Inspections and what they mean

I got quite the kick out of one particular part of William Micklem’s last article where he shared his thoughts on breeding event horses:

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Yep, you got it, the warmblood registries were not big fans of Sam. This is specifically referring to when he was presented as a 2yo for stallion licensing, where he was rejected with the overall impression being “He is nondescript, his head is too big, he has no presence and has a funny jumping techniqueโ€. Of course, this all worked out in Sam’s favor in the end, because it set him on the path to end up with Michael Jung, but it’s funny to hear the impression that a whole lot of breeding specialists had of him (and they were not necessarily wrong at the time) when he was a young horse.

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Sam was a late bloomer, and of course even now there isn’t much about him that would immediately WOW most people. He’s fairly plain and not a particularly flashy mover or jumper. But he’s got a ton of heart and a huge desire to please, and that, more than anything else, is what has made him one of the best event horses of all time.

Sam’s story is also just one of many examples of why I personally don’t put much stock in inspection scores, especially for babies.ย There’s definitely a lesson in Sam’s story for all of us with foals or young horses. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a slam on the judges and inspectors at all – in most cases they are supremely well qualified, with an abundance of experience. This is just an observation of the nature of horses and how hard it can be to see their true potential.

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For dressage horses, there’s a lot you can see in a young horse. The gaits will be there at least in their raw form, although the conformation can change a bit, and of course you can’t tell what the horse’s mental capacity for the work will be. For jumpers, or especially eventers, I think it’s very very hard, even impossible, to judge the potential of a horse that young, especially if they are a late bloomer.

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After all, this scrawny runty 2yo….
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became this adult mare

I’ve been to a lot of inspections, especially foal inspections. Many people, especially new breeders, put a lot of emphasis on the scores, getting really excited about a good score or extremely disappointed with a bad one. But really, there are a lot of variables at play here. First and foremost, the judges can only give a score for what they see in those few minutes on that particular day. If the foal is in a funky stage of growth, or if they’re tense, or if they just won’t show any trot… the scores will suffer, obviously. It doesn’t mean the quality isn’t there, it just means they can’t see it. The premium foals, the ones who score the highest, are usually the well-developed, pretty ones who decide to trot around with lots of spring in their step on that particular day. Does that translate to a successful sporthorse? I mean… maybe… but not directly.

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And with jumpers and eventers, of course they don’t actually get to see the foals jump at all, since they’re so young. The judges can see the canter (if the foal stops bouncing around like Pepe LePew long enough to show some real canter, that is), which can be some indicator of power, but does the horse have the ability? The scope? The technique? The heart? The boldness? The rideability? None of that can be seen on that day, and those are the most important qualities in a jumping horse.

Foal inspections are fun and important, don’t get me wrong. It’s fun to braid, get everyone bathed, and show them off. And of course I do think it’s VERY important for the breed registries to get out there and look at what is being produced. To see the mares, see the offspring, possibly make some breeding suggestions, point out potential future stallion candidates, and see what bloodlines are working out well. That’s selective breeding at it’s finest, after all, and it’s what has made the warmblood registries so incredibly successful at producing sporthorses. It’s also a great feather in the cap of a breeder if their foals score really well.

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But am I, the average amateur who bred a horse that is destined for packing my ass around mid-level eventing, going to place a ton of emphasis on what score Presto gets at his foal inspection? No. Honestly, his probably won’t be high, and that’s ok. He’s just not the typical “premium” type. I bred him to do a job, not to get a good foal score. We’ll go out there, and he’ll probably bounce around like a cracked out monkey, and we’ll take our score, listen to the comments, thank the judges profusely for their expertise, and get his brand. Will any of that have any bearing on his future? No. He will be a gelding and a riding horse, not breeding stock.

The same theory applies for young horses classes, too. Hunter breeding, dressage breeding, future event horse… even the beginning of their career under saddle. It’s just a day in the life of that horse, not a be-all-end-all declaration of it’s future. It’s not fun to hear the negative, especially if you know the horse is better than that, but it’s all a part of the game.

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Time will tell what kind of quality we really have, just like it did with Sam. So to anyone else out there with foals, or young horses that are starting out in their show careers – if you get good scores and placings, enjoy them. If you don’t, don’t sweat it. Relish the horse you’ve got, and savor the journey you’re on. Remember, this is only the beginning. Sam wasn’t born a superstar either.

27 thoughts on “Inspections and what they mean

  1. I couldn’t agree more that all of those things you listed- ability, scope, technique, boldness, heart, rideability- sometimes take a long time to appear. Frankie was likely an oopsie baby who was never inspected, but I know that he would’ve scored terribly- for one, he paddles like a mofo up front. But for his job of carting his ammy mother’s butt around the jumper ring, he is perfectly suited despite his *untraditional* way of moving out.

