New Year’s Resolution: Learn about Internal Conformation

‘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.


About bpressey

Equine Exercise Physiologist

Posted on January 2, 2012, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. I am an exercise physiologist who owns an all equine rehabilitation and conditioning center in Paso Robles, CA (the old Cardiff Stud Farm). I really am enjoying your blogs and what you have to share. Would like to collaborate with you in the future.

  2. Now that I am getting up and running down in FL with several 2yo being conditioned for the upcoming breeze show sales – what does internal conformation look like in this group?

    Well, not all are being worked fast just yet, so we haven’t filled out the maximal HR portion of the equation, but after several gallops in the 3:30 min/mile range we are starting to see the following Efficiency Scores – or feet traveled per heart beat due to oxygen metabolism:

    7.95 feet per heart beat on the low end, 11.02 feet per heart beat on the top end.

    Again, these are numbers taken from actual exercise using on-board HR/GPS gear. This is not heart size taken at rest, nor is it gait analysis – it is a combination of both plus several other factors intrinsic to thoroughbred athletic performance. Not potential, but performance on the track during the warm Florida mornings.

    If you have a 2yo in training near the upper end of the above mentioned range and you like to win races – keep him (don’t sell), that is if the first time he is allowed to pick it up down the lane he’s able to generate a max HR over 215bpm, ideally closer to 230bpm.

    If you are tentatively planning on racing all of your 2yo, you may want to re-think those who score near the lower end of the Efficiency Score range, or who have max HR values under 210bpm – as they are simply not athletic prospects, regardless of how they look from the outside.

    Why spend another $25k to find out in the fall that he’s a poor performer, when we can already discern that is the case?

    I’ll be in Central FL during the last month of January, drop me a line if you’d like an objective assessment of your stock.

  3. How long after completing 4f in 51 should you take the the lactate and or heart rate? Is there a window or ASAP?

    • 2 minutes after crossing the wire Frank for recovery heart rate, meaning somewhere on the backside during the cool down – if you wait until he’s back in the barn it’s much too long. Also, again 3min after that – looking for a number near 80bpm – especially as a horse gets a few races under his belt this number should drop considerably. I accomplish both with an on-board HR monitor, and download the data into a PC after each work, I don’t bother with checking numbers on the track – too much else to do.

      Lactate-wise, I believe the best time is 5min after exercise – but so many factors can influence lactate, I don’t use it in the field unless I can control everything – as on a treadmill.

  4. Is it pointless trying to test lactate in the field? What are the variables that would dissuade you from doing so? Did SWANN book arrive?

    • Yes, Thanks! – Swann book arrived yesterday afternoon and I finished it this morning. Not exactly what I expected, but I have to remember it was the 80s and he didn’t have the equipment available to him that I do today. He puts the anaerobic threshold in horses at 150bpm, which is quite a bit lower than the 200bpm I tout. I also didn’t realize he was so close to Tom Ivers.

      Somewhere I had seen Swann use the phrasing: V200 plus Scientific Training Method’, yet this book never mentions V200, only V150? Perhaps he had a later revision?

      Both HR and lactate in a wild animal will give you some false readings due to stress, but with the HR chart displayed in software – you can discount these incidences, whereas with a lactate number you cannot necessarily do so.

      I would use lactate for it’s precision with a horse at age 3+, but only if I had a treadmill to take advantage of that-

    • Plus here at CD and KEE I can’t exactly hang around with a bunch of syringes, even empty ones!

  5. have had trouble with my scanner should be able to get V200 PLUS SCIENTIFIC TRAINING METHOD DR PHILIP SWANN to you next week

    • Thanks again, looking forward to it. V200 is the basis of my book as well, its tough to imagine a guy writing about the same concept on the other side of the world when I was in 10th grade!

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