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Mental Conformation by Dick Pieper



Dick Pieper and playgun

Dick Pieper

Photos Courtesy of Ross Hecox

In selecting a prospect, we take into consideration both a horse’s physical and mental conformation. To be an athlete, he must be an exceptional individual. No matter what the event or job, he needs to have a body that is suited to his intended use.

The first selection decisions are based almost solely on conformation and breeding. We know that certain bloodlines and combinations of bloodlines have been very successful in the past and that conformation characteristics ensure that he’s the athlete we want.

As the business of breeding performance horses has become more sophisticated, we know we can select a horse for inheritable characteristics. Probably the most dramatic illus¬tration of heredity is mental attitude. It’s amazing how many horses from the same family react alike. We get up in the morning and know what horses of that family are going to do.

After considering the breeding, we look at conformation and athleticism. Is the horse built to stay sound? Is he constructed so that it can be easy and natural for him to perform the maneuvers we’re going to ask of him?

Finally, we want the horse to have had premium handling. We don’t want him to have been exposed to any training or schooling that makes it hard for him to trust our program later.

Conformation refers to the outline or form of a horse —how the body is made. I believe there are two facets to the horse’s makeup —the mental and the physical. The physical conformation tells me what kind of athlete a horse can be. The mental conformation tells me what kind of heart he might have, whether he is trustwor¬thy, and if he can be mentally strong whether in a show arena or out on the trail.


I think that genetics play a great part in both the mental and the physical aspects of a horse. First, when considering a young prospect, I know the genetics tell me what mental traits the horse has or how this horse reacts to different stimuli because his relatives react in the same ways.

Here’s an example. All the foals by our stallion Playgun have this trait. If riders are rough training them, the horses become very fearful and are liable to react the wrong way because they’re afraid. They might be faced up to a cow and jump in the wrong direction; they’re afraid if they don’t move the right way, their riders might get after them. The horses put enough pressure on themselves. If the riders try to put too much more pressure on these horses, they overreact. But when riders are fair to these horses and correct them without overdoing things, they’re great to ride.

dick pieper

Every time I ride through my pasture, I evaluate the horses I see—how each responds to the others, as well as to my riding horse and me.

The point: Different bloodlines react differently to training. The further you go as a rider or trainer, the more you recognize different traits in horses by a specific stallion. For example, the Doc’s Hickory horses could be very reactive, extremely cowy and were terrific overachievers. They had to be quieted down and constantly reassured with a lot of slow, methodical repetition. The Doc Quixote horses were a little different in that they were very calm, good-minded horses and still very cowy, but much more laid-back. At times you needed to speed them up, as opposed to the Hickorys, which you always were trying to slow down. These two extreme opposites illustrate the differences in mental conformation.

Once you’ve considered the sire, consider the traits of the dam, based on her breeding. With those two criteria you can, with a fair degree of accuracy, predict how their young horses are going to train. You should pay attention to these things and catalog them in memory in your quest to become a horse¬man. Study each horse you ride and eventually you see the similarities in horses bred along the same lines. This type knowledge helps you know how to mold a horse and give him confidence.

Recognizing Characteristics of a Horse’s Mind

One time we bought a gorgeous Doc O’Lena mare in Canada. She had great conformation, and we thought she’d be a star.

She looked like an older mare, but had the mind of a yearling—easily distracted. She couldn’t keep herself together and always was whinnying at other horses and looking at everything that was going on. She just wasn’t mature enough to pay attention.

I could not get her to develop any willingness, so I couldn’t ask her to do increasingly more difficult things.

I decided to put her on a holding pattern and wait until her mind caught up with her body. I ended up keeping her at about a mid-year level throughout her entire 3-year-old year, working her carefully, gradually asking for just tiny progress.

Finally, I began to see signs that she was making advances. When she was a 4-year-old, her mind caught up with her body. By the end of her 4-year-old year, she was a confident, willing performer.

Had she been spurred and pounded to make the futurity, she would have become a throwaway item. By going at her pace, we salvaged an outstanding individual.


Dick Pieper is internationally recognized as a horseman’s horseman and this iconic individual has influenced and developed the careers of riders and their trainers for decades. After fifty plus years in the horse industry, his name has come to stand for a special brand of arena excellence that never compromised the welfare of the horse.

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This article was printed in Performance Horse Digest, Volume 9, Issue 7


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