Conformation and Pedigree are the two most important factors when selecting the purchase of a horse at a sale or from a private offering...
The conformation of a racehorse essentially means how well it is put together in order to accomplish the task it was bred to do – run and run fast. Conformation is the blending of the various body parts, and how well they fit together visually and physically to create a running machine. If you were to look at Michael Jordan standing next to Rosanne Barr, you could instantly determine which person had the better conformation to excel at playing basketball. It's rarely that obvious with horses, but to a trained eye with many years of experience, the differences between a potentially great horse and an average horse can be seen.
The thoroughbred's conformation makes it an ideal runner, capable of covering more than twenty feet in a single stride while reaching speeds of up to forty miles per hour. The rear legs act much like springs as they bend and straighten during running. This tremendous "spring power" helps thrust the horse forward as its front legs provide "pull." The thoroughbred's head and long neck also help to make running smooth and rhythmic. The neck moves in synchrony with the forelegs, aiding in forward motion and extending the "arc of flight," the time the thoroughbred literally is airborne.
Every horse has some physical fault with regard to pedigree and conformation. The art of picking a horse out at auction is to determine which physical characteristics will have an impact on the horse's ability to race. Looking at the pedigree of the horse can provide clues to faults that may have been passed down from generation to generation, and whether or not those faults impact the horse on the race track.
The "average" thoroughbred racehorse stands 16 hands tall (64 inches or 4 inches per hand measured to the withers - see below), and weighs about 1,000 lbs. The heart of the thoroughbred is about as big as a volley ball and usually weighs about 10 lbs. The massive heart of the race horse can pump up to 75 gallons of blood per minute during a race. Secretariat's heart weighed an astounding 22 pounds!
The average horse can run at speeds of 35 to 40 mph. The stride of the thoroughbred race horse is approximately 20 feet long and they can take up to 150 strides per minute!
When evaluating a horse, the first thing to look for is balance. Do the neck, back and hip appear to be of equal length and well proportioned? Does the horse's frame carry its muscle mass well? Too much muscle on a little frame or too little muscle on a big frame can cause some problems.
The eyes should be big and intelligent, not sunken or bulging and not too close together. The nostrils should be big to allow for serious air intake to fuel the body. Ears should be alert, pointing, and moving in all directions. Is the horse alert and aware of what's going on around him, does he appear in control and confident?
Feet - A horse's hooves must be able to withstand a great deal of pressure. Consider proportion, substance, and size of the hoof. The underside of the hoof should have a round, slightly oval shape with some depth. Some believe that larger feet indicate an aptitude for turf.
Pasterns - The pastern should be at a 45-degree angle. Its length should be proportionate - too long a pastern could indicate weakness and tendon strain, while if too short it may absorb too much concussion thus stressing the bone structure.
Ankle - As with the pastern, the ankle joint size should be proportionate to the rest of the leg.
Cannon Bones - Ideally, the cannon bone should be short, strong and have mass.
Knee - Bones in and leading to the knee should line up in a balanced manner - not tilting forward ("over at the knee") or back ("back at the knee").
Shoulder - The shoulder should have the same slope or angle as the pastern. Stride length is largely determined by the shoulder.
Neck - A horse's neck should be sufficient in scope so as to provide adequate wind for the horse, and be well tied in at the withers, while not being too low or "ewe necked". In short, does the neck fit the rest of the body?
Head - Nostrils should be of adequate size. The head should be broad enough to permit adequate air passage. Generally, the distance from the back of the jaw to where the head ties into the neck should be about the size of a fist.
Eyes - The eyes should be big and bright. Look for an "intelligent," keen, alert eye.
Back - The distance from the withers to the top of the croup or hips should match the length of the horse's neck from the poll to the withers.
Hip/Buttocks - The croup or hip should have a gentle slope - not too steep or flat. The gaskin should depict strength.
Hocks - A horse's hocks should not be straight as a post, nor curved so deeply as to be sickle hocked, or behind the body like a German Shepherd Dog. The horse should be standing balanced and straight.
