excellent temperament, excellent movement, and excellent conformation will be a much better insurance policy for success.

Remember: Limited knowledge is limited judgment.


Gwyneth and Flair in competition at Grand Prix. (c) flatlandsfoto.

Gwyneth McPherson has over 35 years experience competing, training, and teaching dressage.  She began her education in in the late 1970s, riding in her backyard on an 11 hh pony. Her first instructor introduced her to Lendon Gray (1980 and 1988 Olympian). who mentored Gwyneth for a decade during which she achieved her first National Championship in 1984, and her Team and Individual Young Rider Gold Medals in1987.

In 1990 Gwyneth began training with Carol Lavell (1992 Olympian) who further developed Gwyneth as an FEI rider and competitor. Gwyneth achieved a Team Bronze in 1991 and a Team Silver in 1992 in the North American Young Riders Championships, and trained her stallion G’Dur to do all the Grand Prix movements while riding with Carol.

In 2008, while Head Trainer at Pineland Farms, Gwyneth began training with Michael Poulin (Olympian 1992). Michael was trained by Franz Rochowansky (Chief Rider for the Spanish Riding School 1937-1955). Michael has shared much of Rochowansky’s knowledge and wisdom with Gwyneth, completing her education as a Grand Prix rider, trainer, and competitor.

Gwyneth’s teaching and training business, Forward Thinking Dressage,is based in Williston, FL. In addition to teaching riders and training, Gwyneth also loves sharing her knowledge of the sport and art of dressage as well as discussing relevant topics pertaining to the training itself and the current competitive landscape.