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Beauty Is Over-Rated

by Tom Reed
Horse International No. 6 2010

It seems to me that many horse breeders and studbooks place too much attention on how breeding stock looks and insufficient attention on the athleticism of mares and stallions.

Do not get me wrong. I am not saying that conformation does not matter or that a beautiful horse is not preferable to a plain one. No matter how athletic a horse is he will not have a sport career, and especially an international sport career, if his conformation is not good enough to stand the rigors of competition and training.

What I am saying is that if our goal is to breed showjumping, eventing, and dressage horses that can compete successfully in international sport then we breeders should be paying less attention to the beauty pageant aspects of horse breeding and more attention to athleticism. We should be paying less attention to how a horse looks and more attention to how a horse moves. To use the words of an economist, we should be maximizing on traits associated with athleticism and satisficing on traits associated with conformation and beauty.

Many breeders have fallen into this "beauty over performance" trap because of the incentives created by the studbooks they register their foals in. Many breeders like to produce Ster, Keur, Premium, and State Premium mares and mares with high bonits (inspection scores). Some breeders talk about how many Ster, Keur, Premium and SPS mares are in their mare's damline or they refer to their mare as the "55 point mare" but when you ask about the sport horses these mares have produced the true value of the mare and her damline are often revealed: Many of these beauty queen damlines have produced nothing other than more beauty queens.

Some studbooks inadvertently contribute to the problem as they devise resources to help breeders. The KWPN studbook, for example, has a very useful linear scoring system for both conformation and movement traits and, taken with a few grains of salt, this index could be useful to breeders. But I see many breeders focus on one or two conformation traits in their mare that they do not especially favor (such as a flat croup or a sickle-hocked hind leg) and they get out their magnifying glasses and search the index for that one stallion that tends to produce the "best" nicely rounded croup or the "best" well-angled hind leg. They let this one conformation feature drive much of their stallion selection process.

The problem with this approach is that except in extreme cases, where the conformation deficiency could likely produce an unsoundness if the horse were heavily used in sport, most horses' conformation peculiarities are within a range that will not result in unsoundness. The hind leg may be overly-angled but in most cases the angulation will not result in unsoundness. The croup may be flat but the horse still jumps with excellent technique, power, and reflexes. So the breeder is often selecting on a trait that carries little or no meaning for soundness or success in sport.

The problem becomes even worse when studbook officials themselves begin to believe that linear scoring is the solution to a decades-long decline in the number of international athletes produced within the studbook. Horse Sport Ireland/Irish Horse Board (HSI/IHB) have invested a large sum of money in getting the KWPN to train a group of Irish inspectors in how the linear scoring system works. These officials believe that by micro-assessing the conformation features of mares and stallions the Irish Sport Horse Studbook will return to its former significance on the world stage. But they are focusing on the wrong traits. The problem with Irish Sport Horses is not that their conformation is so bad that they tend to break down. The problem is that they neither move nor jump according to the demands of international showjumping. So HSI/IHB are leading Irish breeders down the path of trying to produce better looking horses while they should be trying to help Irish breeders produce better athletes.

The focus on beauty sometimes gets even more extreme. One studbook, the Hanoverian, has an index that measures the beauty of the horse's head. Yes, his head! As a breeder I am more concerned about what is between my horses' ears than in the shape of their heads.

The Hanoverian Studbook released a study several years ago (based on the doctoral dissertation of a high level staff person within the studbook) that showed the degree of heritability of the conformation, movement, and jumping traits within the population. The degree of heritability for traits like head and neck conformation and jumping ability are quite high while the degree of heritability for movement and leg conformation was much lower. So this study suggests to me that breeders who focus on conformation at the expense of athleticism are misguided not only because they are focusing on traits not associated with sport performance but also because they are focusing on traits, such as leg conformation, that are not highly heritable.

The following quote from Pferd + Sport (July 2010, page 43) concerning the Holsteiner Verband's studbook is important for our purposes:

"In this connection it is not only interesting that 2469 of the 8582 mares have produced successful sport horse offspring, but also that 52 percent of the successful competition offspring are out of dams registered with 43 to 46 bonit points, with a smaller number of competition offspring out of top-notch conformation mares."

So at least in Holstein the "plain Jane" mares are a more valuable source of competition horses than the beautiful and very well conformed mares.

In my own breeding program I start with athleticism. If the young horse, mare or stallion is very athletic then he or she is within the "feasible set" for breeding. And it is only then that conformation is assessed. And my standard for conformation and beauty is a "satisficing" one: Is the conformation good enough for this horse to retain his testicles or for this mare to be used for breeding? Would I be making different decisions if I started first with an assessment of conformation, created the "feasible set", and then assessed athleticism? Maybe or maybe not. But with my method I am constantly reminding myself to focus on what is most important and most difficult to achieve: top-class athleticism.