Thursday, January 15, 2015

Anatomy and Conformation, Part III: What Is Conformation?

More to chew on...


We're back, continuing in in this fourpart series exploring anatomy and conformation. Part I introduced the idea that anatomy and conformation are two different concepts, and that conformatomy, a mash up of the two, is really a misinterpretation of equine structure. Then in Part II, we explored the anatomical side of the issue, and now it's conformation's turn in this Part III. So let's go!…


Conformation is quite the buzzword in the horseworld, isn't it? Almost immediately we encounter it affecting the lives of equines everyday. It's no surprise then that it has a similar impact on equine art, insinuating itself into nearly every aspect of our studio. Everything from fulfilling client expectations to placating market demands to shaping our creative priorities, how we envision "perfection" plays a decisive role from the very start.

Moreover, most horsepeople apply conformation as the measuring stick of our work instead of anatomy. It makes sense
they focus on the good or bad conformational points when evaluating a living critter and are never called upon to determine if said animal is an actual horse or not. This is why conformation usually dominates their knowledge base, and why they often default to this same approach when inspecting equine art. But if we've attended to anatomy properly in our work, they can. When we've truly done our job, horsepeople can judge our sculpture just like a living horse because they can take the accurate anatomy for granted.

Now at first, it's tempting to think of conformation as everything anatomy isn't, but there's actually more involved. Comparatively speaking, anatomy is much simpler to grasp because it's more objective and applicable across the board. Not so with conformation. Each breed, type, strain, bloodline, and individual needs to be evaluated on a per case basis, and against respective disciplines or registry standards. We have to factor in conditioning, management, horsemanship, injuries, disease, and stance, too. Sometimes footing and grooming are accountable as well, since they can change the appearance of the physique. Oh, but it doesn't end there! We also have to consider tradition along with changing trends or current fashion.

Now add into this cornucopia the inherent subjectivity all these variables. Everyone has their own idea of perfection, even when applying the very same standards to the very same horse. Beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, and this holds no truer than with horseflesh. Adding a monkey wrench into this already complex machinery, sometimes conformation can be distorted by questionable breeding, unethical surgery, or harmful practices. Misinformation can also pepper conformation tenets to skew the evaluation process in even subtler ways.


To better dissect the core of conformation, let's backtrack a bit for some perspective. Caballines in prehistory formed into different types thanks to isolation and environmental pressures. Equus has a respectable degree of "plasticity" for such a specialized blueprint as recent DNA evidence suggests that equine fossils previously categorized as different species were actually variations of the same species, Equus caballus.

Now fast forward to domestication. It's currently thought this happened perhaps only in the last 3,500-5,600 years, though potentially much earlier as discussed in Conquerors. Regardless, domestication is a relatively new condition for caballines compared to the millions of years prior. Instead of nature then, we've had human ambition shaping the species, even into forms divergent from nature's original parameters.

For the bulk of domestication then, regions, cultures, clans, families, or individuals simply bred a type of caballine according to their own prerogatives, from locally available gene pools. Breeding was based on a landrace paradigm, a more fluid form that mimicked natural conditions and maximized genetic diversity, variation and adaptability. Breeding priorities were often also quite different than they are today, typically resulting in a rather different animal than modern descendants. 

During the relatively recent Victorian era, this practice changed dramatically by introducing the arbitrary concept of the "purebred," with a coordinated shift towards "pure breeding." Usually a closed studbook (of various forms) was applied and regulated by a purebred registry, first started by the Thoroughbred industry to prevent cheating. During this time period the first "points of type" were established, too, which served as a kind of advertising for the new "brand." These were all capricious notions invented by the Victorians largely for social and economic reasons, which were also attached to ideas about status, elitism, and eugenics. In this way, the "purebred" earned higher prices and greater status, and through this rigid system that produced them, breeding goals were standardized, institutionalized and mandated into requirements. Any animal not meeting them was excluded from registration—and therefore from breeding—a system and mindset still governing the modern horse industry to varying degrees today.

