A Note about Sugarbush Draft Horses

I see it over and over again, and no matter how many times it's said, it's still wrong. "Sugarbush Drafts are just an Appaloosa Draft Cross". Uh.... no. The Sugarbush Draft Horse was a breed created many years ago in Ohio. While the initial cross was made using Percherons to Appaloosas, in the many generations following, the breed has been solidified into a consistent type. Saying these horses are "just" a draft cross makes as much sense as saying that AQHA horses are "just" a Thoroughbred cross, American Cream Drafts are "just" a dilute Belgian, or that Morgans are "just" a grade.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Conformation Clinic: The Head

Since we've been talking about the SDHR, our horses, and the differences between the Sugarbush Draft Horse and a "typical" draft horse, I thought I'd break down some conformation areas for your reading pleasure.

Naturally the best place to start, is at the head.

It might not seem like it's that important to have a properly built head - I mean, pretty is in the eye of the beholder, right?  Oddly though, there are a few things about a horse's head that aren't simply about aesthetics.

While we all like a pretty head, we also all like a healthy horse.  Oddly, most of the traits that people find attractive are also the ones that benefit the horse. From big eyes, to a "well shaped" head, there's reasons behind why horse people have decided some traits are preferred over others.

First, lets start with the mouth.  May people have heard of "Parrot mouth".  This is where a horse's jaw does not line up properly, and the horse exhibits a severe overbite.  The top row of teeth protrudes further out then the lower row of teeth.  The problem is, that horses use their teeth in a scissors action to clip grass and hay when eating.  If the teeth do not line up, the horse does not eat as efficiently, and can be very hard to keep at a healthy weight.  Under bites, while less common, can also be a problem for the same reason.

Also something that needs to be considered is the size and shape of the tongue.  A thick/fat tongue makes it more difficult for some horses to wear a bit.  These horses have little 'extra" room in their mouth for anything besides their tongue.  While this is not something that is easy to spot, it's a trait that a horse owner may recognize due to experience with that particular horse.  Sadly, we don't normally think about this as an important trait to breed for, or away from, but probably should.

The horse should also have large and flexible nostrils.  Birth defects, such as wry nose, can cause deformation of the nostrils.  This can cause restricting of the horse's breathing when working.  Just as a child with asthma can not play as hard as another child, a horse with small, constricted, or deformed nostrils is also at a disadvantage.

While the size and shape of the lips tens to be a preference of the owner, they are also something to be aware of.  Large loose lips can be pinched with the bit, and require a larger size bit to supply ample room, and prevent rubbing or sores.  Some people feel that horses with thinner lips are more responsive to bit pressure.

A broad forehead allows for more room for the sinus cavities and facial muscles.  This means that the horse can pass larger amounts of air from the nostrils into the lungs, and have stronger more agile muscles to control those nostrils and other facial muscles.

Even the Arabians, with their elegant heads, have a proportionately broad forehead.  The width necessary is naturally judged based upon the rest of the horse's face, although no specific ratio has been agreed upon.  Rarely will a horse ever be marked down due to a narrow forehead, but when looking for a performance horse, the availability of air passage into the lungs is something to consider.

We all love to look into the depths of our horses eyes, and lose ourselves there.  We've also heard terms like "pig eyed" in reference to horses.  But does it really matter how large a horse's eyes are?

"Pig Eyes" were thought to be linked to stubbornness, a trait that we now know is about as consistent as color being related to personality.  Sure, a horse who is stubborn with small eyes can also have stubborn offspring, who also have small eyes, but not all small eyed horses are stubborn.  The old wives tale started because it was assumed that a small eye meant poor vision.

The problem here, is that we humans have a hard time thinking about the world around us, with out thinking about how it looks.  Horses though, use their other senses as much, if not more, then their vision.  A horse's vision is severely limited, and gives only the most basic information to the horse, even with the best of equine sight.

For a horse to determine depth, it must look well in front of it.  This is because the horse's eyes are set on the sides of the head, allowing the horse only to use both eyes at the apex of its blind spot (the point in front of the horse where the vision again meets).  The size of the horse's eyes does not influence this distance, nor does it affect the synaptic responses in the brain.  Because the horse's vision is so limited, they rarely rely solely on it.  This means that a small eyed horse is at no disadvantage from a large eyed horse, and that the size and shape of the eye is mostly nothing more then personal preference.

The caveat here are disorders of the eye.  Moon blindness, or Recurrent uveitis  is a condition which shows as a cloudy or swollen eye globe.  This condition can be caused by infection or injury, and may result in permanent blindness in the horse.  It has been said to be more common in Appaloosas, but specific studies are hard to find which support this claim.

Any trauma or injury to the eye should be taken into consideration when looking at a horse though.  While these are rarely a genetic trait, they do count as flaws against the horse's useability.

