Speed Kills

In the last article (To Plow Or Not To Plow) I talked about horsepower, where it comes from structurally, what bone ratios are needed to get the power ‘forward’, what kind of build allows for  ‘4-wheeling into the ground’, and what type of a loin can survive it.  Now we switch ‘gears’ and look at where speed comes from and why it can be deadly. 

Speed requires certain conformation traits, just as power does, to be achieved.  It starts its generation from power.  We can assume, then, that we have to start with some of the same conformation traits of that big plow horse.

1) A well-placed lumbo-sacral joint (created between the last lumbar vertebra (L6) and the first sacral vertebra (S1) that the entire hindquarter pivots on).  The LS joint needs to be located at, or in front of, the point of hip to get the full benefit of;

2) Good length of pelvis, at least 33% of the entire body length, however, if you want to get serious about horsepower (and therefore speed) that number should be upward of 35% or more.

3) Proper angulation of the hind leg.  Over angulation of the hind leg (a leg mathematically too long for the body) puts the brakes on speed.  Its stroke is too long, too slow; it can’t get fully under the body to power a horse forward.  It’s also prone to injuries like curbs and bog spavins, and is often accompanied by cow hocks or bow-leggedness.  The latter two create torque that ratchets up exponentially with speed.  And while a post-legged hind leg (a leg mathematically too short for the body) lends itself to quick strokes and thrusting with power, it’s also undesirable as it places too much stress on the stifle and hock with their wide open, and therefore unprotected, joints.  Sticking stifles and arthritic hocks are often occurrences.  Having said all that, the angulation of a ‘speedy’ leg will be ‘straighter’ – but still fall within the acceptable range of ‘proper angulation’ – than that of the slower dressage or gaited horse hind leg.

4) A loin no greater than medium in length, so that all the power generated by the haunch can be transferred forward without blowing up the loin.   Short is just as okay here as it is in the draft horse.  The loin is a freespan (has no ribs to support and add strength), therefore length is its enemy.  Strength in this area is of greatest importance, especially if the horse has great pelvic length, which it must have to be fast.  We also need broadness across the loin and depth.  (Note: A racing fit horse will appear shallower through the loin.  This does not necessarily reflect inherent weakness of the loin.  Whereas a shallow loin on a non-racing fit horse, a riding horse or a draft horse is immediate cause for concern.) 

5) Either a square build or a ‘proper’ rectangular build.   A square built horse is compact front to back and stands low to the ground; height and length of the body are the same.  A ‘proper’ rectangular build is a slightly longer body, where the horse stands over more ground, but doesn’t stand over a lot of air.  This horse also remains relatively low to the ground.  Good racehorses tend towards the ‘proper’ rectangular build, especially horses that go distance.   The leggier the horse, the more energy is wasted swinging the legs the length of their stride and the more easily things can break.  Consider how much easier it is to break a one inch thick, two foot long stick over your knee, versus a one inch thick, one foot long stick.


While some traits remain consistent, others change and the degree of difference varies.  We want third gear for speed, not just the powerful, but slow first gear.  So now that we have power potential from the above traits, how do we keep it, get top gear, and more importantly keep the horse sound?

5) Hocks and stifles set higher; that is stifles that are clearly above the height of the elbow, and hocks that are clearly higher than the knees.   The height of hocks and stifles is determined by bone lengths in the hind limb, and the ratio of those bones to each other plays the role of determining ‘gear ratio’.  In a racehorse we expect to see the tibia exceeding the length of the femur.  That’s exactly the opposite of what we require for the draft horse (and for the riding horse).

6) Substance.  Big, clean joints.  Bone thickness is typically less for a racehorse, than for a riding or draft horse.  This is a compromise we’ve allowed over the years mainly because racehorses perform on level, manicured surfaces, and the less weight having to be carried over the distance, means less energy required to do it, which in turn means faster times over distance. However, it’s not a ‘requirement’ that a racehorse possess less bone; meaning a racehorse can possess greater bone thickness and still be fast.  There does remain a ‘minimum’ bone requirement for racehorses, which is 6” per 1000lbs; a full inch less than for all other horses. Think about that and keep it in mind for later.  Here I’ll include feet.  They should be of an appropriate size, shape and construction.  Foot faults can be disastrous in any horse, but in a racehorse they are a red flashing neon sign.

7) Appropriate muscle mass and type.  Sprinters should display larger amounts of the big, bulky, fast twitch muscles, while horses that run distances of greater than two miles will possess significantly more lean, slow twitch muscling (think Arabian muscling versus QH muscling).  The middle distance runner possesses a balance of both.  Soft tissue attachments should be clean and smooth regardless of type.

8) Downhill Build     usually and mostly.  A more level build can be seen in gaited racehorses and sometimes in distance runners.

9) Not Too Much Limb Action      This references mostly the front legs.  The more joint articulation (ie., knee action) a racehorse has the faster that entire leg has to be to complete the stroke compared to a less articulating jointed leg, AND the more energy burned trying to do it and maintain it.   That means a ‘fancier’ moving racehorse must possess more stamina to maintain speed than the more efficient less fancy mover.   It also tends to mean that a ‘fancier’ moving racehorse requires more distance to get up to speed and you are likely to find this kind of mover coming from off the pace, rather than setting it.  (Note: An exception to that would be trotters, who require more front leg joint articulation to remain interference free and time the trot at high speed.) 


We now have the basic build of a horse designed for speed.  Let’s look at a few of the great ‘speedsters’;  TB – Secretariat, QH – Dash For Cash, Standardbred (pacer) – Niatross

They look remarkably similar.  And yet, there are distinct differences as expected.  Three different breeds, one gaited, but all essentially sprinters.