These constraints are an even newer condition for caballines, with the previous 65 million years not quite preparing the animal for the rigors of utility, confinement, a new diet, and now strict, arbitrary selective criterion. Then there was the large–scale replacement of caballines by the engine, ushering in new and very different ideas about quality, beauty, and functionality thanks to the new system of competitive showing and equine sport that emerged as replacements. Today, caballines are more of a recreational or sport animal in much of the developed world, which is newer still for the species.

Altogether then, modern Equus caballus is a near–total creation of domesticated manipulation, and to such a degree that conformation is essentially inseparable from a human value system. And conformation's influence is now so pronounced that it's difficult to find anyone who perceives the species outside of registry standards, placings, or papers. It's a rare horseperson who can appreciate the fuller scope of the species beyond human ambition.

So with all this in mind, we can think of conformation as this…

Conformation entails all the variations to the blueprint caused by
human value judgements.

The first point to note is "variations to the blueprint," meaning that conformation is a secondary layer onto anatomy. The second point is "human value judgements," a concept that distinguishes conformation from anatomy; the latter is formed by evolution and the former by people.

Practically speaking then, conformation is what a registry would codify and catalog to define the required attributes of its registered breed or type. It's what breeders apply to decide which stallions and mares to mate, and what factors into stallion approvals. Halter judges interpret conformation to place entries, and performance interests weigh conformation to determine ability. Conformation is what buyers evaluate to find a horse matched to their needs. Essentially, conformation includes all those components we'd regard as contributing to a quality, sound, breedy equine, to include:
  • Relative differences in bone lengths, dimensions, quality, alignments, and angles that distinguish breed, type, or function.
  • Quality of the flesh, tendons, systems, hide, hair, and horn, or other fleshy aspects related to function.
  • Points of type, including specific differences in the skeleton, systems, horn, hide, hair, muscle quality, or other such distinctive features.
  • Way of going and desired motion.
  • Body proportions as related to breed or performance.
  • Aptitude for a specific performance discipline.
  • Ideas about undesirable traits or inferior structure as related to type, use, movement, structure, manageability, or breeding.
  • Physical differences characteristic of a strain or bloodline within a breed or type.
  • Individual physical eccentricities that distinguish an individual.
So let's go back to the domestic dog example from Part II—we had the Chihuahua, Great Dane, Bichon Frise, Chinese Crested, Saluki, Old English Sheepdog, British Bulldog, and Bouvier des Flandres. They're all Canis familiars because of anatomy, but different breeds because of conformation. Same blueprint, different variations. So while conformation changes the appearance and way of going, it doesn't change the canine anatomy or biomechanics away from Canis familiars. If it did, the pooch would cease to be a domestic dog, by definition. The domestic dog is an excellent example of the difference between anatomy and conformation due to its extreme plasticity—the possibilities are stunning!

Though the equine doesn't have the same amount of potential variability (at least so far), the same concept still applies. The POA, Lokai, Shetland, Brumby, Tennessee Walker, Icelandic, Boulonnaise, Missouri Fox Trotter, Criollo, and Thoroughbred are all caballine. They're just different variations to the blueprint. An Arabian head may be obviously different from a Kladruber head, and a Shire head is patently different from both, but they're all still caballine heads. They're all Equus caballus because of anatomy, but different breeds because of conformation. Same blueprint, different variations. Likewise, if the anatomy was different enough, they'd cease to be caballines by definition. This is precisely why applying anatomy to our sculpture lets us sculpt an actual equine, yet also any breed or type we wish. Know the template and any variation is easily within our grasp. 


Biomechanics does pertain differently to conformation. As discussed in Part II, anatomical biomechanics were shaped by nature based on viable survival and reproduction ever since little eohippus ventured out of the forest. Later in domestication, conformational mechanics were developed by human value judgments related to desired phenotypes and ways of going. So just as conformation involves value judgments layered onto anatomy, conformational mechanics involve value judgments layered onto anatomical biomechanics.

The idea that two forms of biomechanics can exist is often a tripping point for many, especially those immersed in conformatomy. But being incidental isn't the same as being interdependent. Anatomical biomechanics comprise the original evolutionary blueprint—the "pure" equine machine whereas conformational biomechanics are just a layer onto this original, archival layer. Point of fact, conformational biomechanics is just one possible layer among many such as injury, nutrition, conditioning, trims, shoeing, footing, horsemanship, weather, and even emotion. Many things affect the blueprint's movement, both independently and cumulatively.