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  2. I definitely see your point, but I would take the foal inspection requirement for registry over you-can-register-anything-with-papered-parents like the stock breeds do any day. You aren’t going to take a crooked-legged foal to an inspection and get a score, much less a good score, then be able to go advertise and breed that foal as a registered stallion. And when I say crooked, I mean not a weird growth spurt. I think the American system has a long ways to go before it is as effective as the European system and they have a geographic advantage over us, but I still like that the animal has to get looked at by an expert before it can be registered. You can at least cull the worst of the worst at the very beginning from even having a chance at being registered breeding stock. And if you do have a horribly gawky foal that does poorly (low score) at inspection, if it gets a show record or is brought back as an adult it can still get registered when it is past it’s ugly phase.

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    1. That’s why I went on to say that I think foal inspections are very important, and are a huge part of why the warmblood registries have been so successful. ๐Ÿ˜‰ Merely pointing out that the score is just “a day in the life” and not a be-all-end-all.

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    2. Oh and, fwiw, I have never in my entire life seen or heard of a foal being rejected from registration. They’ll definitely register it, they just won’t approve it for breeding later if it is of terrible quality. Well… some won’t…

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      1. I think the inspection acts as more of a deterrent from bringing/producing poor quality animals to be inspected than an opportunity to reject a foal. I def agree the score is just a day-in-the-life of a baby horse and doesn’t have an incredible bearing on their future outside of bragging rights. ๐Ÿ˜‰

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        1. Enh… to a degree I think it depends on the registry. I’ve seen a lot of really crappy mares and foals. Many registries won’t take those mares, but several will. All the foals will get registered, either way. Some registries aren’t requiring foal inspection anymore, and you can get CP papers from almost any registry without inspection too. IMO they’re really more for breeding stock and for seeing the production of those individuals… that’s where the true value lies. But there’s really no “culling” or quality control happening at the foal inspection level.

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  3. Really great post! While the Spanish Andalusian registry inspects stock (both as foals and then again at 3/4 to license for breeding), the American registry does not, which definitely was disappointing to me. I think it’s an important aspect of producing quality stock, as long as people are mindful that a low score on one day does not negate the overall potential of the horse. Not every horse needs Olympic-level talent and minds — there are a lot more of us ammys than there are MJs ๐Ÿ˜‰ haha

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  4. I knew a mare that was the third highest scoring foal for her year for the entire Oldenburg NA. She was evil incarnate, honestly one of the most dangerous horses I’ve ever had to deal with. And of course when she was deemed unrideable/untrainable at 6 they bred her.

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  5. Great timing for this for me. While Joey won’t be “inspected” per se, I’m planning to take him to a regional show in September (if his papers get back soon enough…), mainly just for the experience. I would love to place well, but honestly, he was born in April and will be competing against much larger babies who were bred to be little power houses as babies, whereas he was bred to be a riding horse down the road. If all goes well and he behaves, I can’t imagine I’ll be disappointed in him regardless of placings.

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  6. Good points… it’s reassuring to hear that you are echoing what the breeder of my new foal told me, both that they emphasize dressage movement and can only score based on those few minutes they see the animal. Getting premium would have felt like getting the gold sticker for a job well done, not needed for me, although I can see it from the breeder perspective that it could indicate from the registry that they are doing the right thing. Probably makes for easier sales, I don’t know how many times I’ve seen “PREMIUM!!” or “Scored 9 for movement!” on a sales ad.

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  7. I like how most sporthorse registries seem to put a lot of stock in breeding horses that not only score well but have performance careers. That said, I really don’t know much about warmblood breeding! I’m thankful all the time that dressage shows often add the breeding to the program and list it on USDF. That helps someone like me who has no idea what they’re looking for spot breeding trends in horses I like.

    It’s funny. I almost want to say the same thing about scores with shows. Judges can only judge what they see in the moment. So while it’s not fun to get a bad score, it’s not really pointing the finger at you and saying your whole program is terrible (well, maybe it is if you continue getting bad scores, lol). Obviously this is much different than evaluating baby horses purely on their presentation on a day, but the sentiment feels similar to me.

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    1. austen – i thought of the same metaphor of the score from a dressage test vs the actual trajectory and training of the animal. sometimes it’s spot on in terms of identifying weaknesses or strengths. and sometimes it’s more like, well, a bad day or poor representation.

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  8. I really agree! I smiled when I saw that about Sam in the article because he’s been great. Just like you said though – he may not have gone to Michael and been a great event horse had he done well in the inspection. I really wish some of the stock breeds did these foal inspections (and stallion/mare inspections too). I’ve seen many people go “well, they’re not the best performer, so yeah they’re 3 but they’re not winning, so let’s go breed them”. This was with horses that had horrible knees, horses that had ill-looking legs that came out weird from their hocks, were very over the knee, and the biggest one I see is that the withers are much lower than the croup. There was one mare that actually had to have a vet/farrier come out every 4 weeks, xray her, trim her to the exact measurements from the xray and then she was sound. Had a club foot and a crushed heel on her front feet and those were some specialty shoes. Also turned out she was predisposed to having bone degeneration in her neck. And so since she couldn’t really perform – well, hey let’s breed her. The sire though had that, and passed it down to many of his foals – the neck issues and the horrible feet issues. I really wish we had inspections like that, because the stock breeders are breeding these animals that are just functionally not holding up to performance, so they don’t have long riding expectancy and then the problem is exacerbated because they’re bred. Sorry, that wasn’t really the point of your post but I think these foal inspections are why you don’t see many of these Warmbloods “failing” functionally. Because the inspections are important and mandatory. I think Presto will get a pretty good score personally, but I think you’re correct that it just depends on what he’s like that day. I think, though, he will absolutely have the heart for cross country and for eventing in general. He hasn’t made it this far for nothing ๐Ÿ™‚ โค