Feet - Look for balanced feet on both sides and symmetry. Avoid misshapen, dished, or cracked feet.
Cannon Bones - From the front, the cannon bones should appear straight and of the same length.
Knees - It is best if the knees are set squarely on the top of the cannon bones, not off to one side or another - "offset knees."
Chest - A horse's chest should be broad, and appear powerful. Narrow chests or slab-sided horses are said to lack power.
Shoulder - Look for balance and symmetry.
Hocks - From the rear, the hocks should appear to point straight at you, and not turn in or out -- "cow hocks."
Hip/Buttocks - Note that much of the animal's athleticism and power comes from behind. Definition and development are key attributes.
Front/Rear view - The horse should move straight toward and away from you. Observe whether the horse toes-in or toes-out as it walks.
Side view - Check for the overstep, meaning do the hind feet reach beyond the front hoof prints? Observe the horse's head. Be certain it does not bob unusually when walking as this may indicate soreness or lameness.
Walk - Look for a smooth long stride.
The thoroughbred horse is a breed of horse developed in the 18th century. English mares were bred to Arabian stallions in order to create a breed of horse capable of running great distances. All modern thoroughbred horses are descendants of three horses: the Darley Arabian, the Godolphin Arabian, and the Byerly Turk. These horses were named after their owners - Thomas Darley, Lord Godolphin and Captain Robert Byerly.
The story of the thoroughbred horse began somewhere in the inhospitable deserts of the Middle East, centuries ago, a breed of horse came into being that would influence the equine world beyond all imagination. In the sweet grass oasis along the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers in the countries that are now known as Syria, Iraq and Iran, and in other parts of the Arabia peninsula, this hearty horse developed and would soon be known as the Arabian horse.
Long before Europeans were to become aware of its existence, the horse of the desert had established itself as a necessity for survival of the Bedouin people (nomadic inhabitants of the Middle East desert region). The Arabian horse was primarily an instrument of war, as were horses in general in most societies of the time. A well-mounted Bedouin could attack an enemy tribe and capture their herds of sheep, camels and goats, adding to the wealth of their own tribe. Such a raid was only successful if the aggressors could attack with surprise and speed and make good their escape. Thus 'survival of the fittest' ensured that the Arabian horse was continually improved over generations.
Races between tribes were held with the winner taking the best of the loser's herd as their prize. Breeding stock could be bought and sold, but as a rule, the best "war" mares carried no price. Through the centuries the tribes who roamed the northern desert in what is now Syria became the most esteemed breeders of fine horses. No greater gift could be given than an Arabian mare. The value placed upon the mare led inevitably to the tracing of any family of the Arabian horse through his dam. The only requirement of the sire was that he be "Asil", or pure. If his dam was a mare of a great mare family, so much the better. Mare families, or strains, were named, often according to the tribe or sheik that bred them.
The Bedouin valued purity above all others, and many tribes owned only one main strain of horse. While the Bedouin bred their horses in great obscurity, the highly war like people of the East rode their Barbs and Turks into Europe, bringing havoc with them and leaving waste in their wake. Europe had developed horses through the Dark Ages to carry a knight and his armor. Their lighter horses were from the pony breeds. They had nothing to compare with the small, fast horses upon which the invaders were mounted. An interest in these "Eastern" horses grew, along with fantastical stories of prowess, speed, endurance and even jumping ability.
As the world slowly shrank due to increasing travel abroad, the Turkish rulers of the Ottoman Empire began to send gifts of Arabian horses to European heads of state. Such was the nature of The Godolphin Arabian (sometimes called "Barb") imported to England in 1730 as well as The Byerley Turk (1683) and the Darley Arabian (1703). These three "Eastern" stallions formed the foundation upon which a new breed, the Thoroughbred, was to be built.
