Balance is the key to conformation and movement - Simon Parsons reports from Pat Sutton’s seminar comparing the dog and the horse

Created: 25/07/2012

Balance is the key to conformation and movement - Simon Parsons reports from Pat Sutton’s seminar comparing the dog and the horse

DOG PEOPLE can at times be all too insular, seldom looking beyond their own breed, let alone beyond the species. Yet so much can be gained from comparing and contrasting your breed with others – to see what aspects are the same, and what bits differ and why.
  Equally, and especially nowadays when we think more than ever about ‘fitness for function’, why not take a look at other types of animal, especially those which have been bred and adapted by man to do a particular job?
In past, more leisured, days, many dog people were involved in other types of livestock. In today’s busier world, most people’s interests are more specialised, perhaps dangerously so, but thankfully there are still some dog people for whom dogs are just a part of their animal interests.
  One such is Pat Sutton. Not only does she maintain a successful and, by modern standards, reasonably large kennel of Beagles, carrying on the Rossut line founded by her parents Catherine and Beefy, but she has for many years been actively involved with the draghound world and she runs a livery stable at her home at Elstead in Surrey. Her teaching credentials are strong too; she qualified as an instructor with the British Horse Society nearly 40 years ago.
  A true all-rounder, then, and many feel it is a pity that she has chosen to judge solely the dog breeds in which she has a specific interest, rather than becoming a multi-breed and group judge as did her parents.
  Her perspective is nevertheless a unique one, and in an attempt to put something back into the dog sport she two years ago ran a seminar comparing canine and equine conformation and movement. It was very well received and for those like myself who couldn’t attend the first one, she kindly agreed to repeat it last weekend.
  We were the lucky ones, for unlike those at the first seminar we were blessed with one of those, so far this year, rare sunny days and were therefore able to sit outside in one of the paddocks at Pat’s Blacklands Farm, which added to the pleasure of watching the different animals Pat had chosen, or which had been volunteered, to be put through their paces.
  Pat began by saying that the mechanics of the framework of both species were in many ways similar. Where horse people had an advantage was that they are taught from their earliest days to assess an animal’s outline. The keyword is balance, and if there is an imbalance, they are taught to ask the reason why.
  First she brought out a Warmblood horse, wearing white boots on one diagonal pair and black on the other to help us to see the rhythm of its movement.
  Many terms we use in the dog world were first used in the equine world, such as ewe neck or sickle hock. Others haven’t reached us yet but could apply just as much to dogs as horses; for example Pat explained that some horses, who are short of drive from the rear, therefore do not ‘track up’, in other words the footfall from the rear foot doesn’t reach the footprint left by the front.
  Important though movement ‘up and down’ may be, Pat was at pains to emphasise that sending the dog or horse round the ring can add much more to your knowledge of how the animal is made. It’s here that balance is so important to the animal’s angulation. If it is upright in front, but well angulated behind, the front leg will have to do various strange things in order to keep out of the way of the hind. Very often a dog who may not be ideally well angulated, but whose angles are similar front and back, may well move better in profile than one who is perfect one end but fails the other.
  Something many of us may not have realised is how important it is to train an animal to move both clockwise and anti-clockwise. This is routine in the horse world, to enable the animals to develop evenly both sides as they grow and mature. But in dogs, where we all go in the same direction round the ring, how many of us think of that? Pat appealed to those who take ringcraft classes to encourage their charge to circle a ring in both directions.
  Throughout the day Pat was ruthlessly honest about the conformation of the animals in front of her, making a virtue of this by explaining how any departures from ideal affected the animals’ performance. For example this first horse, though reasonably well made, had a slightly short shoulder blade. Therefore it followed that in his dressage career, the least successful element was that involving moving at full extension.
  Knowing your animals’ faults is so important – and especially in the riding world where you need to teach the rider how to minimise the effects of less than ideal conformation.
  Next it was the dogs’ turn, and during the morning session dogs of various breeds were lent by their owners who bravely accepted Pat’s assessment of their conformation and movement. First up were a pair of Rottweilers, one undocked, and this led to a discussion of how in many docked breeds were used to breed for flat croups – with the inevitable result of high tail carriage once these began to be left on. As I know all too well from my own breed, there is still a vast variation in carriage in many of the now undocked breeds, and it will take generations to sort out.

