You Can Use Sticks And Strings To Choose A Better Dressage Horse

Jan 27, 2016 - 7:42 AM
Kristi Wysocki (right) and CDS President Kevin Reinig speaking at the Evaluating the Sport Horse Form and Function Symposium. Photo by Kim Miller

More than a few in the audience were surprised when dressage and sport horse breed judge Kristi Wysocki measured the length from a horse’s poll to the end of the muzzle and found it equal to the length from the withers to the elbow, and what’s more, revealed that it relates to the horse’s balance as a dressage horse.

This was one of many insights and tools shared by FEI 3* dressage and USEF ‘R’ DSHB Judge Wysocki at the Evaluating the Sport Horse Form and Function Symposium hosted by the California Dressage Society on Jan. 23-24.

At the Embassy Suites Riverfront in Sacramento, the first day introduced plumb lines, using springs on photos of the horse. These help develop the eye to recognize the lines and angles that help define the biomechanics of the dressage sport horse. The following day, Starr Vaughn Equestrian in Elk Grove, Calif., was the setting for sticks to replace string and for live horses to replace photos to develop the same technique developed by Wysocki.


Christel Carlson and Kevin Reinig, president of the California Dressage Society, demonstrate the hindquarter triangle. Photo by Kim Miller

“When you understand the biomechanics, it takes the emotions out evaluating a horse. I became a better rider and judge when I studied biomechanics,” said Wysocki.

She further made the point that as dressage riders, if we are aware of a horse’s form and how it relates to his function, we can better develop a training methodology that fits the individual horse. Horses have different body types and movement that are fitting for different jobs, she said, showing a slide of six champions, ranging from the warmblood stallion Contango to Triple Crown winner American Pharoah.

Further, she emphasized that the body type, temperament and movement make the individual dressage horse while focus on breed and bloodlines can lead you down the wrong path when you’re shopping for a horse.

Her definitions were:

Form: the visible shape or configuration of horse he was born with

Function: Function is an activity or purpose natural to or intended for the horse.

Form to Function: how they relate or don’t relate—horses move in different ways because of their form.

To see the horse’s form, “you literally have to sort through the hair to find the lines,” she said. But first, you need to train your eye to recognize the form so as to evaluate the good, the bad and the ugly or serious faults, and then to develop guidelines in how to evaluate a horse. From there, you can determine what you want or what you have, what you can afford, and what you should walk away from.

Before evaluating a live horse, Wysocki recommended taking the pictures of prospective horses and drawing the combination of plumb lines on the photos as a way to practice observation skills, using a ruler and string to mark where the lines and angles fall.

Start by looking at the overall picture and balance of the horse, next the frame, then head, neck, withers and shoulders, then back and barrel, loin and croup, then forelegs, hind legs, and feet. Knowing the equine skeleton is helpful. For example, the fact that the vertebrae forms a snake-like path through the neck muscles or that the shoulder is not connected to the body via bone may surprise the unknowing. 

After reviewing what to look for in the overall picture, Wysocki  taught the audience her system of using connecting lines and angles created from strings on photos and the next day with sticks on live horses.


Welsh pony stallion Laffran Sponti being evaluated and then demonstrating the findings under saddle with Eva Larsen riding. Photos by Kim Miller

The lines included:

  1. The harmony line: The horse should display harmony in its proportions from ears to tail. The length from the poll to the end of the muzzle should be the same as the length from the fetlock to the elbow, the chestnut to the ground, the point of the withers to the loin, the withers to the belly, the stifle to the hock, and the hock to the ground.
  2. Pillar of support: A vertical line created by the forearm groove should emerge well in front of withers for lightness in a dressage horse. The bottom of the line should emerge toward the back quarter of the hoof to avoid strain on tendons and ligaments.
  3. Pivot Point: Intersection of the vertical plumb line from the highest point of withers and a horizontal line from point of the shoulder to point of buttocks. The higher and further back the point, the more freedom and movement in the shoulder.
  4. Uphill balance: In a dressage horse, you look for the balance to be uphill and back for lightness of the forehand. Eyeing the relationship of the withers to the croup isn’t sufficient. The horse may have short front legs and a big chest, making the front end appear higher than the back end.

A line from the stifle to elbow will show uphill or downhill balance. If the line from the withers to the elbow is longer than the line from the elbow to ground, he’s not really uphill.  The line from the point of the hip to the thickest part of the shoulder should go uphill. The hock should be higher than the knee.  Stifles should not be much higher than the elbow. An ideal neck will come out of the shoulder at a 90-degree angle. A line drawn from the middle of the shoulder at this 90-degree angle is optimal if it crosses the poll.

  1. Center of balance: The closer the dressage rider sits to the center of balance, the better. A cutting horse will have a center of balance further forward than that of a dressage horse.
    Find the center of balance by creating a teepee: A line up through the shoulder intersects with a line from point of the butt through the point of the hip. A vertical line drawn down from the center of the teepee is where the balance is.
  2. Hindquarters: A dressage horse should collect and extend, as opposed, for example, a jumper who needs to sit and leap. The shape of the hindquarter skeleton is indicative of how the horse will use it: an isosceles triangle from the point of the hip to the point of the butt, down from the point of the butt to the stifle and back up to the point of the hip is ideal for a dressage horse with the top of the triangle the shortest line. The ideal jumper hindquarter wants an equilateral triangle.

On the second day of the clinic, horses were measured and then were shown to the audience under saddle to see if they lived up to the expectations of the measurements.

Memorable comments from Wysocki included:

“Don’t get emotional before it’s time to get emotional.”

 “Going from one gait to a downward gait is shifting gears, not slamming on brakes.”

 “The neck of a dressage horse should be a sail, not an anchor.”

“When the quality of the walk gets better, I know the work is correct.”

Quoting the late dressage judge Elizabeth Searle about what is enough collection: “If the horse comes out of the movement in as good or better balance than when he went in, there is enough collection.”

“Your seat is the metronome.”

“A common issue today is faking it through locking the topline.”

The CDS Symposium included a varied selection of horses: a Gypsy Vanner, a Welsh Pony, a Halflinger, a Friesian/Dutch Warmblood cross, an Arabian, a Dutch Warmblood, three Hanoverians. They ranged in age from 6 to 20, first level through Grand Prix.

Wysocki concluded that the horses in the symposium were obviously capable of doing dressage. “The point of these two days is to keep an open mind and remember that it is the correct training that makes the difference.”

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