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Sickle-hocks, cow-hocks, and "perfect" horses

From: Anya

Jessica -- thanks for all your wonderful advice -- now can you give us your two cents on a perennial issue?

There's always a lot of discussion as to just what is perfect conformation (halter ribbons vs. performance and longevity), and so here we go again! I'll even add a reference for your readers:

I've been nuts about a mare since I saw film footage of her as a baby and as a two year old. But just as I was about to visit her in another state (co-inciding with a vet check), the owner changed her mind, kept her, and sold her 6 year old TB instead. Well, last year she sold the filly anyway -- but the new owner is a junior in high school and is suddenly busy. I would love more than anything to lease this mare to breed the horse of my dreams, but they pointed out that the filly was sickle hocked and cow hocked. The girl knew this before buying her, but wanted her anyway (she moves like a dream, and at an eventing clinic Michael Paige thought she had a lot of promise and loved the way she jumped). The filly is now a 5 year old mare, and has plenty of hormones to display at the studs at her barn, I've been told :).

I contacted the owner of the filly's grandfather (who I want to line breed her to, to preserve what I consider to be a rare and special bloodline), and sure enough, she prefers her horses this way -- they get under themselves better! Now keep in mind that the degree of these is so small I couldn't see it on the tapes at all. And the conformational shots of the grandfather don't show anything noticable in the rear legs, and I've met him in person, he's 28, and he moves fine! He's getting a little arthritic, to the point of having trouble breeding young, taller, over-fidgity mares, but hey, he's 28! The progeny of this stallion, and his sons and grandsons, are all excellent jumpers, and several have done upper level dressage (past 4th level). He has over 100 award winning progeny himself, and his soundness and calm personality pass on like clockwork. So, is having mild sickle & cow hocks all that bad?

Hi Anya! Conformation is always going to be subject for debate, but you're wise to want to consider functionality as well. A twenty-eight-year-old stallion that is still sound and moving well, and still strong enough in the hind legs and hindquarters to breed mares, is a wonderful recommendation for his bloodlines. A stallion with that breeding record, and that passes on those characteristics, is the kind of stallion I wish every mare owner would breed to... the old saying, "Handsome is as handsome does", is very true when it comes to horses and performance. Energy, coordination, durability and "heart" aren't measurable with a ruler or measuring tape or a set of scales, but they are factors that, in the long term, are all-important.

Oh, and by the way - I personally would attach quite a lot of importance to Michael Page's opinion. Michael knows horses, conformation, and performance, and if he sees potential in a horse, then you can be assured that the potential is there. ;-)

Extremes tend to be bad. ;-) All other things being equal, a horse with extreme sickle hocks wouldn't be a good breeding or performance prospect - but neither would a horse with too-straight hind legs. In between the extremes, there's a wide range of useful horses with hind legs that work very well indeed. This is where the purchaser's good sense has to come into play. If a horse is sound and solid, and recapitulates the conformation of horses that have worked hard and remained sound for many years, then I would be far more likely to forgive a minor defect; if a horse was not sound, and came from a family of horses that were not and could not remain sound, then I wouldn't care how perfect the horse LOOKED - I wouldn't want it.

Part of the problem here may be a matter of semantics and definitions. In the books, where writers and illustrators tend to repeat one another, generation after generation and edition after edition, you're usually presented with two extremes: the drawing of the "perfect horse" representing ideal conformation, and the drawing of the "horrible horse" that exhibits every defect known to man. These illustrations are not very helpful to horse-buyers! I don't know anyone who has ever been offered the PERFECT horse at any price - and I don't know anyone who would even consider purchasing a horse that looked like the "all the faults, right here!" illustration. That leaves the horse-buyers in the middle, uninformed and confused.

Websites with illustrations and text - and the one for which you've provided the URL is a good example - tend to recapitulate the same information and illustrations - and the misunderstandings that tend to accompany them. The "problem" of a slight sickle hock is much less dire than the "problem" of a too-straight hind leg, although on a diagram, both may represent precisely the same degree of deviation from the "ideal." That's one factor. Another is that, by seeing the same drawings, over and over, it's possible to get an incorrect idea of what the ideal IS! And that brings us to the question of cowhocks. ;-)

A horse with cow-hocks would be a horse that, viewed from behind, shows hind legs that look rather like an 'X' - instead of appearing to go straight down from its hindquarters to the ground, the legs angle in toward each other at the hock, separating again from the hocks down. The problem here is that, once again, most illustrations offer only extremes. You're usually shown two pictures - one in which the hocks touch and the widely separated hind feet turn out dramatically (think ballet here!). Anyone would know not to buy this horse! What's the "ideal" as presented, though? The "ideal" horse is shown, by contrast, to have perfectly straight legs - the plumb line goes through the back of the buttock and drops straight down to bisect the hock and then the fetlock and heel. Perfect, yes?