Actually, too, in those breeds where function defines selective criteria, such as the modern racing Thoroughbred, conformational biomechanics can actually overlap anatomical biomechanics almost perfectly since the horse has been specifically built by nature to run fast for a long time. The same can be said for endurance horses.

Nonetheless, this is the reason why the equine elbow will always anatomically articulate like an equine elbow despite the conformational differences that would alter the relative properties of the humerus, radius, ulna, even the muscle quality. It's why the Trakhener, Shire, Barb, Caspian, and Marsh Tacky all move like equines, yet have subtle differences caused by their distinctive conformational layers. Even the characteristic winging out of Paso and some Iberians—due to a slight variation in the scapulohumeral jointstill remains within the equine bubble.

But it doesn't end there! When it comes to conformational biomechanics, we also have to consider functional conformation versus aesthetic conformation. Nature doesn't care about an animal's appearance. In natural selection, appearance is just a byproduct, not the objective. In this sense then, functional conformation is more aligned to nature's protocol, selecting for viability based on use. This is why functional conformation is characteristic of performance, utility, sport, and working horses, and propagated by breeders who value a functional animal.

Then there's aesthetic conformation, or structure focused on points of type, or "breediness." Not directly attached to performance, aesthetic conformation is often equated to standards of beauty, or even regarded as confirmation of breed purity. It can vary between family lines, breeders, cultures, or regions, too. Trends and fashion are strong influences in this, and we find it applied most strongly in halter classes. That said, aesthetic conformation is applied in many breeding programs to varying degrees as people tend to value beauty and breed type in some measure. Aesthetic conformation also tends to be a dominant, even exaggerated, focus in art, idealizing a breed to increase its appeal to aficionados.

Unlike functional conformation, aesthetic conformation doesn't always consider viability. In fact, some trends in some breeds have gone past the point of responsible husbandry. For instance, breeding programs that specialize in halter classes can take things to an extreme, provoked by the onesupmanship of the show ring to produce animals of such exaggerated structure that the animal's well–being is compromised. Known as "lawn ornaments," some trends have become so pronounced that controversy has erupted in response to the degeneration of the breed's utility, having been skewed so far away from the original archetypes. The modern "halter" Arabian and Quarter Horse are good examples of how things can to wrong when function takes a backseat to fashion.


Put it all together and perhaps we can see the conundrum we face when it comes to conformation. How so? Well, we can observe, dissect, and diagram anatomy. We can learn the parameters of motion and study the systems. And since all equines share equine anatomy, we can decipher and sculpt any specimen within the genus if we know the template. Anatomy is clinical, consistent, objective, and universal. It's our common, shared language in equine realism.

But not so for conformation. It's riddled with conditional requirements and differing opinions. We can agree an animal is equine by virtue of anatomy, but at the same time disagree on whether that same equine represents a good example of whatever he is. We can even debate those conformational features that are better and to what degree. The slope of the shoulder and humerus related to the length of the neck, for example, can ignite a debate on any forum. And when it comes to breed type, the stakes can be even higher.

