March 2018 - A Balanced Approach to Conformation

‘Without good horses you are nothing. In Polo its 70 percent horse and 30 percent rider. And I have the best horses.’

Adolfo Cambiaso


So what is it that makes a good horse, and has the world’s best players scouring the globe for possible future superstars?

Polo is a sport that requires specific qualities from its horses, as they are asked a lot in a short space of time, but what is it in the physical characteristics of a horse that the top players see, that peaks their interest and how can the untrained eye spot a possible future superstar.

The conformation of any horse can tell you straight off the bat if it has the physical capabilities to fulfil the job you have for it. Polo ponies need to be able to stop, turn and have lateral movement at speed. For a horse to have this ability, it needs to be balanced. A balanced horse is more likely to have good movement, athletic ability and soundness. There are five key things to look at when judging a horse’s balance for polo; Trapezoid, Rein, Shoulder Alignment, Shoulder Shape and the Loin. It is a combination of these 4 areas on a horse, that make up a balanced structurally sound shape perfect for what is asked of a Polo Pony.

Trapezoid

A good method to use when judging the main body of the horse on its balance and structure is the trapezoid theory. The trapezoid is the area from the wither to the croup and bottom of the hip and from there to the point of the shoulder. An easy way to do see this is to draw it out:

Have the horse stand balanced on level ground. The weight should be evenly distributed over the front and hind legs, not leaning forward or back. At least one front leg and one hind leg should be square under the body.

Back Line - Imagine a line parallel with the ground, extending along the horse’s back from the middle of the withers to the middle of the loin.

Body Line - Imagine another line parallel with the ground, extending from the horse’s chest at the point of the shoulder to the rear just below the buttocks.

Angles - Complete a symmetrical trapezoid (isosceles trapezoid) over the horse’s body. Connect the back line at the withers to the body line at the point of the shoulder. Connect the back line at the loin to the body line at the rear, just below the point of the buttocks.

A correct trapezoid can come in all sizes of horses, it isn’t about a certain size, it is all about the ratios. 

If the backline is level with the ground, you can see if the horse is built ‘uphill’ (withers higher than the croup), ‘level’ (withers level with the croup) or ‘downhill’ (withers lower than the croup).

Young or untrained horses carry around 60 percent of their  weight on the front end. As a horse is trained, it learns to assume more weight on its hindquarters through muscular development, which  is easier to do naturally for a horse that is built level or uphill.

In a balanced horse, the back should be half the length of the horse’s body, or very close to it. That creates a short topline and a long underline.

The opposite (not parallel) sides of the trapezoid should be the same in length. They follow the slope of the shoulder and pelvis, and the slopes of those bones always correspond in a horse.

The angle formed between the line along the shoulder and the body line should be the same as the angle formed by the line along the pelvis and body line. Ideally, they’re close to 45 degrees, the wider those angles are, the straighter the shoulder and the steeper the croup.

The trapezoid helps you clearly see if the horse has a hip equal to his shoulder in both size and slope, and if the length of its back is correct in relation to his body. These all contribute to the horse having a stronger topline, making it easier for them to carry themselves properly.

A horse with a good slope to his shoulder will have a better reach with his front leg and will have more correct head carriage, a shorter back will make it easier for the horse to round his back and engage his hind quarter to create drive. While the correct slope to the croup and hip will make it easier for the horse to keep his hind end underneath him and use his hocks and stifles correctly.

A correct trapezoid makes working, training or playing a young horse easier, but as mentioned in the last article, how a horse is feeling or thinking about a situation plays a major part. If the horse is uncomfortable or in pain it won’t be doing anything it to its fullest capability. If they have a great brain that is very trainable and huge heart that is wanting to please they will still do the task but will be dreading the job. And as times goes on if the trapezoid is incorrect and therefore making it hard for them, they will be much more inclined to be sore, breakdown or fail in certain tasks or manoeuvres.

The Rein

The next measurement that stands out in the look of a balanced horses is the rein (neck length). That’s the distance from the top of the wither to the pole (on the top of the head). This measurement has an impact on various movements and abilities. Good horses can have different length measurements, it’s just that the movements will vary. For example a longer necked horse may lack a little power (power and speed being very different things) and a shorter neck may lack a little stretch in the gallop limiting top end speed. The longer the rein the more likely the horse to have a higher top speed. 

Straight Shoulders

It’s not easy to see the angle of the shoulder if you haven’t looked at a lot of horses shoulders. A good way to assess the shoulder is look at where the wither sits over the shoulder. If it’s sitting over the girth area, the more slope you have in the shoulder and more it sits forward over the shoulder the straighter it is. Straighter shouldered horses tend to be rougher to ride and find it more difficult to get around in the tighter turns because their front legs are restricted laterally preventing them from manoeuvring around to get across the ground.

Shoulder Shape

Another aspect of the shoulder that affects the ability to turn and perform lateral movements in general is where the front legs come out of the shoulder. When looking from the front of the horses, the legs should come out of the center of the shoulder creating a narrow U shape. If the front legs come out of the side of the shoulder it creates a wider space between the front legs. A narrower space between the front legs enables the horse to gallop tight corners as well as performing rollbacks in close quarters much better and more easily as it is a aligned with their natural form.

The depth of the shoulder from the wither to the bottom of the shoulder lends itself to the horse having capacity and substance  to endure the physicality of the sport more easily.

The Loin

This area is one of the features that impacts stopping abilities and initial push start power to get up and going. Strong loin muscles are needed to be able to push the back legs up underneath them while quickly reducing speed and to propel the horse forward with explosive acceleration when picking up speed. Moving down the leg a nice long measurement between the hip and hock, followed by a nice tidy short measurement from the hock to pastern. Both measurements lend themselves to acceleration and athleticism. Hocks should to be tucked up underneath the rump to enable the horse to easily stop and reduce speed quickly without coming off the ground or having hock issues. 

All these physical factors should be considered when looking at horses suited to polo. They can also help you understand how and why your horse may behave, play or act in a certain way on the field, horses should always be played to their strengths, by looking at the confirmation of your horse it should help to establish and pinpoint their natural strengths. But it should also be noted that the perfect physique means nothing without a brain, having a fantastic mind with a horse that really wants to be played and trained will always perform better than a visually physically balanced horse. You can take a horse to water but you cannot make it drink, a sweet minded horse with a desire to work with you and keep giving is always the most important trait to any horse.


' Forged from a Lifetime of Striving for Excellence in the Polo Industry.

© Lucy Ainsley 2018