Until such time that geneticists prove otherwise, it is believed that the Thoroughbred's ancestry traces back more than 300 years to these three foundation stallions - the Darley Arabian, the Godolphin Arabian and the Byerly Turk. These Arabian stallions were bred to the stronger but less precocious and swift native English mares and the result was the Thoroughbred.
The result was a horse that could carry weight with sustained speed over extended distances, qualities that brought a new dimension to the burgeoning sport of horse racing. Thoroughbreds weigh less than many other breeds of horse and stand out because of their delicate heads, trim bodies, strong chests and relatively short backs. They are also known for being rather high-strung. So began a selective breeding process that continues to this day, breeding the best stallions to the best mares, with the proof of excellence established on the racecourse.
While the Bedouins maintained a strict registry of the breed in order to maintain its purity, the first Thoroughbred "Stud Book" was created and maintained by James Weatherby in 1791, almost some 100 years following the importation of the three foundation stallions. His General Stud Book listed the pedigrees of over 350 mares. Each of these mares could trace their beginnings back to ECLIPSE - a descendent of the Darley Arabian, MATCHEM - a grandson of the Godolphin Arabian or HEROD - a great grandson of the Byerly Turk. Weatherby's General Stud Book is still published and maintained by Weatherby and Sons in England.
The first Thoroughbred to reach America, a stallion named Bulle Rock, arrived in 1730. Over the following 45 years, 186 Thoroughbreds would be exported from England to the American colonies, forming the foundation of the Thoroughbred family tree that American horse owners have bred ever since. As horse racing prospered and expanded in America, Colonel Sanders Bruce of Kentucky published the first American Stud Book in 1873. Col. Bruce devoted a large part of his life to the study of pedigrees, and published six volumes of the American Stud Book through 1896 at which point its care was taken over by The Jockey Club. Today the Jockey Club's pedigree database contains over 3 million horses whose ancestry can be traced back to the 1800's.
The desire to breed and race a champion has fueled the thoroughbred industry since its creation. There are no guarantees that breeding a champion mare to a champion stallion will produce a future Kentucky Derby winner, but that is the underlying philosophy in thoroughbred breeding and the basis for improvement of the breed. Breeders judge the conformation of their horses and try to enhance the qualities of their stock by breeding to stallions who posses desirable attributes.
Thoroughbreds' racetrack earnings can be matched, if not surpassed, by the money they earn as the sires and dams of future stars. Horse breeders pay stud fees, which can run in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, for the privilege of mating their female horses with particularly fast or well-bred male racehorses. Owners hope that the coupling will produce a champion, who will one day become the source of still more champions. Horse buyers usually pay more for male horses, called stallions, than for females, called mares, because stallions can mate with several dozen mares a year, while mares can only give birth to one foal per year.
As the progeny of a stallion become more and more successful on the track, that stallion can command a higher stud fee and attract the best mares. Storm Cat currently stands for $500,000 at Overbrook Farm in KY. Storm Cat's sons and daughters have earned nearly $100,000,000 on the track and he has become a "sire of sires" - his son's are among the most expensive and successful sires in the thoroughbred world. Just as important as the sire and maybe more so is the mare. La Troienne, the most influential mare of the 20th century produced 14 foals. The number of champions that can trace their bloodlines to La Troienne is astounding. Seattle Slew, A.P. Indy, Sea Hero, Go For Gin, Easy Goer, Black Helen, Tejano, Polish Navy, Woodman, Buckpasser, are but a few of the horses linked to La Troienne. Smarty Jones also has two crosses of the important broodmare La Troienne. One is through Elusive Quality's dam's sire, Hero's Honor, whose third dam, Searching, was a War Admiral / La Troienne mare. The second one is through Smarty Jones's own tail-female line, going back to his fifth dam, Striking, also bred on the War Admiral / La Troienne cross.
The study of thoroughbred pedigrees and bloodlines is an art, science, and history lesson all rolled into one. Linking modern day champions to the champions of the last century is a testament to the success of the thoroughbred horse and its future.