New Years Resolution: Learn About Internal Conformation

By Bill Pressey
, of Thoroedge Equine Performance


‘Conformation is the blending of the various body parts, and how well they fit together visually and physically to create a running machine.’ -

As the image above indicates; conformation can be further defined by various subjective opinions of the head, neck, shoulder, hip, legs, feet, walk, etc. More modern work has focused on equine biomechanics – or objective measures of many of these same factors. Gait analysis of 2yo in training quantifies this further by putting the horse in motion.

Horsemen hone these observational skills concerning what makes a runner over decades watching horses race, exercise, stand in their stalls, and parade around various auction rings worldwide.



One of my New Year’s Resolutions for 2012 is to educate the thoroughbred world about the importance of internal conformation – how the equine lungs, heart, spleen, blood chemistry, enzymes, muscles, capillaries, mitochondria, etc. act in unison to define ‘class’ and athletic performance. You can’t see this stuff, and it doesn’t mean anything while a horse merely stands or walks – but put ‘em at a gallop and the resulting numbers tell much of the story.

I could stop here and go into detail about each of the aspects of internal conformation, but that misses the entire point – it’s not the heart, or lungs, or biomechanics, per se that define athleticism – it is the inter-related function of ALL systems during exercise that provides the most valuable insights.
We are no longer predicting potential based on pedigree or external opinions, we are measuring actual performance objectively through data analysis of workload vs intensity of metabolic effort.  Just as any horseman can tell you the potential equine version of Michael Jordan from observing the chassis, when you look under the hood during exercise – one can gauge just how accurate that assessment is.



In writing this blog about conditioning, I am routinely told ‘all horses are treated as individuals’ when it comes to training, and I have no doubt this is partially true. Trainers observe their charges each morning, feel legs for heat, check out the feed tub, and decide whether or not a particular horse will walk, jog, gallop, or breeze on any given day.  That is traditional horsemanship, it is external in nature and highly subjective – no numbers are present, only judgments.

Internal horsemanship accomplishes much of the same, but with one major difference: once the decision is made as to the type of exercise to undertake, internal horsemanship tells you precisely how far and how fast to go. If the last breeze was 4F in :51 and the 2min heart rate recovery was 115bpm – this time you can go either further or faster. Similarly, if the last gallop was a mile in 2:30 and the blood lactate level was 2.7 – this time you can go in 2:20 to the mile, or stretch out the 2:30 pace by an extra half mile and be assured you are giving him exactly what he needs to get better, and no more.

Remember, humans have opinions – but horses have the facts, and HALF of those facts are on the inside – a valuable source of feedback that can be objectively turned into a set of numbers to guide you towards optimal conditioning – maximizing fitness while minimizing injury.

Finally, please consider:

Horses with crooked legs can win races, so can horses with other conformational defects – hell one of my all-time favorites, Assault, was known as the ‘club-footed comet’, showing us that even the old saying ‘no foot, no horse’ isn’t always true as he galloped his way into the Triple Crown record books.

But, no horse with a maximal heart rate of 197bpm can ever win a race, nor can a horse who travels just 7 feet every time his heart beats during a gallop. Likewise, if you are a 22yo human standing 6’2 at 180lbs you may look like an athlete, but if your vertical jump is measured at just 17 inches – you are not going to be able to dunk a basketball.

Horses don’t have to catch, throw, or shoot any ball – they just have to run.

As much as the greats in our sport have been romanticized over the years, it’s not magic folks – these standouts have superior internal conformation that allows them to accomplish great workloads with lesser effort (a large heart is only one aspect) – and these characteristics are largely invisible to even the best horseman.

Now you have two horses with identical physiological underpinnings hook up in the stretch eyeball to eyeball, and one outfights the other, that is magic and well worthy of our respect and awe. Some things are indeed, indefinable – but that is the vast minority of cases.


Leave a Comment:


Objective data-for example, what you label as "inside"-that is not adequately analysed/"tested" for its realtionships to end result function/ex. performance is worthless. What do I mean by adequately analysed?-By a strict scientific method, followed by peer review. Correct me if I'm mistaken, and then offer your evidence to the contrary, but I strongly doubt that your assertions meet that threashold. For starters, how about offering your credentials, degrees, etc. You know what's said about a little bit of knowledge. I'm not for one minute suggesting that the biology/biochemistry/physiology of each individual horse isn't crucial to their performance. My point is that you don't have any meaningful answers as to how these "inside" variabilities-the various "numbers" for true norms, etc.- translate to individual performance in the horse. I guess you'll now attempt to cite a few anecdotal "studies" of small pieces of this. This will prove nothing, and is not responsive to my point.    

11 Jan 2012 9:27 PM
Terry M.

You should also consider hoof structure and how the horse is (or isn't) shod and how that affects the inside of the foot. Take a look at this video: and the other videos posted by this group.

Sceptre, I think the whole point that Bill is making is that you have to consider everything, not just what you can see on the outside, when evaluating a horse's "conformation". He is posting observations and comments to make you think, not to try and prove something for scientific peer review.

12 Jan 2012 8:26 PM

possibly what the OP refers to--in human athletics exercise physiology can make certain measurements, e.g. stroke volume as it refers to cardiac output/heart lung function and efficiency, etc. and predict athletic performance. Elite human distance runners show superior measurements, though I'm unable to say what they are. Likewise elite human sprinters consistently show, by my understanding, superior fast twitch muscle percentages. Some of this results from training, but some is genetic and measureable and definitely relates to performance and injury prevention.  I'd personally doubt the OP invalidates itself because horse racing is still in the dinosaur age in this regard and lacks "studies".

12 Jan 2012 9:29 PM
El Cab

hmmmmm...sceptre seems to have an axe to grind here.

" don't have any meaningful answers as to how these "inside" variabilities-the various "numbers" for true norms, etc.- translate to individual performance in the horse"  How do you know?  

"This will prove nothing, and is not responsive to my point."  I believe if one were to look back over history, probably all theories proven scientifically began with anecdotal examples.

I've been reading this blog for a while now, and it seems sceptre wants to throw out the baby with the bathwater in the name of "science".  

I'd like to know what your (sceptre) qualifications and experience are with regards to this topic...I would especially be interested in reading any scientific papers you have published; or even any 'anecdotal' opinions you have expressed with your real name attached.

13 Jan 2012 1:44 PM
Karen in Texas

sceptre--- Apparently Mr. Pressey has a B.S. in Exercise Science. I'd like to see the actual studies on the correlation of blood chemistry norms/variations as they relate to exercise and maximum performance in equines, too. Where is the basis for what is being said? Are there clinically controlled examples? Just cite a few sources, please, Mr. Pressey.

14 Jan 2012 5:41 PM

Perhaps this link to the October blog where this is an actual dissection of a thoroughbred should have been added to this article to demonstrate the science behind behind the article.

Scientific research with proper methodology, held up to peer review starts with someone making observations and asking questions and gathering the current information.  

The training of race horses is largely anecdotal, experience and opinion passed down to others. Successful trainers are copied. Mr. Pressey's blog is one of the few that does examine the science behind the training trying to determine if the training methods hold up to scientific scrutiny. I'm glad the BloodHorse shared the information with a broader audience. I encourage others to read the blog to read all the information there before a "rush to judgement."

16 Jan 2012 4:30 AM

Recent Posts

Thoroughbred Bloggers Alliance

Thoroughbred Bloggers Alliance RSS Feed

More Blogs