Functional Conformation: a Clinic with Judy Wardrope

I learned most of my essential equine conformation concepts through the progressive curriculum of the United States Pony Club, and have added to it over the years through judge’s forums, clinics, magazine articles and books. As a result, I felt that I had a pretty good handle on concepts ranging from using basic terminology to assessing plumb lines to identifying where deviations originate. I believed that I had a solid understanding of equine conformation.

And then I attended a clinic with Judy Wardrope.

Judy Wardrope, in a press photo, uses a soft tape measure to help define the lines she bases her functional conformation analysis upon.

Wardrope is a lifelong equestrian, breeder, researcher and author who has spent over thirty years studying pedigree and performance, and analyzing what she calls the “functional aspects of equine conformation.” What she has learned will upend what you thought you knew about what is important in the structure of an equine athlete, probably for the better.

                Wardrope has written extensively for magazines published around the world, as well as produced ten books, and it was through one of her articles that I first became aware of her work. I was thrilled when Debbie Place, owner of the beautiful Peppergrass Farm in Dixmont, Maine, invited Wardrope for a two day clinic in November 2019.

                Wardrope’s overarching message is that if we think about our horse’s workload in mechanical terms (i.e., what does he actually have to be able to do physically to be successful), and if we understand how structurally (un)suitable our horse is for his job, we can appropriately adjust our expectations to match the biomechanics of the horse. Doing so not only protects the horse’s physical well-being, but ensures that they will be happier in their work.

                Wardrope is understandably protective of her materials and content, and I don’t want to infringe in any way upon her proprietary ideas through this blog. Instead of providing a deeply detailed discussion of her presentation, I will instead touch upon the highlights of Wardrope’s conformational assessment system, and how it contrasts with some of what we are traditionally taught.

                A functional conformation analysis looks at seven specific areas of the horse (the lumbosacral gap, the rear triangle, stifle placement, the pillar of support, the humerus, the elbow placement, and the base of the neck), and then considers the overall package that these pieces present.

Hind End: Key Concepts

                When analyzing functional conformation, start at the hindquarters and work your way forward. Wardrope compares the hindquarters to the engine of a car; it is where the power comes from, and what propels it forward. The lumbo-sacral joint (LS) serves to transmit that power to the front end, much like a car’s transmission. A conformationally correct hindquarter is of little use if the horse’s LS placement does not allow its power to transfer forward.

My pony mare Anna is somewhat naturally lacking in impulsion, despite her LS placement being more or less within the parameters outlined by Wardrope.

                The LS joint is an important one in the horse’s spine. It is located just in front of the high point of the croup, and marks a point of change in the vertebra. In front of the LS, the horse’s spine is more flexible, lifting up and down as well as bending left and right. Behind the LS, the vertebrae are less mobile. A horse with good LS placement can compensate for other deficiencies far better than a horse with poor LS placement.  Poor LS placement leads to negative physical effects on the animal, including incorrect muscling and the formation of a “hunter’s bump.” An equine athlete’s LS gap is ideally not more than 1.5” behind an imaginary line connecting hip to hip.

                The “rear triangle” is likely a familiar concept to students of conformation; the triangle is formed by drawing a line from the top of the point of hip to the point of buttock to the visible protrusion of the tip of the stifle. The hip to buttock side reveals the position of a horse’s ilium, while the buttock to stifle line shows his femur. The shape of a horse’s triangle (which can range from equilateral to quite sloping) has a direct effect on his ability to both sit (collect) and extend (lengthen or reach forward). Depending on your sport, the “ideal” triangle varies, but I was always taught that a sport horse’s triangle should trend more towards equilateral.

My rising 3 year old Morgan, Nori, is a little dirty and hairy in this photo but you can clearly see her rear triangle in this photo.

                Wardrope presented several photos of elite horses from popular disciplines, and analyzed their rear triangle. She quickly showed that upper level dressage and endurance athletes tended to be shorter on the ilium side compared to their femur, while elite jumpers tended to be more equal along both lines. Eventers split the difference, but those successful at upper levels had one other variable in common; the placement of their stifles was oriented towards jumping.