Perfect - NO.

Would you know not to buy a horse with those "perfect, ideal" hind legs? Would you be clever enough to look at the feet and say to yourself, "Ah, this can't be good - this horse will hurt himself as soon as he begins to move!" Any horse with hind feet that point and move directly forward toward the front feet will strike into those front feet. The actual physical "ideal" horse - and every FUNCTIONAL horse, ideal or less than ideal - has hind toes that point very slightly outward, NOT straight ahead. But there it is: many illustrations show an incorrect version of the ideal hind leg, and many people who should know better tend to repeat this error.

To complicate matters a bit more, there are humans who don't realize that "cow-hocked" refers to an inward-turning position of the HOCKS, and such humans may look at the horse's hind toes and pronounce the horse "good" or "bad", "cow-hocked" or "not cow-hocked", without ever actually looking at the horse's hocks and their structure and position. I make this point because on more than one occasion, I have seen otherwise intelligent riders reject a horse because its feet did NOT point straight ahead toward its front feet - even though those riders could not have lived with the consequences of such conformation!

To complicate matters a LOT more, there are horses that may appear to be cow-hocked without actually being cow-hocked at all. Young horses going through awkward phases of growth can stand in a way that makes them appear to be cow-hocked. Many young horses with insufficient muscle development will appear to be cow-hocked, but another year running in the field with their peers will develop their maturing muscles enough to let their true structure become evident even to a casual observer.

And now, to complicate everything to an incredible degree, we'll return to the question of perfect conformation.

"Perfect" for WHAT?

Horses and their conformation don't exist in a vacuum. Horses have jobs to do, horses have athletic perfomance to achieve (we won't even discuss the tragedy/travesty of the so-called "halter horse"), and soundness to maintain, and physical movement to enjoy. Example: the Saddlebred with "perfect" showring conformation would be quite unsuitable for hunting or dressage; another Saddlebred with conformation that wouldn't win at breed shows (shorter back, more compact build, lower knees and hocks, neck set on lower) might have superstar potential in dressage, eventing, or hunting. The "perfect" Belgian or Percheron would have conformation that would allow it to pull heavy weights (or, rather, "push" into a harness), but that conformation would be far from perfect for a horse destined to gallop over jumps. On the other hand, there are Percherons with builds far from "perfect" for pulling, but with wonderful ability to jump - and keep up with hounds.

To understand what is good conformation, it's not enough to be able to recognize major, overt flaws. It's vital to be able to relate the horse's structure to his ability to perform, so that, as an owner, you can act as a true horseman and direct the horse into the activities for which he is best-suited. This might mean taking an Arabian bred for the show ring and selling it to someone for whom its "not perfect" conformation is "perfect" for endurance riding. It might mean that a rider looking for a horse on which to do lower-level eventing would take her shopping budget and look for an ex-racehorse to recycle - and not necessarily limit herself to Thoroughbreds, either. Ther are many Standardbreds with conformation that doesn't allow them to have great success at the racetrack - but that makes them entirely suitable mounts for trail-riding and for lower-level eventing.

My advice to you would be to do what you've already done: look at the mare's build AND her ability to do the work you'd want her (or her foal) to do, look at her ancestors and their build and ability to do similar work, as well as at their soundness and their longevity. You've DONE your homework on this one. Congratulations - and I hope you get the foal you want.

While you're waiting for the baby to arrive, there are two great resources you can use to help you "see" horse structure and function. Use them both, and you should be able to develop a really good "eye" for a horse.

The most recent of these resources is a videotape by Susan Harris. It's called "Anatomy in Motion 1: The Visible Horse". Susan, a noted artist and illustrator as well as a horsewoman in the true sense of the word, draws and paints on a live horse until the skeletal structure major muscles, and support structures are visible - not as they would be in a model or a horse being dissected, but on a live horse in motion. The video includes slow-motion footage of the horse at walk, trot, and canter, and discusses movement as well as structure.

The other resource has been around for some time now, and if you don't already own it, I encourage you to acquire it ASAP - it's a set of three affordable paperback books by Deb Bennett, Ph.D. The three-volume series is called "Principles of Conformation Analysis", and it will be one of the most valuable additions to your library.

Hope this helps - there are a lot of myths and misunderstanding about conformation, and it can be hard to sort through the nonsense, especially when it's widely-accepted, often-repeated nonsense. Susan's video and Deb's books will help you immensely. ;-)


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