Though Secretariat raced the furthest distance of the three (Belmont, Rothman’s International (that one on turf) at a distance of 1 ½ miles), he showed tremendous bursts of speed that he maintained over distance.  His advantage was three-fold; rateability, extraordinary joint flexibility, and stamina (that extra-large heart).   His heart was never weighed during the necropsy, but it’s widely considered a fact that Secretariat possessed a heart of extraordinary size.  Adding his sprinter type speed to those factors, and we  have track records set by him in all three Triple Crown Races that still stand four decades later.  He went 16-3-1 in 21 lifetime starts.  He’s known today as a broodmare sire.


Dash For Cash is the second all-time money earner for QH racehorses with over $500,000 followed only by his son First Down Dash.  That’s saying something since he did it almost forty years ago.  He won 21 of his 25 lifetime starts and had three 2nd place finishes. He’s the leading broodmare sire and you’d be hard pressed to find a top money earning running QH that doesn’t have him in his pedigree.


Niatross won 37 of his 39 races, thirteen of those as a two year old.  He finished 4th in an elimination round of The Meadowland’s Pace after breaking stride and in is only other loss he spooked during the race and fell over the guard rail. He was the first Standardbred to break the 1:50 barrier with a 1:49.1 record that stood for many years and retired the richest earner in history at the time.

Not to forget about the popular European racing sport of Steeplechase: the great Desert Orchid.



Desert Orchid raced an astonishing 70 times and finished with a record of 34-11-8.  He had an attacking front end style of racing and is considered by many to be the greatest in that category, as well as the greatest jumper.  One conformation trait to note is the height of his knees.  A lower position created by a short cannon bone and longer forearm is desirable for jumping. (Actually, it’s desirable for most disciplines.)  Secretariat’s knee is the next lowest of the bunch, so it’s not surprising that he’s been known to throw some individuals with jumping form.


Racehorses have enjoyed the attention of the scientific and veterinary communities and undergone hundreds and hundreds of tests and evaluations, all with the intention of understanding the rigors placed on them, and with the hopes of being able to decrease the likelihood of breakdowns.  There is no discipline more demanding of the horse’s entire body than that of racing. 

Standardbreds are unique in the racing world in that they rarely have catastrophic breakdowns on the track.  I’ve followed the sport closely for three decades, and watched thousands of races from grass roots level to top stakes competition.  I’ve never seen a single Standardbred have a catastrophic breakdown on the track.  I’ve seen a few dozen fall down, and three collapse in races from heart attacks.  This is not to say they don’t ever hurt themselves on the track, because they do, but rarely is it catastrophic – unlike Thoroughbreds.  I can’t comment so much to Quarter Horses as my exposure to them is far more limited, but of the few hundred QH races I’ve seen, nothing catastrophic has happened.

So why is that?  There are a few reasons;

1) Standardbreds race at speeds of 10%-15% slower.  As speed increases so does the pounds per square inch of pressure placed on soft tissue, joints and feet.  I couldn’t find a study from which to quote figures, but I did find the following study of four QH’s.  It’s a lot of numbers and technical jargon, but if you can muddle your way through, it’s fascinating.  http://www.iceep.org/pdf/iceep2/_1129105705_001.pdf  What was most striking to me wasn’t the amount of pressure the legs and feet sustained (I already expected that to be high), but how that pressure varied on each foot of the stride and how the amount of pressure changed depending if the horse was on the straight versus on the turn, as well the noted change of pressure when the horse switched leads and how it differed from the other lead. 

2) Standardbreds get to divide the pressure placed on their legs and feet, since both trotting and pacing see two feet hitting the ground at (almost) the same time. (The hind feet actually touch a fraction before the front.)  While a galloping horse must support all the weight and pressure on one foot at a time.

3) Standardbreds tend to carry more bone, often exceeding the required minimum of a riding horse of 7” per 1000lbs.  Circumference matters.  You don’t put a big building on skinny pillars, unless you want to have a problem.  I can see the hands going up – but, but – what about bone density?  Here’s the deal, dense bone is great but dense bone can be brittle.  Circumference matters.  The pillar doesn’t have to be as dense to support the structure if it has circumference.

Here’s a picture of the famous Ruffian.  Many consider her as a candidate for the greatest racehorse of all time.  


Upon close examination, Ruffian possessed every conformation trait required to be fast, but she lacked the one that probably would have saved her:  Substance.  It’s clear at 17h that her joints weren’t big enough, and that she didn’t possess the minimum requirement of 6” per 1000lbs.

Her sire, Reviewer, broke down three times on the racetrack and his fourth breakdown, which led to his euthanasia, happened in his paddock.  Her dam, Shenanigans, broke two legs during her lifetime and was later euthanized after colic surgery.  Shenanigans sire, Native Dancer, is rumored to be the one responsible for a ‘soft’ bone issue in his offspring, but frankly, I don’t buy it.  But if it is true, why does he show up so often and so much in the pedigree of many of today’s Thoroughbreds, almost four decades after Ruffian’s demise?  Why would TB breeders purposely take the chance of passing on genetically weak bone from generation to generation?  What good is a fast horse that can’t stay sound?  Because one out of a thousand might be able to? 

Here’s Native Dancer.  He certainly had substance.


I was unable to find a picture of Reviewer or Shenanigans to see how much bone those horses carried.  But I did find a photo of Bold Ruler, the sire of Reviewer.  Hmm…it might be my eyes, but I see a striking resemblance between him and Ruffian.


So here I am, still on the substance bandwagon.  Let me explain why it’s so darn important.

