A Matter Of Potential

Feb 27, 2011 - 7:00 PM
Amy K. Dragoo Photo.

Watching judges as they survey an in-hand class of leggy yearlings, it’s tempting to imagine they have some sixth sense about which one could be the next Totilas, the equine phenomenon who breezed to three gold medals at the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. After all, they have a mere three minutes to assess the quality and correctness of each horse’s head, neck, saddle position, shoulder, frame, back, forehand, hindquarters and the angle and formation of the legs and joints, not to mention how it moves at the walk and the trot.

Three minutes isn’t much, but in dressage, there’s truth to the adage “handsome is as handsome does.”
Whether they’re evaluating the youngest prospects for a future competitive career or the 3-year-old that’s newly under saddle, dressage sport horse judges base their appraisals first and foremost on the function and ride-
ability of the horses before them.

William Solyntjes, a U.S. Equestrian Federation “S” dressage judge and an “R” dressage sport horse breeding judge from Minnesota, explained his approach:

“You get a first impression, and the horse is either going to uphold that with its movement, or it’s really going to disappoint you. There are horses that surprise you, horses that you end up liking more than you thought you would or that you don’t like as well as you thought you would.”

He likened the entire exercise to speed-reading.

“You have to see a lot at once,” he said.

Solyntjes should know: He has more than 30 years of experience, including 13 years inspecting mares and foals for the Oldenburg Verband in North America.

But assessing a young horse’s dressage potential is fraught with challenges, said Hilda Gurney, an Fédération Equestre Internationale I-level judge, a USEF “S” dressage judge and an “R” dressage sport horse breeding judge as well as a renowned breeder and competitor.

“The younger the horse, the less you can tell,” she said. “With the jumpers, you can run a yearling through
a jumping chute and get an idea of how they pick up their legs, and it’ll tell you something about their aptitude and courage. But in dressage you’re very limited. How can you tell that a young horse will go on to piaffe and passage? And not just will they do it well, will they do it willingly?”

These older dressage prospects may offer more clues as to their potential in the high performance arena or even as successful mounts for amateurs. But the young horse classes provide tantalizing glimpses of what a talented foal might achieve with the right mix of training, care and opportunities.

Presenting The Young Horse

Licensed judges evaluate young dressage prospects in the United States through one of two avenues: the U.S. Dressage Federation Dressage Sport Horse Prospect classes for horses 3 years of age and under and the Markel/USEF Young Horse classes for 4-, 5- and 6-year-olds.

Competitions such as these offer young horses exposure to the show atmosphere as well as the experience of being away from home. The USDF program also gives consumers an understanding of how to evaluate conformation and movement.

Horses aged 3 and under are shown in-hand at the walk and trot. The classes are held on a triangle, so that the judge can view the horse’s movement from various perspectives. A handler on the ground leads the horse around the perimeter of a small triangle at the walk and then trots it around a larger triangle before returning to stand for the conformation evaluation.

For most budding dressage mounts, work under saddle begins when they’re 36 months old; the materiale classes are open to 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds. Here the judges can see how the horse accepts the rider’s weight and leg as well as the rein contact.

“The materiale classes can be really fun,” said Kristi Wysocki, a USEF “S” dressage judge and an “r” dressage sport horse breeding judge from Colorado.

“They’re executed similarly to equitation classes, but a lot of the horses don’t know how to stop, start or steer yet, so they’re a little more exciting—especially when you have a young horse with a green rider. But we can start to see their potential, and it’s the first time we see the canter.”

Although judges and spectators at a show featuring young horses should always be prepared for the unexpected, things can get downright dangerous.

“I’ve never been kicked—I’m pretty fast on my feet,” said Gurney. “But you have to be very careful.”
“There are times when you’re thinking, ‘I hope I live,’ ” admitted Wysocki, who is also the co-chair of the USDF Sport Horse Committee.

“You learn very quickly to not let your eyes drift,” she added. “I was judging a championship class at Devon [Pa.] a few years ago, and there were eight colts that we were evaluating; two were babies at their mother’s sides. One of the 3-year-old colts got loose and tried to mount one of the mares. [Judge Lilo Fore] and I actually jumped in front of him waving everything we could think of to try to keep him away from her until he could be caught. Afterwards, we looked at each other and said, ‘Well, that was dumb!’ Now we have a separate current-year foal championship division.”

Evaluating Conformation

When it comes to conformation, correctness carries serious weight—the theory being that the naturally well-balanced horse stands a better chance of moving efficiently and is less likely to be injured.
The USEF Rule Book sets out specific instructions for judges:

“Conformation is to be evaluated in terms of potential trainability, potential performance and predisposition to unsoundness. Function, not fashion, is to be emphasized. Weakness or conformation faults with a predisposition to unsoundness or to difficulties in training shall be penalized.”

The evaluation starts with the big picture: Is the horse built uphill, laterally balanced and proportioned from back to front? In dressage, horses must shift their weight to the rear during collection and rebalance that weight forward in lengthening, so a horse whose center of gravity is just below the saddle will be able to carry more weight in its hindquarters and move with less effort than a croup-high horse, whose center of gravity is farther forward.

Judges look for a variety of characteristics, from a good-sized eye and an uphill neck to a well-developed loin and round feet with correct heels. But some features can be tough to assess early in a foal’s development.

“A foal is a lot of guesswork,” admitted Gurney. “Legs that toe-out slightly often end up straight, because the chest broadens as they mature. And I’ve had foals born with very straight hocks that ended up with normal hocks.”