Built to last

  Pat emphasised that the Standards are a guide to how a breed should look – it’s the judge’s and breeder’s job to interpret it, always in the light of whatever was the breed’s job in life. And you must always remember that the dogs should look just as good at the end of the day as at the beginning; if his conformation is such that he tires prematurely, that’s useless. Feet are one of Pat’s hobbyhorses – they have got to be built to last.
  Sickle hocks are a common fault, perhaps not the end of the world if the dog still moves out with drive, but a real problem if this is compromised.
  This was demonstrated by a pair of New Forest ponies, both slightly sickle hocked but one with particularly good shoulders for the breed, and better proportioned too. Their movement was a revelation, one far smoother and with a more relaxed gait, the other audibly ‘forging’ when the rear foot caught on the front one. This can be translated to dogs – in most breeds the ideal is a long, soft, economical stride, for obvious reasons in the working dog but even in toys whose most strenuous activity is jumping on your lap, basic good conformation is essential too.
  A pair of Leonbergers came in next and brought up some valuable points. Where front construction is concerned, it’s not just the angles that matter – where the shoulder assembly is positioned on the body counts too. Anyone who judges at all regularly will find many dogs with good shoulder angles but with the whole thing set on forward, a telltale sign being a hollow where the sternum should normally protrude to the right amount for the breed.
  Then again, sometimes a dog can have a spectacular side gait – but is a dramatic kick-up from the rear really the most economical gait? A less flashy but smoother movement may be more correct.
  A contrast in horse conformation next, with two Welsh Cobs, one purebred, one half-Warmblood. These were originally built to drive, and you could see it in their strength of hindquarters but with less angulation. Nor do they have great front angles – the desired action in this breed is more ‘up and down’ with plenty of knee action, rather than any great length of stride.
  Just as in dogs, galloping breeds tend to have plenty of length of shoulder blade and upper arm; the heavier working dogs and horse have less hind angulation but lots of strength nevertheless. The long legged terriers have adapted differently still, aiming to keep the shoulder blade’s length and angulation, but shortening and steepening the upper arm.
  Back to dogs and a smooth St Bernard demonstrated unusually good shoulders for a giant breed as well as the necessity for good long, deep ribs to cover the lungs and to aid breathing – not cut up or ‘herring gutted’, another equine term. An equally attractive Flatcoat next, and Pat was pleased to be able to demonstrate the distinct forechest which is so often the sign of a well constructed front assembly.
  After a hearty lunch we returned to find Pat giving us the benefit of her experience with hounds. Foxhounds will ‘work with their hearts’, she said – it doesn’t matter to them how well made they are. But it does matter to those who hunt them – the well made ones will go on and on and stay sound the day long, while those with poorer conformation, if they are herring-gutted, for example, will be difficult to keep weight on and will be restricted as to how often they may work.
  Next came another Warmblood horse – a type developed in Germany as carriage horses and now used for dressage or show. Now five years old, he had been shown in hand as a baby and is currently learning ‘what comes in life’, an illustration of how slow horses are to come to their peak compared with most dog breeds. He showed us a good even economical stride, not the longest but nicely rhythmic.
  The four priorities when judging equine movement? Straightness (what we would call true up and back), rhythm, balance and tempo. Of course much also depends on the skill or rider or handler – Pat pointed out how the very best dog handlers always know exactly the right speed at which to move any individual dog to maxmise its potential.
  Next Pat showed us some of her own Beagles, three dogs, then three bitches, among them several champions, as well as the one featured in the superb moving shot in her DOG WORLD ANNUAL advertisement last year. As ever she was completely honest about their faults and virtues. Interestingly, one of the best movers was not the best angulated but what he had was balanced and he made the most of what he’d got.
  Sound advice for breeders, especially those for whom space is limited and who find it hard to part with older stock – don’t keep a puppy unless it’s an improvement on what came before.
Next came what Pat described as two ‘bog standard hunters’, once again the better of the two showing that easy and economy of movement that enables him to work for as long as his rider asks of him.

Perfect stance

  Leaving the best to last, in both dog and horse. First, three couple of Foxhounds from the draghound pack of which Pat is chairman, ranging from a lovely youngster who had been reserve young dog in the draghound classes at the recent Peterborough show, to a wonderful old bitch, incredibly still working at nine years, and who has won at Kennel Club shows too. As ever we marvelled at the way they just naturally position themselves in a perfect stance.
  Breathtaking, and even more so the final exhibit, The Philanderer, a wonderful grey, now retired but who in his day had been Champion Riding Horse at the Royal International. In stunning nick with his coat spotless, he gave us the most vivid lesson in shoulder construction with plenty in front of the saddle, not to mention a wonderful ‘bottom’ too!
In conclusion Pat asked us all to think about balance and rhythm in movement and to teach ourselves how to recognise them – you won’t get one without the other. If the dog doesn’t look right when you send it round, ask yourself why? And always bear in mind, when you are trying to interpret a Standard, what the dog was bred to do.
All in all a fascinating day, and I’m amazed that on a weekend without a big show, more existing or aspiring judges didn’t jump at the chance to attend.
  It did good in another way too – afterwards I was chatting to one of the ‘horse people’ present who, having read all the bad publicity about dog breeding, had no idea before today that good breeders really do care about how well made and sound their animals are.
  Putting something like this together must demand the co-operation of a large number of people and their animals, so thanks must go to all of them as well as to Pat – and if we can persuade her to repeat it in another couple of years, make sure you don’t miss it.