The front legs of the horse are designed to act as pillars, whereas the hind legs act as springs. As with any foundation column, straightness, size and integrity determine whether the building it supports stands for all eternity, begins to lean under its own weight, or collapses. The same is true of the horse with an additional caveat; the horse is not a static structure, but a moving one. Consider the greater importance of the foundation of a skyscraper that sways in a stiff breeze versus a one-story home the doesn’t budge under the same windy assault. Not only must we consider moving weight above, but now torque comes into the equation.  Therefore, the horse’s front legs need to be straight, possess enough substance (circumference) to support the weight above and be free of fault.  Those requirements become even more important when we consider the following:

To be fast, a racehorse MUST perform on its forehand. Go back to the QH study I linked and see that the front legs always carried a greater burden.  Racing is biomechanically opposite to that of correct riding. Dressage is the antithesis of racing, with the horse transferring weight to the haunch, rounding the back, lifting the withers, raising the base of neck, dropping the head from the poll and coming onto the vertical, while increasing the depth and center body step of the hind leg and decreasing the stroke speed. The Dressage horse’s body compresses, impulsion shifts forward energy into upward energy and the horse carries itself on its haunch high off the ground, propelled by hind legs that coil and uncoil like springs. The racehorse transfers weight to the front legs, hollows its back, drops its withers, drops its base of neck, drops its poll and sticks its nose out, while the stroke of the hind leg thrusts with quick, shorter (relative) strokes. Impulsion is all forward energy, the horse pushing itself forward with the coiling and uncoiling of the hind legs and pulling itself forward with its forelegs, as it lengthens its body and lowers it to the ground.

To be fair, bone alone isn’t enough.  There are other factors besides a lack of substance that can lead to catastrophic breakdowns;

Poor foot balance and bad shoeing choices.  Under those pillar-legs are feet.  Any deviation from correctness has an exponential disaster rate under the pressure of speed.  No human sprinter or distance runner would think to run in shoes that put undue stress on their knees, ankles or feet, and yet…  Here’s a study of how different shoes increase or decrease the likelihood of breakdowns.  This one addresses toe grabs on shoes, something you see in all the racing breeds.  http://www.thoroughbredtimes.com/horse-health/1997/march/29/a-potentially-dangerous-step.aspx 

Bad training and conditioning.  It’s widely understood that the reason racehorses are started at such young ages is to begin bone remodelling.  But that has to be done slowly and carefully over a long period of time.  Push a horse too fast, too soon, and the horse ‘bucks its shins’ (micro fractures of the cannon bone).  Push beyond that and you can bet on a disaster.  Note:  I’ve only ever seen one Standardbred suffer from bucked shins and that was a big (17h) two-year old trotter that I will plainly say was being trained by an ultra-idiot, but I’ve seen lots of Thoroughbreds succumb.  Is that because Standardbred trainers are generally better conditioners of horses, or perhaps because Standardbreds carry more bone in general and are less susceptible?

Some ‘other’ sort of conformation fault.  This could be a benched knee, a too long pastern such that when the horse gets up to speed it starts smacking its sesamoids on the racetrack.  Cow-hock, bowleggedness, deviated cannon bone, rotated pastern, flat soled feet.  Pick your poison; some work faster than others, but the end result is always the same.

A problem with soft tissue.  Suspensory ligaments can tear, tendons can rupture.  This can be related to conformation faults, like that too long pastern.  It can also happen because of poor foot balance or bad shoeing choices.  And it certainly can happen with improper training and conditioning techniques.  It can also be because of;

Accidents:  A racehorse can take a bad step.  They can hyperextend a limb.  They can get jostled in a race, lose their balance, fall down.  They can stumble coming out of the starting gate.  But that’s not what happened to Ruffian.  She was galloping along just fine in her match race against Foolish Pleasure.  She didn’t have a race accident like Niatross pictured below.


Here’s the video of Niatross’s fall if you’re a sucker for having your heart in your throat:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LpUSssOlKEg  

And if you want to break your heart, here’s the video of Ruffian’s last race:   http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YnZFnCvKspw

I say one more time:  Speed Kills.  So if you want to play the game, including playing it on your barrel horse, on your eventing horse, on your speed round jumper horse, or even on your endurance horse, where besides speed you’ve also added torque and sometimes uneven terrain, do the horse a favor and pick one suited to not only the task but one most likely to stay sound doing it.  And then, train, ride, and compete with consideration and caution.  This is a living, breathing animal, not a machine.

My final thought, perhaps unpopular:  The demise of Ruffian had an upside; she could not pass on her small-jointed, spindly stick-legs.


70 thoughts on “Speed Kills

      • All links are working with the exception of the Thoroughbred Times one…and that looks like the site is down currently. I’ll keep investigating.

        There is one image of Niatross falling that just won’t cooperate, so still working on it. Everything else should be fine.

        • Okay, pictures and text are all working…finally. The ThoroughbredTimes website is currently down, so that link is not working. Hopefully they’ll be back online soon.

        • Thoroughbred Times went into bankruptcy a few months ago, and hasn’t updated since. I’d not be surprised if their hosting didn’t finally run out.

          I’m reminded of Go For Wand, as well. Amazing filly, but just not built to take the rigors of racing. See also: almost every horse sired by Unbridled Song, Eight Belles just being one of the more well-known of his get’s breakdowns.

          Why on earth we can’t breed for substance in addition to speed is beyond me… oh, wait, no. It’s all about the yearling and two-year-old markets, and the money to be had there.

          • Ah, thanks for that B2B. This article was written a few months ago. I’ll see if I can’t dig up another article on that point of topic.

