What exactly does it mean if a horse has “good conformation” or is “true to his type”? Throughout the history of horse breeding, people have been evaluating stock, deciding if the horse is a good one or not. In more recent times, official judges have begun scoring the horse’s various characteristics—results that can make or break a horse’s breeding career.

But how reliable are those evaluations, based on human perception alone? A group of scientists in Austria decided to find out by applying precise, objective mathematical analysis to the subjective art of horse breeding evaluations.

“Classifiers (breeding judges) have, on the one hand, great power and on the other hand, great responsibility,” said Thomas Druml, PhD, of the Institute of Animal Breeding and Genetics at the Veterinary University of Vienna. “So additional instruments, which are objective, can be of use for the purpose of training (judges), for solving questions about breeding goals, and for defining specific, replicable, and highly heritable positive traits.”

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In their study, Druml and colleagues Max Dobretsberger, PhD, and Prof. Gottfried Brem, MD, DVM, examined photos of 44 Lipizzaner mares from the Austrian State Stud of Piber. They created finely detailed graphical two-dimensional images of the mares based on 246 anatomical characteristics. They then compared these computer images to scores given by six official conformation judges to determine which characteristics seemed to have the most significance and reliability in terms of scoring.