                Stifle placement? What?

                I will admit that in the past, I have perhaps not paid sufficient attention to this important joint, the physiological equivalent of the human knee. But after Wardrope’s presentation, I am certainly viewing the placement of the equine stifle in a new, appreciative way.

                Watch your horse walk, focusing on the protrusion of the stifle. What is its range of motion? Does your horse move with long, swinging strides (low stifle) or a short, quick step (higher stifle)? Additionally, consider whether the stifle joint bumps into the horse’s barrel as he moves. Stifles that point outwards readily clear the ribcage and maximize the horse’s range of motion. Stifles that point straight ahead often limit the reach of the hind leg, as the joint actually hits the horse’s belly in movement.

The Paper Boy, aka Snapper, took me through my Pony Club C3. He was a Saddlebred cross of some sort, and always a fun choice for “analyze your mount’s conformation” as he was an assembly of spare parts. But he could surely jump!

                Again, ideal stifle placement is somewhat dictated by discipline. Wardrope has worked extensively with the racing industry, and she categorizes stifle placements by running type: sprinter, miler, and distance. Ideal stifle placement for performance horses is split among these three groups, with dressage aligning with milers and all jumping disciplines and endurance favoring the distance placement. If you want to know more about these…you will need to buy one of Wardrope’s books!

Front End: Key Concepts

If the hind end is the engine and the LS the transmission, then the front end of the horse is his suspension and steering. Preserving overall soundness and promoting longevity in a horse’s career is all about lightening the forehand.           

Consider again the name of Wardrope’s system: functional conformation, meaning that the horse’s structure has a function to perform. Therefore, it is perhaps no surprise that the most important conformational qualities in the front end of the horse all relate to their ability to be light on the forehand. Horses that can carry themselves towards level balance tend to stay sounder, longer, but not all horses are conformationally suited to do so.            

                One of Wardrope’s most important components in front end analysis is the pillar of support. This is an imaginary line that basically bisects the forelimb when the horse stands square. It allows us to see how much of the horse is out ahead of the skeletal support structure. Imagine a house with a porch overhang. A short overhang can be held up by the house itself, but the longer and wider the overhang, the more likely it is to sag without additional support. If the front limbs of the horse are part of his basic frame, they are only able to support so much mass suspended out ahead of them before the basic structures break down. In particular, look how far the pillar of support lands in front of the withers (more forward=lighter forehand), and how close it is to the horse’s elbow where it bisects the humerus (closer to elbow=heavier forehand). Ideally, the pillar ends in the rear quarter of the hoof.

I will admit that this image is borrowed and I have lost the reference…please reach out if you can help me give credit!

                Other indicators for the lightness of the forehand include the relationship of the base of neck to point of shoulder. The higher the base of neck, the lighter the forehand. If the point of shoulder is also high, even better. The longer and lower the point of shoulder (which is the external representation of the length and angle of the humerus), the heavier the horse is on his forehand.

                The elbow joint is another one that I have never paid much attention to previously in conformational analysis. But if a horse’s elbows are too close to their body, the joint will hit the ribcage and the horse must compensate. Movement defects such as short strides or choppy gaits, and behavioral signs like girthiness, resistance to lateral work or refusing fences, can all be the result of tight elbows.

In Conclusion    

                No horse is conformationally perfect, yet most are asked to do some sort of athletic work. Horses with deficiencies in key areas must compensate in others. We see evidence of this compensation in everything from windpuffs to under saddle resistance. Wardrope emphasized that most of the time, when horses have a performance issue, it is physically based.

                “We need to listen and see if we can help the horse to overcome the issue, or change the horse’s job to suit their build,” says Wardrope.

                Day two of this clinic featured demo horses, which we analyzed in hand and then watched perform under saddle. Wardrope offered various stretches and exercises which, if used routinely, can help horses to overcome some of their conformational deficiencies. While each horse’s maximum performance level will ultimately be limited by their underlying structure, practicing these basic exercises (which included elbow stretches, backing the horse up, and working over poles) can help a horse to compensate for common areas of structural weakness.

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