  1. Thanks for the cry. This really drives home that while thoroughbreds can make phenomenal sport horses, they are not riding horses by type. They are projects, they need conscientious training and conditioning, and you have to pick the right one. It’s getting more and more difficult to find one with decent bone, and good feet.

      • And, of course, all our race courses are grass, not arena sand, and cared for as golf courses! I have no idea who Ruffian is/was, so the claim that she was the greatest racehorse of all time is, again, a little OTT, she may have been the greatest NA racehorse, that is another matter…..

    • My apologizes, but I did warn you. NA Thoroughbreds are typically, as you note, not well suited to riding. They aren’t built anything like a riding horse needs to be. Finding one that isn’t a major, lifelong project is tough. I plan to explore that in another article. English TB’s, Irish TB’s etc… tend to be the better TB’s to go onto successful secondary riding careers (beyond the low levels – as any horse, or camel, or cow with four legs can usually handle the lower levels). They generally possess more bone and are less racy in type.

  2. “But if it is true, why does he show up so often and so much in the pedigree of many of today’s Thoroughbreds, almost four decades after Ruffian’s demise? Why would TB breeders purposely take the chance of passing on genetically weak bone from generation to generation? What good is a fast horse that can’t stay sound?”

    Halter breeders do the same thing. Impressive’s blood is in – I believe – a vast majority of halter horse lines. Why breed them if the horse will likely die of a horrible, slow death because it’s seizing and suffocating, very likely while it’s young? What good is a halter horse who is having a seizure? What good is a halter horse, anyway?

    Same thing with HERDA horses. People don’t check for that either and the next thing you know, your horse is being skinned alive.

    • A slight difference: weak bone directly affects performance potential in that your investment is far more likely to break down before it can pay off fully. It is a direct limitation. HYPP and HERDA are horrific, but the sad fact is they are ‘add-ons’ to the genetics and *tend* to affect horses after their intended/bred-for career is largely ‘done’ and often do not limit performance in that career directly. There is a mind set that accepts that a stock-type horse is ‘done’ by the time it approaches double-digits anyway.

      • That is ABSOLUTELY not true – especially with HERDA. A horse that is affected by HERDA (has two copies of the defective gene) will have to be put down shortly after it’s been saddled for the first time as the skin cannot hold up to being stretched by the weight and pressure of the saddle – they are basically skinned alive. And that’s if they’re “lucky” enough to make it to that age, many are put down well before their second birthday as they either cut themselves while being horses out in the pasture, or the weight of the skin is too great and it splits along the spine like with a saddle.

        HYPP is more of a crap-shoot, but still has a significant effect on a horse’s career

  3. I’ve heard it said that Standardbreds have more durability because the weak can’t cut it on the hard as rock race track. I’ve never personally walked one but I can believe that there is a lot less depth to the surface to allow sulky wheels to travel well. There’s a huge breeder near me and those mares have substance, there is no confusing them for TB’s.

    The OTTB in my barn raced 50 times and she retired sound. It boggles my mind. I haven’t measured her cannons but I’d be surprised if she has more than 6″ of bone. She’s leggy, tall and small boned. What I noticed first about her was that she had ‘normal’ hooves, i.e. sufficient heel and short toes. Her pasterns are on the long side but they’re more upright than most. I think the hoof/pastern conformation is what saved her during her race career.

    I can’t look at Ruffian videos, can’t look at Eight Bells either…stumbled on a pic of her yesterday and had to choke back tears. So sad, so avoidable. I recently got TVG and watched a few races one day. TWO horses in turf races broke down crossing the dirt back onto the turf, it was obvious that legs were broken. The announcers bumbled through it, cameras shifted back to the leaders, no followup except to say that one jockey was taken to the hospital, one walked away. No mention of the horses’ condition. How can I see this twice? Why would turf horses cross onto a dirt track then back to turf? Wish I could remember the track name and that they would tell the WHOLE story.

    • I hear the tracks greatly resemble concrete. They make very sturdy riding mounts, there’s no breaking them down!

      • The Standardbred I learned to ride on is 30 if he’s still alive, and to my knowledge was never lame a day in his life. His legs and feet look like they belong to a draft horse, he is/was a SOLID beast!

    • Standardbred tracks are typically pretty firm. They’re also super level, groomed to the hilt, watered multiple times a day, stay firm when wet and are easy to ‘chew up’ for winter racing. The training of Stbds, though, is quite different than TB’s. The good Stbd trainers put a ‘base’ of 500-800 miles of slow ‘jogging’ on a horse before they ever turn it in race direction to begin speed work. When speed work is started they’ll begin by ‘brushing’ 1/16th of a mile, then slowing the horse down. They’ll repeat that a few times and down the road they’ll brush a 1/8th, then a 1/4 of a mile. Once some speed has been developed then they begin ‘timed’ miles. Over several months (usually training once a week and jogging slow five times a week) the mile speed is reduced a few seconds at a time. At some point early on when ‘training’ begins, they introduce ‘heat’ training where the horse will warm up a few miles, train a mile with some speed, go to the barn to cool out a bit, return to the track 30-45mins later, warm up a couple miles, train a second mile with speed…this second ‘heat’ is faster than the first. So there’s a lot of endurance and stamina built into Stbds over a long period of time with a lot of slow work to support the fast work. That isn’t at all how TB’s are trained.

      • I often question the TB training methods….why don’t they train at a trot, the more balanced gait? Wouldn’t that be the better choice if trying to lay down more bone on developing frames? Even when they ‘jog’ the horses, they are cantering at a decent clip. I’d opt for longer, slower workouts and from a pony for the babies, no rider, no weight. Get them out every day and not on a hot walker in tight circles either. I would love to know how a strength and stamina building training program would affect a TB’s career.

