Evaluating Faults in a Young Dressage Prospect

Breeder Kyle Karnosh discusses how to put a young dressage horse's shortcomings in perspective with the whole picture. From Dressage Today magazine.
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Breeder Kyle Karnosh discusses how to put a young dressage horse's shortcomings in perspective with the whole picture. From Dressage Today magazine.

Question:
I am thinking of buying a 2-year-old colt as a dressage prospect. He has good breeding, nice temperament, gorgeous topline and outstanding movement. But, he has drawbacks that make me unsure of purchasing him as a riding horse. He toes out slightly and is slightly cow-hocked. His stifle is a little loose, and he has a big scar on one front leg. The breeder thinks he is a stallion prospect. If I buy him and train him for several years, are all my efforts going to be valueless because of these drawbacks in conformation?

Answer:
Since your question indicates that you are looking at this horse as a riding prospect, I'll assume that the fact that he is still a stallion is merely incidental and not a factor in your decision. Buying a young dressage horse is one way to obtain a higher quality individual than you might be able to afford once he already is going under saddle. You can't evaluate the 2-year-old by trying him, but you can look at movement, conformation and behavior. The trick here is to try to put the horse's shortcomings in perspective with the whole picture, without underemphasizing or overemphasizing them. Every horse has faults. The issue is whether or not these faults might cause you a problem given how you intend to use the horse. The requirements for a Second-Level prospect will not be as stringent as those for a horse intended for Grand Prix competition. Whether the list of drawbacks you mention will limit your prospect's abilities depends on the degree of the fault.

The first thing to do before you buy is to make sure a qualified veterinarian examines the horse. Discuss these issues with him or her before you make the purchase. Here are the concerns I would have in the horse you describe. You indicate that he toes out. There are two main concerns with a horse that toes out. The first is the same for any deviation--does it cause excessive stress on one side of the joint or tendons when weight bearing? Since you indicate that the toe out is slight, this probably is not the case.

Another major concern with toeing out is whether the horse interferes or hits the inside of the opposite leg when he moves. Observing the horse as he moves toward you will give you an idea of whether this is a potential problem. If it's not a problem now, it should only improve because your prospect will get wider in the chest as he matures. This will place his legs farther apart and less at risk for hitting one with the other.

Loose stifles are not uncommon in young horses since they usually are not in work and, therefore, are not very fit. In most of the cases, this issue resolves itself once the horse starts work and gains condition. In some cases, there may need to be some hill or cavalletti work to strengthen muscles in the hindquarters.

A big scar on the front leg is generally only a problem if a joint or some tendons are involved. Your veterinarian should be able to evaluate the location of the scar and tell you what structures are involved. If no important structures are compromised, then it's really only a matter of whether it bothers you to look at the scar or possibly if it causes a rubbing problem with any boots you may use on the horse in the future.

Probably the biggest issue on your list is that the horse is cow-hocked. However, I have found that not all people mean the same thing when they use the term cow-hocked. Many people use this term for a horse who, when viewed from behind, has his hocks rotated outward, so the points of the hocks are closer together than the fronts of the hocks. This does not technically make the horse cow-hocked. As long as all of the structures of the leg are in alignment -- stifles, fetlocks, hocks and hooves all face the same direction and you can draw a vertical line between them -- this is not necessarily a bad thing. Many people prefer this conformation because it allows the horse's stifles clear his barrel and therefore step more forward under his body. In the case of true cow-hocks, the leg is not in alignment because the cannon bones are not vertical, but instead come into the hock at an angle. The hocks can be significantly closer together than the fetlocks in this case and more stress is placed on the hock due to the misalignment.

Whether cow hocks are an issue is a matter of their degree and the usage of the horse. As your question indicates that your prospect is only slightly cow-hocked, I wouldn't disqualify him if the rest of his leg structure is good. If you're not sure if the deviations are significant enough to be a problem, I would recommend that you have a knowledgeable horseman or veterinarian evaluate the horse and discuss his or her opinion with you. However, realize that no one can guarantee whether or not these things will ever cause a problem.

Buying a horse is a gamble. To improve our chances of success, we try to use conformation as a predicator, but there's not always as good a correlation as we would like. In the end you need to decide if your concerns outweigh the many good points about this horse.

Kyle Karnosh, with her husband, owns Con Brio Farms in Gilroy, Calif. For the past five years, they have bred Oldenburgs, Hanoverians and Dutch Warmbloods, producing premium mares and foals. Karnosh also has developed horses to the F?d?ration Equestre Internationale (FEI) level.

This article originally appeared in the July 2000 issue of Dressage Today magazine.