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    1. I want the judges to like him in that very superficial way that you always want someone that you respect to like something that you like. But I also know that he’s not a fancy dressage horse and he’s not a 1.60m jumper, nor is he stallion prospect material. I think he’ll be perfect for exactly what I intended him for. Is that what really wows judges and inspectors? Not particularly. Definitely not at this age. ๐Ÿ˜‰ His proof will come way later, and that’s ok. I can see what’s there, and it’s exactly what I wanted, so that’s all the justification I need. The rest is just icing.

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  9. If only there was a way to measure heart…
    I kind of feel this way about breeding in general. I mean obviously, good breeding does often translate, but not always. And sometimes that grade appendix horse with no papers can turn into a semi-famous hunter on the A circuit. You just never know.

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  10. this is a world i know very little about but am intensely curious to know more. i’d love to go to an inspection. i like to learn what ppl are looking for, what the indicators are to someone with a more experience eye than mine. but i also agree very much on this being very much “just one day” vs a major deciding factor in most foal’s lives. and i think that ought to be the case bc we wouldn’t want to see the trend going towards a type of foal who can score super well for the inspects but might be indifferent once it’s actually out in the world.

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    1. There’s actually terminology for a horse that is produced/brought along specifically to score well (and thus sell well at the foal or young horse auctions) – “auction foals” or “auction horses”. Usually very flashy and impressive, and bring lots of money at the big registry auctions. Sometimes these horses go on to big careers, but usually they don’t. A lot of people are wowed by the overexaggerated, flashy gaits, though, or photos of horses that are leaping high over the tops of the standards (which to me is a huge big red flag that a horse has been “prepped” to jump this way artificially). Especially if it’s combined with whatever color or markings are in fashion. You just can’t take the “people will be people” aspect out of anything LOL. I think most educated riders and breeders are able to spot true quality versus manufactured flash.

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      1. ha, ugh, i probably should have just assumed as much that “auction foals/horses” were already a thing. but… yea i guess that flashy trot, back cracking jump and trendy chrome or whatever is enough to win over a certain segment of the population, regardless of any of those other qualities you identified in Sam that actually make him the special, world class horse that he is.

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        1. of course! We’re human after all… who isn’t wooed by all the pretty glitz and glamour and glitter? ๐Ÿ˜› The real trick is learning to see through it to what’s underneath.

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      2. This reminds me of the yearling TB sales, too. My 3yo OTTB was $150k as a yearling and was retired from racing before the end of his 2yo year because he was so bad at running!

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  11. I can’t believe no one has mentioned Valegro. Carl Hester bought him for either 2,500 or 5,000 pounds after he failed his breeding inspection as a two-year-old.

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  12. This is why I wonder about applying a ‘Premium’ tag to a horse at a young age. Good breeding stock is about physical type and ability, proven performance, and quality of offspring. Not really about how nice a horse is at a brief snapshot in time. The inspection process is excellent, and worthwhile, and a great start for the breeding process, but maybe mares and stallions should more often be licensed at any stage of their careers, as they improve (or not) with age, show their wares in competition, and/or breed quality, well performed offspring. Perhaps we need to wait til they achieve at least 2.5 of the three factors before labeling as ‘premium’, and after several inspections over time? Of course the big influence later on is who’s stable they wind up competing in…. That’s why I’m keeping a close eye on the Gem Twist and ET clones and their offspring – nature or nurture, or both?!

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  13. This was really quite nice to hear as I just got my own little 5 year old geldingand we’ve had some less than spectacular days but, I know they’ll get better. Especially as I learn to ride him seeing as I’m coming off of a 23 year old school master who could practically run on autopilot!

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  14. I died when they put that post about Sam up…it’s true though. Sam is not a flashy mover. He’s not built all that well, hes a bit downhill and short necked. BUT his training and heart have made him probably the best event horse of this generation.

    I don’t really have respect for the inspections done in Canada. They pass everything, especially the Canadian Sport Horse Licensing. I have seen the worst put together and ugliest mares get approved. So what’s the point other than a cash grab for that.

    I realize in Europe its a totally different ball game.

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  15. Thank you for your explanation of inspections and their role in a horse’s life. It’s something I haven’t known much about, or how much importance to give it. I love the phrase “it’s just a day in the life of a horse”. ๐Ÿ™‚

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