        • I’m quite sure they have their reasons why they do what they do, and clearly they get enough results to not to want to change how they do things. This might simply be because they’ve come to ‘accept’ that the majority will breakdown and/or not make it. Personally, I don’t get it because it seems evident to me how it should be done to prevent the bucked shins, the chips in the knees and pasterns, the fractured pelvi, the bowed tendons and so on…

          I hate to say it as it’s so cliche, but money is the root of (much) evil and time is a luxury. Owners want to see return on their investment, yesterday. The pressure in the industry is through the roof and people will do things they normally would never dream of doing to put food on their table and a roof over their heads. That’s not an excuse, that’s a reality.

          We have to also remember that people learn through imitation. Look at all the ‘Dressage’ people who imitate others without really understanding. ‘If my horse’s nose is pulled towards its chest, then my horse is in a collected frame because that’s what I see wins in the Dressage ring.’ That’s complete BS and the same holds true in the racing industry. ‘I saw so and so famous trainer do such and such with their horse and it won a big race, so I should train that way’ – never mind that the famous trainer goes through hundreds of horses in a year with less than 10% making it to the races, or has a 50% breakdown rating in his barn.

          I’m yammering now…

          • In the TB world top ranks, money isn’t typically a concern per se. It seems that every top sports retiree owns a TB these days – for bragging rights. Many of these owners can lose a million without breaking a sweat and the horses are still pushed to the limit. It’s GREED.

            I’m glad to be at the age where I don’t give a flying bat wing if my name gets in the horsey headlines. I know I have good horses even if they haven’t done anything spectacular. I know they’re happy, respectful and balanced. I like them, they seem to like me. People come back to me with horses for training. I have 2 in to be backed and I’m working them according to their fitness and ability to learn. One’s pointed to WP color shows, the other is a gangly WB with no real future plans. I’m teaching them the same and love to see them learn. I like horses. If I broke either of them down, I’d be devastated.

          • Don’t be silly, money always matters. Yes, fame carries a heavy weight of importance, but money still matters. Having the best horses means not just headlines, but it means big syndicate money, big stud fees and big money at the yearling auctions.

    • My understanding is that, in addition to toothpick legs and long pasterns, Ruffian, unlike your horse, had tiny hooves. She and Foolish Pleasure had all sorts of measurements before the race (lots of sexist stuff going on there); she was taller and heavier, but she had a shoe size smaller than he. Might have contributed?

  4. Mercedes, as you know, this was the one I was waiting for.

    Great information and well-reasoned as always.

    Well done.

  5. This drives home the reason why I will no longer watch the Triple Crown. Barbaro and Eight Bells happened within a couple years of each other, on national television where hundreds of thousands of people watched them break.

    You expect idiots at lower tiers of any sport that screw up, push a horse past its limit, and make poor training decisions just to make a quick buck. I hope someday the public realizes this sort of thing happens a lot in TB racing. Not saying there are not remarkable trainers out there, and lucky horses that can come through a tough career sound. Yet then you look at people retiring a racer by the age of 5 when in Europe a racer might just be getting started, or steeplechasing and remain sound and running longer than our own horses.

    It is sad, and disgusting, and the public is woefully ignorant. I was in a class in highschool when Barbaro’s break down happen, and a girl in the class though it was cruel and bogus for them to put him down. . . I wanted to slap her for not realizing the quality of life and pain that horse had to be in.

  6. http://ranchosanantonio.com/pic_database/jclicker/images/Reviewer.jpg I found a pic of Reviewer, with much similarity in all 3 generations, right down to the homely head. Reviewer appears to have a bit more bone than his sire, a squeak more. This line is leggy as all get-out.

    http://ranchosanantonio.com/pic_database/jclicker/images/Shenanigans.jpg Shenanigans has more bone, she didn’t pass this to her daughter. She looks both calf kneed and tied in to me. Super short backed, light in the hip, level topline. She’s all front end.

    Secretariat on the other hand seems to have gotten his body/legs from his female line. I’d never seen a pic of Bold Ruler before, there are next to no similarities. He got more than the large heart gene from his dam’s side. He’s a strong X progeny. Goes to show how important it is to have a quality mare. The stallion only contributes half of the equation.

    While scrolling through some turn of the century TB’s I realize that many are very light boned. This is contradictory to what I expected. It makes me wonder how many of these racers broke down 100 years ago without public knowledge. Maybe this trend isn’t as new as we thought.

    • Thanks for finding those pictures!!! It does seem that the sire line through Bold Ruler was quite prepotent. I would agree both her sire and dam carried more bone. Reviewer did not have a good set of front legs. Agreed, Shenanigans is very front endish in this photo, but I’m blaming a lot of that on poor musculature because of badly balanced feet and a sore back. She’s standing typically over her point of shoulder, the front legs too far under her and with her weight ‘off’ the haunch like a sore horse.

      I believe that in truth the mare passes on more genetic material than the stallion so that it’s not a 50/50 split being passed on. (I’m drawing a blank at the moment – getting old sucks – but I’ll see if I can dig up the particulars). Of course if the mare passes on a lot of recessive genetic material and the stallion passes a lot of dominant genetic material, than it doesn’t really matter. I’ve always believed the mare was the more important part of the equation, not even from a genetic standpoint, but from a nurture and temperament standpoint as well. The foal spends those formative months being nurtured by its mother…you want a good dam to raise that foal.

