May 20, 2009

On Beauty - Or the Lack Thereof

So, this thought will probably get me crucified by Fugly Horse of the Day. Probably most sane horse people would never be caught voicing such an opinion, but I'm just going to go ahead and throw it out there into the ether. Sanity is one thing I cannot be accused of having.

What if conformation does not make the horse?

And no, by this I am not presupposing that any horse with excellent conformation is destined to be great in whatever his field. What I am trying to ask is whether ugly, terribly conformation is necessarily the bad thing I was always brought up to believe?

I ask this because I have been busy reading Crazy Good: The True Story of Dan Patch, the Most Famous Horse in America. I actually even stopped reading the book because I couldn't finish it with this thought nagging at the back of my mind. The author spends all of about two pages describing Abdallah, the horse that sired Hambletonian 10. This is significant because through 4 of his sons, 99 percent of all harness racers today can be traced back to Hambletonian 10. So, via Abdallah (and Messenger before him), we have the origins of the entire Standardbred breed and its racing prowess.

The thing is, as the author notes, "he was, in an age of truly ugly, ill-made horses, the worst-looking animal that many people had ever seen. His ears were shockingly 'long, thin and sharp,' wrote one eyewitness, and [...] had a 'large, heavy head,' a thin, rat-like tail, a hollow back, and scrawny 'cat hams,' all of which combined to make him look like he was two different hideous horses 'joined by an attenuated cylinder.'" From this we have the makings of greatness. I think after reading that passage I closed the book for about an hour and just considered that. And I was a bit shocked at the implications of this.

And just to put a finer point on this, Dan Patch himself had a crippled left hind leg. A deformity that almost made his owner kill him off at birth. He had to wear specially made shoes that prevented him from slicing himself up by his erratic striding, allowing him to make the records that made him famous.

Would either of these horses have passed a vet check? Likely not. Are they horses that I would have thought had any prospect of use for competition? No. And they are definitely not horses that I would have chosen to breed.

So, this leaves me with the realization that perhaps I cannot be so quick to judge a book by its cover. That maybe the oh-so-precious vet check that I put every horse through isn't the holy grail that I've made it out to be. Like the racing industry says, some horses have heart and that makes up for their imperfections and infirmities. And yet this is an extremely uncomfortable line to toe for me. Because, lest you mistake me, I do not support some of the horrid backyard breeders out there. But looks and conformation also shouldn't make the horse. I have seen many a gorgeous, fully vet-checked Dutch Warmblood suddenly go lame forever. And many a "maybe-not-entirely" sound, ewe-necked thoroughbred be one of the most solid jumpers ever - right up into his twenties.

This should serve as a reminder to us all that there are ultra-talented horses out there that don't meet the specifications that we have in mind or that vets consider the norm. Sometimes we have to look beyond the obvious and see the individual talent that may be lying dorment. And I don't expect to find a million diamonds in the rough. Just one or two, but those will make it all worth it, I suspect.

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