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"When your horse has reached his potential, leave it. It's such a nice feeling when you and your horses are still friends." - Dr. Reiner Klimke

Dressage Horse Temperament & Conformation

dressage horse DonnerhallWhile temperament and conformation play an important role in the success of your horse as a dressage athlete, one must realize that the perfect horse does not exist. It is equally important to understand that all horses can benefit from dressage training. That being said, not all horses will possess the characteristics necessary to be an elite dressage horse. The rider must first assess his own goals in order to effectively evaluate his horse’s ability to achieve those goals. The following outlines the characteristic of the dressage horse as they pertain to temperament and conformation.

First we will consider the horse’s temperament. Because dressage is equally challenging mentally and physically, the horse must be a willing and eager partner. Some horses will become sour as the training becomes more difficult, whereas others enjoy the challenge. Furthermore an obedient horse will make schooling sessions much more productive. Finally, it is important to note that horses that are slightly more spirited or “flashy” have a presence about them especially in the show ring. This presence commands attention and will often result in higher marks for expression.

Next we’ll address the topic of conformation. Ideally, the dressage athlete has an “uphill” appearance and is the picture of strength, balance and symmetry. A dressage horse should be proportionate when looking at the length of the front end, back and hindquarter. Ultimately, the horse’s conformation affects his soundness, quality of gaits and balance. As the horse progresses in his training, conformational defects become more of a factor. The picture below interactively illustrates the desirable physical traits of the dressage horse. Click the parts below to view their description and desirable traits.

dressage horse

The hindquarter is probably the most important aspect of dressage horse conformation. One should be careful to avoid significant conformational defects in this area because dressage horses are required to carry a majority of their weight here especially in the upper levels. Any defect will be magnified when the horse begins his collected work.

The hooves should be large and round with distinct heels.

The forelimbs should possess large joints and hooves, moderate pasterns and short cannon bones. The pasterns are slightly sloped. This slope should be similar to that of the shoulder and will assist with cadence and suspension. It is important to note that minor defects of the forelimbs are easier to overcome than those of the hind because most of the horse’s weight at the upper levels is carried on the hindquarter.

The chest and shoulders should be moderate in size with the shoulders being unrestricted by the saddle and the elbows free.

The hocks should be large, strong and well-angulated to maximize impulsion.

The haunches are “the engine” of the horse. They should be symmetrical, muscular and well-developed when viewed from behind.

The croup should be long and slightly sloping. It should sit below the level of the withers.

The back of the dressage horse should be of moderate length and be surrounded by an oval-shaped barrel. These are key factors that will minimize gait and saddle fit problems. The body should be no more than 3 times the length of the pelvis.

The neck should be well set and be higher than ½ way up the shoulder line. It should be wedge-shaped – thinner at the head and thicker at the shoulder. This will generally help in the quality of the stride by influencing back movement, especially at the walk.

The withers should be well set, distinct, long and laid back to assist with correct saddle placement. The withers and shoulders should sit slightly higher than the horse’s croup.