      • mitochondrial dna, all comes from the mother, and is apparently the genetic source of the large heart from what I have read. In quarter horses, I believe it is the Leo line that passes down the large heart. Females rule.

        • The “more genes from the mare” argument is a bit of a farce. While it is true that mitochondrial DNA is passed through the maternal line (offspring get all organelles, including mitochondria, from the egg) the genetic contribution to the overall organism is negligible. There are around 40 genes in the mtDNA as compared to 40 – 50,000 in the nuclear DNA. What do those 37 – 40 genes do? They are associated with oxidative phosphorylation (metabolism using oxygen). Yes, deleterious mutations can severely effect the metabolism of a mammal, but because there is a high degree of genetic conservation in mtDNA, there is likely not to be a significant phenotypic variation iwith different mtDNA lines. Neutral mutations (mutations that have no phenotypic effect) are used to track maternal lines in genetic studies.
          And doth mine eyes deceive me, if does Secretatiat have a goose rump with an LS joint behind the point of hip? (My mare has the exact same ass). He does have wonderful conformation overall, but he’s not perfect. Discussion on conformation is wonderful and delightful, but please keep this in mind – FORM FOLLOWS FUNCTION. This means that while performance predicts conformation, conformation is not necessarily a predictor of performance. There are many an excellent performers with “conformational flaws”, and I’ve seen many “perfect horses” that were terrible performers. This is why the WB breeders do not rely soley on conformation for stallions – performance, performance, performance. Just a little reminder during these excellent discussions that while it is incredibly useful to judge conformation, and lends itself to well to understanding limitations of our equine partners, it is not the be all end all.

          • Genetics aside, because what we thought we knew ‘then’ is not what we know ‘now’ and what we know ‘tomorrow’ will be different than what we know ‘now’. 🙂

            Totally agree that there are great performers out there with conformation faults. Absolutely! However, they are not ‘severe’ or ‘major’ faults, or they are faults that do not affect the discipline of choice. Example: a ewe neck is a very serious fault in a riding horse, it however has no bearing whatsoever on a horse’s ability to be a world beating race horse. Another example: bench knees are another quite serious fault in a horse, but on a horse most suited to Dressage, that ‘naturally’ wants to carry more weight on their haunch and then is conditioned to carry even more weight on their haunch likely isn’t going to experience too many issues with those bench knees, as opposed to that say…jumping horse or racehorse.

            Yes, it appears as though Secretariat’s LS joint is a bit behind his point of hip. Doesn’t matter in this case because his hip is just so huge, he had remarkable joint flexibility, and he doesn’t need to engage the same way a riding horse does. I wouldn’t call him goose-rumped; he’s not nearly steep enough in his pelvis.

            You can’t have ‘SUSTAINED’ performance if you don’t have suited conformation first without serious fault. You can’t. I challenge anyone to go out and find a great equine performer with an otherwise serious fault that directly affects the ability to perform and stay sound in that particular discipline. Then find 10 more, then 100 more, then 1000 more, then 10,000 more. Because unless you can produce some serious numbers it’s just another example of someone paying $5,000 for a TB and having it make $1M…just doesn’t happen often enough to even consider. Makes for a great story, though.

            I also absolutely agree you will find some very nicely put-together horses out there that seem not to be able to get out of their own. We all understand there are a host of intangibles and factors that can come into play to prevent an otherwise solidily conformed horse from performing well.

            If you can’t pick out the horse suited to the task, if you can’t identify the strengths and weaknesses, if you can’t design a training/riding/conditioning program to counter or improve those weaknesses etc… then you are doomed to piddle around on a horse that’s likely experiencing pain and discomfort in your ignorance. Definitely there are situations and circumstances where you’ll not care so much what the horse looks like as long as it has 4-solid feet and legs because temperament will be the deciding factor – a child’s pony for instance.

            So agreed, conformation is not the be all and end all, but it is way more important than a lot of people are willing to admit. And it is a factor in a large percentage of situations where people are having difficulty with their horses.

          • Thank you for the facts on the genetics. The ‘more from the dam’ argument always niggled at me as being suspect. Much appreciated having it spelled out.

          • This reply is to Mercedes. Getting the horse with the best conformation for your particular discipline makes total sense.

          • I doubt how much mitochondrial dna contributes will be determined conclusively in my lifetime. Nevertheless, it is the answer to what part comes from the dam in genetics without a comparable contribution from the sire.

            It is the topic of peer reviewed research, it is a topic in human genetics as well as it appears to have implications in many diseases and heart performance, as well treatments. People in the TB industry are spending money to find out just how much it matters.

            I would suspect with palpation that Secretariat’s LS joint would hav been close to even with his point of hip, and given the size of hip, adequate. He has a lack of muscling over his top line which might look goose rumped, but isn’t really a conformation fault, if he had been ridden to develop a rounder butt, he would have a rounder butt. Mercedes helped me with my gelding who looked goose rumped but who was actually suffering from long term muscle issues from a baby injury with a rope. After massage therapy, he no longer looks goose rumped at all.

            No one here has claimed that conformation alone contributes to performance. A poorly trained, poorly ridden, poorly managed horse, regardless of conformation won’t do well. What this blog, and the work of ground breaking people who have studied conformation as science, not beauty pageant, does, is clue people in to how form will affect function. The purpose is to educate people about how structures function at all so that people can learn to work wtih the structure of the horse and not against it. I think we all would like to see people ride so that horses are not broken back at the base of the neck, spines hollowed and the big muscles meant to do the work not functioning at all so that big hamstrings replace big glutes in the muscle pattern of the hip and the back is damaged by weight carrying.

