Buying a Dressage Foal--Part 5 Evaluating Conformation
I'm often asked what to look at when evaluating foal conformation. The interesting thing about baby horses is they are born with abnormally long legs and a shortened body and neck, relative to how they will be proportioned when mature. Anyone who has seen a very young foal attempting to graze, bending its knees and stretching out its front legs to the utmost has seen this physical conformation in action! So they will go through growing phases, where their body lengths and relative heights change, sometimes seemingly overnight, and a foal who looks amazing one day can look like a donkey the next. If you talk to experienced warmblood breeders, the general advice normally given for evaluating young horses is "3 days, 3 months, 3 years" as being the best ages to get an idea about how the young horse will mature. I'm not sure how accurate this advice really is, but I've used it myself as a general rule of thumb over the years.
The best advice I ever got on evaluating foals came from a well-known (but sadly deceased) KWPN inspector and judge named Gert van der Veen, whom I met very briefly as a teenager when he came to Oregon to do an in-hand clinic. He was an older gentleman, very experienced at evaluating young horses, and the thing that impressed me about him was he could look at a horse standing in front of him and accurately predict how it would move. It was amazing. His advice for evaluating young horses is best summed up as "the relative lengths of bones will change as the horse matures but the angles between the bones will stay the same". In other words, if the foal has a steep shoulder angle the length of the shoulder may become longer or shorter as he matures, but that steep angle will stay the same. I have found over the years that generally speaking this advice holds true, particularly for hip/shoulder/humerus/gaskin angles. However this advice doesn't hold true for angular limb deformities, or pastern to fetlock angles in very young foals. I've seen many foals born with very crooked front legs (severely knock-kneed, or walking on their hind fetlocks) that over time gradually strengthen and straighten to where you'd never know it when they're mature.
I will say that I've found neck conformation often changes quite a bit, and it is really hard to determine how a foal's neck will end up looking when they are a mature horse. Generally speaking foals often have a much more upright neck position than adult horses do, so even if a foal looks like it has an amazingly shaped neck that comes well out of the shoulder I've seen these foals mature with a much lower neck position that would've been expected. Of course weanlings and yearlings are notorious for having horrible necks; low set, weedy on the top, straight, pencil-thin, sometimes ewe-necked, even if as a foal they had an amazingly long, graceful, well-developed topline.
But for me I'm mostly concerned with how the foal moves and carries itself in movement. I've seen plenty of by-the-book well-conformed foals that moved very normal, and some awkwardly-built foals who were amazing movers with excellent natural balance. So I personally don't obsess about too much about conformation. But that brings us to the next problem: can we predict mature horse movement from foal movement? Stay tuned!!