Farm Ireland

Wednesday 21 February 2018

Big leap is needed to keep eventing at top of its game

A high level of unfavourable traits exist in Irish horses and it's vital they're tackled so that we breed for market requirements

Riders prefer a medium to longer neck, but 20pc of the horses studied had a short neck
Riders prefer a medium to longer neck, but 20pc of the horses studied had a short neck
Riders prefer a medium to longer neck, but 20pc of the horses studied had a short neck
Caitriona Murphy

Caitriona Murphy

Since the Future Event Horse League (FEHL) was first set up 11 years ago, its aim has been to develop the talents and skills of both Irish horses and riders.

This has been achieved through three main strategies:

  • The establishment of a basic standard of training and a systematic programme of further education for both horses and riders in the skills required for success in national and international horse trials.
  • The league aims to contribute to the national breeding programme by introducing performance testing which demonstrates to breeders the modern-day requirements of a potential international competition horse.
  • The FEHL ensures that our future event horses are presented to potential buyers from home and abroad to the highest standard and in the most professional manner.

Last week we examined a study by University of Limerick researcher Soraya Morscher into the traits that top event riders in Ireland look for in their horses.


This week, we examine whether the horses currently being produced in Ireland are reaching the required standard and the role of the FEHL in selecting the star performers of the future.

In her research paper, entitled 'An Analysis of Conformation and Performance Variables in Potential Three Day Event Horses in Ireland', Soraya analysed results from the FEHL league from 2004 to 2009.

The RDS-sponsored research involved assessing the results of 725 horses with regard to conformation, consistency of scoring and effects of gender and age on performance.

The results make for interesting reading and should be noted by breeders who hope to produce horses for the top end of the market.

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"The conformation evaluation of potential event horses at different venues around Ireland highlighted the prevalence of some unfavourable conformation traits as identified by elite riders," says Soraya.

"These included straight shoulders, back-at-the-knee conformation, sickle hock conformation, long back conformation, weak loin areas, rectangular structure and a lack of impulsion in trot.

"In order for the Irish Sport Horse to remain at the top of the world eventing rankings, these traits need to be eliminated.

"As longevity is of utmost importance in eventing to reach the highest level, any conformation traits that contribute to early breakdown and that will not withstand the high demands placed on the musculoskeletal system will have to be monitored," she says.

"Active selection for desirable traits needs to be included in selection procedures and breeding objectives."

The conformation of 422 horses was compared to the "ideal conformation", as outlined by top event riders. The following are the main results of the comparison:

Head and neck

  • Although riders described a medium to light connection between the head and neck (at the throatlash area) as ideal, more horses had a light connection.
  • At the neck/body connection, riders looked for a narrow or high-set neck, while the 422 horses that were examined had a range of neck positions.
  • Riders prefer a medium to longer neck, but 20pc of the horses studied had a short neck.
  • When looking at the horse's neck muscling, riders want to see a slight topline, but there was a prevalence of poor muscling in the horses studied.

Saddle position

  • Top event riders look for a medium to higher wither height and all the FEHL horses studied conformed to this.
  • Riders look for a sloping shoulder but there was a high prevalence of straight (upright) shoulders, which carry a higher risk of lameness.

Front leg

  • Almost 20pc of the horses were back at the knee, even though riders are looking for horses that are straight or even slightly forward at the knee.

Back-at-the-knee is the most serious conformational fault of the forelimb because it will not withstand the pressures of eventing long term.

  • Most horses had the medium to short pastern length that riders look for.
  • Almost one-third of horses were light of bone, even though medium to strong bone is most desirable in an event horse.

Hind leg

  • Strong muscling in the quarters and gaskin is desired, but some horses (14pc) lacked muscle in these areas. However, their lack of muscling could still be attributed to immaturity at four and five years of age, and with correct training these will develop.
  • Sickle hocks were widespread among the FEHL horses studied -- 22pc showed sickle hocks -- even though riders prefer hocks that are at the midpoint between sickle hocks and straight hocks or slightly sickle.


  • The majority of horses scored well in foot conformation. Riders look for feet with a medium width and only some horses studied had wide feet and very few had narrow feet.
  • More horses had low heels than high heels, but riders prefer horses with medium to high heels.


  • Even though 50pc of riders preferred a short back, one quarter of the horses examined had long backs. This is a major cause for concern as long backs are generally weaker backs and this trait needs to be monitored.
  • The majority (55pc) of horses had weak loins, when strong muscling is the desired trait in this area. This is another area of concern, particularly since weak loin areas are usually coupled with long backs.
  • Most horses had the slightly sloping to sloping croups that are preferred by 50pc of riders and only a small percentage of horses had flat croups.


  • Riders prefer a horse with a square to medium shape overall, however one-third of the horses studied were slightly rectangular or rectangular in shape.

This follows recent trends in breeding, led by Continental studbooks that aim to breed a rectangular horse for show-jumping and dressage.

However, the rectangular shape is not favourable for eventing because shorter body forms are associated with a strong, more durable structure.


  • Riders look for a long stride length in walk and straight movement. In general, the FEHL horses displayed a good length of stride at walk but 30pc of them displayed deviation at walk (10pc toe in, 20pc toe out).
  • Some 75pc of riders prefer average to slightly long strides at trot and canter, with slightly powerful to powerful impulsion but one quarter of the horses studied were lacking impulsion and displayed short stride lengths at trot. The canter was not assessed in the FEHL horses.

Soraya believes that monitoring unfavourable traits in young event horses is critical for the future production of top-class eventing horses.

"There is a relatively high prevalence of some unfavourable conformation traits for eventing," she says.

"These include straight shoulders, back-at-the-knee conformation, sickle hocks, long backs, weak loins and rectangular structure.

"Monitoring these unfavourable traits will be imperative going forward in order to keep producing top-quality animals for the sport and reduce their prevalence in the population," she claims.

"The introduction of sires and broodmares from other studbooks with breeding aims to breed rectangular structures may not be of advantage considering short frames and backs are desired in the sport of eventing.

"In order to achieve an improvement in conformation traits towards the ideal, conformation needs to be assessed and information made available on which sires have favourable traits to work towards the ideal event horse," she concludes.

Irish Independent