            For what the typical amatuer rider does, a ‘project’ can do just about anything a better conformed riding horse can do, the limits usually are more of the rider’s skill, not the horse’s conformation. So studying this or any other information on conformation shouldn’t leave one thinking that most horse’scan’t function well regardless of minor conformational issues that don’t rise to the level of pathology. And they should lead the reader to realize that much of what we see on the surface of most horses that we think is bad conformation is really bad riding and handling being made manifest.


      • I bred my mare and stallion three times and all three daughters are similar in nature to their dam. I have three of my stallion’s progeny with me now, different dams, and only one with dad’s personality and way of being. So, one in six where nurture trumped nature and the mares prevailed. I have to laugh at all the hoopla on TB stallion (actually, any breed) propaganda in advertising. Reading between the lines and the double talk is the true story of where the stud’s strength is coming from in many cases – the female line. If I were responsible for breeding Zenyatta, not for resale of the foal, I would opt for a prepotent stallion with good genetics just in case. She needs no improvement IMO.

        • I’ll disagree to stir the pot a bit and because I do disagree 🙂 – Zenyatta does need improvement. She’s a big mare and doesn’t carry a particularly good amount of bone. She’s also weak through the loin. The two stallions she’s been bred to do, however, possess decent bone and better loins that I’m hoping her offspring receive.

          This article is about ‘speed’. Zenyatta’s success can’t be argued. She was well-trained, well-managed, well-conditioned and well-campaigned. Her only loss was human error. Under the tutelage of most any other TB trainer, Zenyatta, I believe, is a bust. She wasn’t fast, she possessed stamina. Head to head, Secretariat leaves her in the dust because not only did he also possess the stamina to go distance, but he was also very fast.

          I actually think Z’s half sister is the better horse.

    • I think Secretariat got the hindquarters from Bold Ruler. The neck and shoulder seem to be from his dam.

  7. You can find a picture of “Reviewer” at Thoroughbred Data base. It mentions him breaking down three time before being retired. Ruffian’s dam did foal Buckfinder who was considered a “best sire for soundness and athleticism” by Eventing magazine. Ruffian”s half brother Icecapade was a strong racehorse. It all goes back to breeding. Breed for soundness. If there are weak traits in both parents don’t be surprised if the offspring has them.

  8. Is “To plow or not to plow” published here and I just can’t see it?

    I think the difference between European TB/TB crosses is amply illustrated by Desert Orchid’s legs. Massive bone in comparison to a US TB.

  9. Fine bone is a reason I’m quite worried for a little Hackney Pony mare out here at the barn. Her owner is a 14 year old girl who is a good rider, but is not exactly light-weight. She’s by no means fat, she’s just a bit heavy-set and she’s about 5’6″. This little mare is only about 14.2hh and built like most Hackney Ponies are. The girl is jumping with her. No, not little cross-rails, but 3′ and higher. The poor thing is clearly not thrilled with the idea of jumping. She’s doing OK for now, but I’m just waiting for that day when those thin little legs get pushed just a hair too far. She’s lovely and incredibly sweet, I just wish she was being used for something different.

    • Quill, you know as well as I do that talking to people about their animals is pointless. Talk to the girl (or her parent or friend) and make your case. Once. Then just let it go. Be ready for the crash when it happens. Good luck.

  10. I used to train a Thb mare who descended from Vice Regent, she stood 17.2, had a good amount of bone and was big bodied too. At the schooling shows I would be asked again and again if she was a warmblood. Was she a fluke or is that line known for solid big horses?
    Her size meant she never raced, she was slow to mature and very clumsy for quite a while, took a bit of work to get a canter that didn’t feel like she was going to fall on her face 😉

  11. Stirring back at ya, a devout Z fan who adores this mare! I’ve heard it stated that Z was ‘slow’, thereby negating her status of greatness, but I disagree. I think it more appropriate to state that she isn’t a sprinter but watching her on the final turn of the ’09 Classic circling the boys like they were in a hand gallop still gives me chills (and tears). She gained with every stride running faster as she came. How can she not be considered a fast horse? Her length of stride is huge.

    Maybe I’m too in love with her to notice the weak loin. I don’t see it. I think Bernardini’s looks longer than Z’s, though he is absolutely gorgeous and I prefer his length of pastern. I know love is blind….would you elaborate?

    • I’ll argue she wasn’t fast in that race. They only came the last 1/2 mile in 48 and a bit seconds, a touch slower than the quite moderate opening half mile of just under 48. The middle 1/2 mile was…you guessed it, about 48 seconds. So the race was about as even in fractions as you’ll ever see. Horses that come from behind basically run races in ‘reverse’ of the front running horses. It’s really only special in terms of timing the finish line better than the guy ‘cutting’ the race in front. You wouldn’t have ever seen her in front because she’s a moose, but once you get the moose rolling…it can roll quite a distance. That latter stamina is what makes her special. But, a horse with tactical speed and rateability will beat a horse coming from behind every time, provided the human element/conditioning program/management is equal.

      Again, though, I won’t argue her success, but I give full credit to her humans. They did a fantastic job all around.

      In terms of her conformation, she has some fantastic features but there are things about her legs and body that could be improved upon. Too big overall, camel withers, too low set neck, front pasterns too upright, too shallow through the loin (haven’t seen a good enough confo photo yet to determine why..might be long loin or poorly placed LS joint, or lacking breadth), also haven’t seen a good enough photo showing her knees…she’s crooked through them, sometimes appearing too straight, other times over, hamstring attachs high, and the hock/cannon bone attachment lends itself to curbs – which she doesn’t appear to have developed – again I give credit to the humans. A couple of those things don’t affect her ability to be a great racehorse, but neither should they be ignored, imo, since they do play a significant role in post-racing disciplines. Since the odds of not making the races is so great, I’d think a breeder would want to try and protect against producing a horse that couldn’t have a ‘backup’ discipline.