Throat latch:

When we ask our horses to perform, we often ask them to flex their neck, in some manner, in order to balance the rest of their body.  Each discipline has different requirements, but as the horse tucks its chin down in the direction of its chest, it is constricting it's own airway.

A wide throat latch though, allows the horse to duck its head, without impeding this air significantly.  The jawbones must be wide enough so that the trachea (wind pipe) rests between them, and only has to bend while the horse's neck is flexed.

Extra skin in this area can pinch and bind the trachea when the horse flexes.  This is why a "clean" throat latch is considered desirable.  With tight skin and a proper space between the jaw bones, the chances of a horse's flexion causing breathing issues is rare.

Repeated constriction of the throat latch can cause permanent damage, this is most commonly seen in Thoroughbred race horses.  The laryngeal nerve can be paralyzed with enough repeated trauma, resulting in permanent air way restriction.  Horses with this condition often times make a noise when breathing heavily, and the condition is called "Roaring".  It's not only racing that can cause this problem, though.  Any horse with a poorly built throat latch and airway can suffer from this if asked to work with their head and neck flexed.

 The ears on a horse should set just below the poll, at the top of the head.  This allows the horse full range of flexibility, to rotate the ears forward or backward.

Large ears are commonly seen in mares, as the ears are an obvious signal used in the horse's body language.  This gives other horses, especially stallions, easy indicators as the the mare's opinions.  Larger sized ears can be seen from a distance, and the subtle gestures are more pronounced.

Because the horse relies on its hearing more then its vision, a larger ear is actually more useful then a large eye.  With that said, a smaller ear is not significantly less utilitarian, and results in no statistical loss of aural information received (i.e. horses with little ears hear as well as those with big ones).

Small "fox" ears are commonly found to be more attractive, as are clean ears.  The hair inside the ears though serves a valuable purpose - it keeps debris out of the ear canal, resulting in fewer ear infections.  A short dense inner ear hair is preferable to a sparse, but longer hair inside the ears.

The profile of the horse is the basic shape of the horse's head, as viewed from the side.  Terms such as "dished" or "Roman Nosed" are often used to describe the overall shape of the head.

There are 3 basic profile types: Concave, convex, and flat (or straight).  The concave, or dished head, is often considered to be the "more attractive" type of head, but there are reasons why a convex, or "roman nosed" horse has he advantage.

The convex headed horse has more room for air to pass through the skull, into the trachea.  With sufficiently large nostrils, this style of head actually is more efficient for heavy work.  Also, the increased size of the air passages results in the air warming more before entering the horse's lungs - a benefit to horses in colder climates.

The differences though, are miniscule in most of North America.

So, if you prefer a horse to have a lovely dished face, rest assured that there are no reasons why you can't have a perfectly healthy and hard working horse.  If you happen to love the baroque style of head, and think a roman nose is elegant and noble, know that this shape is actually slightly more efficient for the horse.  And if a straight profile is your thing, being into neither extreme, there's no reason your can't love it as much as the other styles.

The shape of the horse's head is purely aesthetic, and excluding rare defects, has no bearing on the health and useability of a horse.

The Sugarbush Draft Horse:
So how does all of this apply to the Sugarbush Draft Horse you ask?  Well, most of the traits on the head are personal preference, but some are necessary for the horse's well being.  Since the SBDH is a breed designed for use and beauty, the conformational ideals reflect this:

The Sugarbush Draft Horse tends to have a straight profile.  While some of these horses may have slight concave or convex shapes to their heads, extreme variances from straight are not typical in the breed.

The SBDH should have large nostrils, in a rounded and well defined muzzle, often with thicker lips.  The forehead is moderately broad, with a well shaped eye, and large well formed ears which are fully mobile.

The Sugarbush Draft Horse tends to have a wide set jaw, and large throat latch.  This allows the horse to perform both collected as well as strength type work.  Refinement in the throat latch is desirable, but not required, so long as the throat latch is clear of obstruction.

As you can see, extremes of any trait are not often seen in the SDHR.  The breed criteria was created for function over beauty, and yet the overall appearance is one that many of us find lovely.


  1. I'm still learning from you, while I'm trying to reach my goals. I absolutely enjoy reading all that is written on your blog.Keep the information coming. I loved it!
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  2. I've read that the dished face of the desert breeds comes from the need to conserve water. When the air leaves the lungs and goes through the nasal passages, the turbines in the sinuses collect moisture. Because the passage narrows it condenses the moisture more than a flat face and you get the same effect as a glass of ice water on a hot day. And the collected moisture drains back into the horse. In a desert, every drop counts, =-)

  3. Great post! I'm on a 4-H horse team this year, and am reading all your conformation articles for more information on conformation in addition to my 4-H material. My horse industry handbook says that a more dished face gives a horse better depth perception.
    Do you think this is so? I can see how that would be the case, but can also see how a convex profile would be advantageous as well. I agree with you in that, to some extent, ideal head conformation is a matter of opinion.