So while anatomy is a shared language, conformation is filled with different dialects, accents, slang, and colloquialisms. For this reason, conformation cannot be applied across the board, and so six ideas are useful when evaluating it:
  1. It's open to interpretation. Specialists can point out subtle type differences within a breed, and judges are trained on what's preferred by registry standards—standards that can change. A trait can be more or less valued, too, based on the degree of expression, creating a sliding scale of desirability. Different people also have different tastes resulting in a variety of acceptable types even within the same breed. Different histories and family lines produce variations, too, which meet with varying degrees of acceptance. 
  2. It's based on the assumption that ideal structure produces ideal, sound motion while, in contrast, inferior structure produces inferior, unsound motion. But life can prove this wrong. Many conformational notions are based on weak correlations, circumstantial evidence, flawed logic, steadfast tradition, or are just straight up wrong. This is why many "inferior" horses can outperform and outlast "superior" champions, and why horses bred for performance often look markedly different from those bred for halter. Indeed, science is illuminating just how wrong some conformation tenets have been all along, with the work of Dr. Hilary Clayton and Dr. Deb Bennett being good places to start investigating. 
  3. The original application of conformation was to evaluate an individual's specific structure in order to design a custom–made training regime to bring him to his full potential, especially when the equine was a working or military partner. That's to say it was originally intended as a therapeutic evaluation, a means of rehabilitation, and to physically prepare the animal for being "dressed" for use. Conformation was never meant to be used as a marketing scheme or a justification to disregard an animal.
  4. It doesn't account for horsemanship or management whatsoever. That means a perfectly conformed horse can be made to move poorly or go lame through poor handling while a poorly conformed horse can move beautifully and stay sound with good handling. Indeed, bad horsemanship can even turn a well–made animal into a physical wreck.
  5. It's highly vulnerable to propaganda, fads, trends, and onesupmanship, often in flux year to year, especially in the halter arenas.
  6. It's often used to measure the worth and value of an individual, with those being more perfectly conformed being more valuable or worthy. This assumption tends to be particularly strong for halter horses who depend on breeding fees to generate profits. Yet as we all know, there's far more to an animal than his looks—just like with people—which is an idea to keep close to heart in the studio.
If we step back and compare anatomy and conformation at their most basic level then, we can think of anatomy as "just the facts, ma'am" whereas conformation constitutes the detailed embellishments—and those details can, and often do, vary among eye witnesses. 

Boil it down then, anatomy doesn't account for quality; it's simply the blueprint on how to build an equine. Conformation on the other hand, does; it's the criteria for building a "good" equine. For instance, anatomy is what makes a Cleveland Bay a member of Equus caballus, but conformation is what makes him a quality Cleveland Bay.

Put it all together and perhaps it's easier to see how anatomy and conformation are such different issues. In this light, the more we come to understand conformation and its relation to our clay, the more we come to understand five points: 
  1. It's trickier to sort through subjective conformation than to sort through objective anatomy
  2. Everyone perceives conformation differently, and we'll come to our own opinions on the matter which are best fortified by objective facts.
  3. The kind of conformation we infuse into our work demonstrates our research, perspective, and values
  4. Some aspects of conformation are hot buttons so we need credible authority to make choices that press them. 
  5. We eventually come to the "why" of conformation in greater clarity as we gain perspective, and that allows us to make independent decisions.
Put it all together and we can think of conformation as a series of options we can layer onto anatomy, in any number of combinations that suit our phenotypic goals. Just like getting an ice cream sundae, we can pick and choose our flavors, toppings and other goodies that appeal to us, but "ice cream sundae" remains the same: ice cream with lots of stuff heaped onto it.

Conformation may be secondary to anatomy in equine realism, but it's not to be taken lightly by any means. It plays a crucial role in capturing individuality, and is essential for portraying a specific breed or type accurately. And that's part of realistic equine sculpture, too! It'll also most certainly be a pivotal factor with portraiture or commission work, and making sure a client is content is definitely smart business. What's more, studying conformation can offer a fascinating exploration of the equine throughout history, helping us seat this animal deeper into human civilization to sharpen our perspective. Most of all, understanding conformation helps us to avoid depicting structures we may not wish to endorse, to instead validate those that are aligned to our goals.

There are many components to creating a piece of convincing equine realism, and both anatomy and conformation play their essential roles. While anatomy cannot create a "quality" equine like conformation can, conformation cannot produce a "realistic" one. So in Part IV, we'll explore some ideas concerning anatomy and conformation as they relate to sculpture. Until next time then…keep setting the standards!

"Forget the 'experts,' award–givers, and dealers. Your personal 'high standards' are known only to you, and are necessary." ~ Marvin Humphrey

Recommended Resources
CONFORMATION INSIGHTS, Dr. Deb Bennet’s regular column in Equus magazine.
MAKING CONFORMATION COUNT, Dr. Deb Bennet, Equus #208.

Next time: PART IV - Application to Sculpture
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