      I’m keeping an eye on her sister, who should be getting to race soon…not sure why she hasn’t since her last start was in January. One of the things I find annoying about these top TB’s…they don’t race too many times. A top Stbd will race at least twice a month.

      • I’ll agree to disagree, for now. When “E” gets double digit wins, beats 11 of the best North American colts once and nearly (should have) twice, I’ll reconsider. Yes, she’s a moose and doesn’t have the quickest turn of foot but watching the ’09 Classic stretch run where she just ate up the track still gives me goosebumps. She even seemed to enjoy herself on the track with her cotton stuffed ears perked on nearly every stretch run. JS did a great job training her and it’s obvious that he had an emotional attachment and put her health and well-being at the forefront. Horse, owners, trainer, groom – all a class act. Others could learn from their management of Z. Patience can pay off.

        I’ll have my eyes on E’s next race and see if she follows in her sister’s footsteps. I think this is an extremely strong female line coming from “V” more than Bernardini or Street Cry. There are a few GB & Irish horses in V’s pedigree along with an Argentine and SC adds another GB bred. The outcross away from NA breds may be the key!

        I don’t expect to see TB’s race as often as Stbds in our lifetime. Maybe a dash of Stbd blood would do the Jockey Club some justice and the horses would start to hold up again. 😉

        • Whether sister gets double digits wins or not isn’t the only criteria (that I use) to categorize as a ‘better’ horse. Lots of times the ‘best’ horse doesn’t win the race. *wink* But no need for you to reconsider. Your opinion is supported by many, many people and without a doubt Zenyatta is a standout regardless.

          • I stumbled upon the Zenyatta forum a few weeks ago, and one of the comments included a conformation critique of Z’s 2012 foal. The critique mentioned that there was room for improvement, and the tone was reasonable. The board’s response to the critique was quite negative, even though they had requested it. I think it’s possible to admire a horse while acknowledging that it’s not absolutely perfect. Criticism is not a condemnation.

          • Your last is a great way to put it!

            I just think that knowledge is power. If you don’t know the right knee is rotated a bit (or whatever), then you can’t keep your eye on it, can’t work around it, can’t design the best management program etc…therefore you increase the risk that it becomes a problem – perhaps a career-ending program – down the road.

  12. So I googled Vice Regent…I like his confo. But your comments Mercedes, would be welcome 😉
    I do see where “my” mares traits came from. I am a Thb lover but do agree on the need for more form than function in them 😉

  13. Just slightly off topic. I am looking for a picture of Ambitious Cat. We were given a T/B that was left at the auction house and was in no condition to sell. We looked up her tattoo and it is the same as Ambitious Cat’s . We called the breeder but were told Ambitious Cat was in Ontario being bred. SO just want a picture of her and can not seem to find one, and don’t really know where to look. Can someone help?

  14. Pingback: Did you know that thoroughbreds have good feet? |

  15. I was privlaged to watch Niatross win the Little Brown Jug. He had such a big stride as to almost look like he was hardly moveing while all the other horses’ legs were a blur. Of course he broke the track record. Then came back in the second heat to break the record that he had just set! Only time in the history of the Jug that a second heat went faster than the first heat.

  16. While I enjoyed your article I disagree with one point.Frank Whitely as with everyone else was unaware of Ruffians accident Iin the starting gate. She was pronounced fit and sound in every way by both Vet Dr.Harthill & her farrier. If you concentrate while watching the fatal matchrace you will see her hit the gate so hard her body turns briefly sideways.Ruffian quickly engages in the race throwing her right foot out clearly with great force when you see how quickly she catches up with Foolish Pleasure. She could not abide any horse in front of her.This mishap is corrected itseems in nano seconds as I watched the tape twice before seeing the accident.Obviously her ankle was compromised at that time.I have read that she actually struck her right foot against the gate although you would have to slow the footage down to confirm that.Ruffian ran faster fractions against her race with Hot N Nasty than in the matchrace.She also won the her last race of a mile and a half 2 weeks earlier quite easily while being held back all the way by Vacinto as her trainer wanted to save her strength for the match race.She finished the stretch in a gallop this her only race she didn’t make or break a track record.Her time was still much faster than Avatars winning time in the Belmont at the same track and same distance. Foolish Pleasure lost to Avatar and Ruffian outclassed all three boys in my book Had she lived we would have witnessed something greater than ever thought possible.

    • ★★ Sorry ,I need to add that no one ‘at first’ was aware of Ruffians starting gate accident except for her jockey Jacinto Vasquez. This was later confirmed when they reviewed the racetrack video footage.Right at the point of her acceleration while pulling almost a length ahead and counting her compromised leg could not withstand the great force she was.building up.

  17. Maryann, I was there for the match race. When the race started everyone thought that Ruffian just started slowly. She did that sometimes. Watching from the stands we had no idea what was going on. At the time people supposed that Ruffian broke down because the maleness of Foolish Pleasure was too much for her. A week later CBS Sports broadcast the film of the start. I agree with you. If Ruffian hadn’t slammed into the starting gate she would have smoked Foolish Pleasure. Being in a match race (against a decent colt who’d lost his last two races) didn’t cause her breakdown. Slamming into that hard metal and then running full out did.

  18. Pingback: Topline Summary #1 – Gaited And Saddleseat | Hooves

Leave a Reply to Mercedes Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s