Evaluating The Gaits

A horse’s movement goes hand-in-hand with its conformation. The USEF Rule Book states:

“Purity and correctness are more important than brilliance. Correct gaits contributing to ease of training and the horse remaining sound and usable are more important than gaits which are merely superficially flashy.”

When performed well, the walk is a rhythmic and ground-covering four-beat pace; the horse should have a free shoulder with forward reach, an oscillating neck and an elastic topline. A lateral gait, in which the foreleg and the hindleg on the same side move almost in tandem, is severely punished in the scores, while lesser faults might include dragging toes, uneven length of stride and lack of freedom in the shoulder.

“Foals tend to have short backs,” Gurney explained.

“If a foal has a really short back and a really long stride, he may pace at the walk. That doesn’t mean he’s going to pace when he grows. Young horses also tend to be croup high; they may grow out of it, they may not.”

However dazzling they may appear, huge walks can signal trouble later on, as the horse moves up the levels.

“If you have a horse that naturally does a foot of overstep, how are you ever going to collect it?” asked Solyntjes.

“You want a horse that can extend as well as collect. That’s the animal that’s not so brilliant, but really supple. Those are the ones that go on to do it all.”

At the trot, the judges look for a clear, two-beat rhythm, impulsion emanating from active hindquarters, an elastic, swinging back, uphill balance and good articulation of the joints. Undesirable features include lack of rhythm or impulsion, trailing haunches and paddling or winging.

“Even the babies, they’re not going to be able to hold it, but if they can push off those first couple of steps, that’s better than the one that doesn’t do it at all,” said Solyntjes. “As a judge, you have to be quick enough to see it.”

At the canter, high marks are awarded to horses with rhythmic, uphill and balanced gaits that demonstrate a clear three-beat pace, with thrust and power coming from the hindquarters.

Nevertheless, there are top equine athletes with movement imperfections who are transformed under saddle.

“Totilas toes-in, and it’s worked for him!” offered Wysocki.

Judges agree that one of the most valuable qualities a dressage horse can possess is rideability. Does he have a good temperament? Is he happy in his work? The willing, happy horse can overcome a host of imperfections.

“That’s when the materiale and the young horse classes become meaningful,” Gurney said. “How well does the horse work? How cooperative is he? That’s the most important thing.”


Dressage sport horse classes are judged on a scale from 0–10, and decimal points are permitted. In the prospect classes, movement is worth 60 percent of the total score (30 percent for the walk and 30 percent for the trot), with 30 percent reserved for conformation and 10 percent for general impression. In the materiale classes, conformation is not evaluated. Walk, trot and canter are each worth 30 percent, and general impression is 10 percent.

Solyntjes said he begins with the premise that an uphill horse starts with a score of 8, a level horse starts with a 7 and a downhill horse starts with a 6. “Then you go from there. Maybe the horse is a little downhill, but it’s got a really good hip or hindquarters or good, strong joints or a strong back,” he said.

In the in-hand classes, judges will usually allow a horse to go around the triangle a second time if it seems nervous or unsure.

“You’re always hoping that they’re going to come in and do well,” Wysocki said. “We try to figure out a way to let each youngster show his potential.”

At the end of the day, the winning horse is the one that shows the best walk and the best trot and is in the best proportions.

“In three weeks, it could be the other way around!” said Gurney. “All you can do is judge what that foal looks like at that moment. It may be good, and it may be bad!”

Usually, judges don’t know the bloodlines of the horses they’re evaluating, but even if they do, they aren’t allowed to use this information in their tabulations.

“As a breeder, I look at what a stallion has done, what their testing record is, what progeny they’ve produced and what the relatives produce, as well as the mare line,” Gurney said. “But as a judge, I can’t know any of that; I simply look at the foal.”

Some mares, however, are hard to ignore, even if they don’t affect the final score. Solyntjes recalled a show when a beautiful foal entered the ring.

“I thought, ‘What a wonderful baby!’ It had type and movement and elegance and presence. Then I looked at the mother, and she was this upside-down, less-than-stellar mare,” he said. “I thought, ‘Is this some kind of fluke?’ I found out later that she was a surrogate!”

A Breeding Evolution

Dressage breeding programs in the United States may not yet be in the same league as their Dutch and German counterparts, but over the past 30 years they’ve improved by leaps and bounds.

“The quality of horses that are coming to our shows is so good compared to years past,” Solyntjes said. “We used to have horses coming in with foundation problems, like bad feet, crooked legs. We hardly see that anymore.”

Wysocki agreed: “People are really getting better about choosing their lines, understanding what mare is going to work with what stallion. The quality has definitely improved.”

For a dressage sport horse breeding judge, there’s nothing quite like watching a young prospect take a turn around the triangle and wondering if it might have a future international career.

“It all boils down to impeccable rhythm, suppleness, elasticity and a good temperament,” said Solyntjes.

“Sometimes it’s not the most flamboyant horse that’s the best horse; it’s the horse that maintains the steadiest rhythm and correct tempo, the horse that doesn’t get quick or tense. It’s the solid citizen with a good work ethic. Attitude and work ethic are so important when evaluating the young prospect.”

What makes a dressage horse great, of course, is more than the rare combination of good conformation, stunning gaits and a willing nature.

“The top horse is often a top horse-rider combination,” emphasized Solyntjes. “It’s always the result of a magical relationship. Brentina was great for a lot of reasons, but one of the biggest is that she and Debbie McDonald had such a special bond.”  

William Solyntjes and Kristi Wysocki will teach the 2011 USDF Sport Horse Seminar, scheduled for Oct. 29–30 at Majestic Farm in Batavia, Ohio.

Category: Dressage

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