Let’s Discuss: Young Horse Development

I think that the ol’ “what age to start horses under saddle or in work” question might be one of the most hotly debated topics in the horse world. On one end of the spectrum you have the racehorses and western folk, who start pretty early at 18-24 months, typically. Then you have another subset of people who believes that no horse should even be sat on or lunged or anything until it’s 5 or 6 (or more). Most of us probably fall somewhere in between, but it’s one of those ask-10-people-get-12-answers type of things. It’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t have a real opinion on this particular subject, and most people have a lot of conviction behind whatever they believe. You often see this particular graphic being passed around facebook, but used to support total opposite viewpoints, which I find particularly amusing. I swear I see this have a resurgence at least once every couple months (psst, this isn’t even totally accurate).

The Stages of Equine Skeletal Development | EQUINE Ink

Opinions are one thing, science is another. Studies should give us clear answers, right?

Meh.

There have been a lot of different studies by now, using a lot of different variables, and the validity of those seems to be as hotly debated as the subject matter itself. I came across a new one the other day though, and new material seems fairly rare when it comes to this topic so it’s always interesting when something does surface. I myself have a few mixed and admittedly conflicting opinions after reading through all the data and looking at all the figures, but I’d rather toss it out here without my own impressions first to see what other folks think. Again it’s another racehorse-centric one, specifically about whether or not 2yo’s should train and race, so… how you feel about that is one part, and whether you believe that’s at all comparable to the sporthorse world or not is another part.

The link to the study is in that post. You can click Full Text to pop up the whole thing, or click on Download PDF.

Thoughts? Impressions? Have any of these studies impacted your opinion at all or do you rely more on your own personal experiences?

10 thoughts on “Let’s Discuss: Young Horse Development

  1. I’m in the endurance/competitive trail world, personally. The rules are as follows:
    AERC (endurance): horses must be at least 4 years old to do a LD (25-35 miles) ride, at least 5 years old to do 50-75 miles, and at least 6 to do a 100-mile ride. (most horses that do Tevis, the most famous 100-mile ride in CA, are in their teens)
    NATRC (competitive trail): Horses must be at least 4 years old to compete in the Leisure (8-12 miles, one day) or Novice/Competitive Pleasure (18-23 miles one day, or 40 miles over 2 days) divisions and must be at least 5 years old to compete in the Open (20-35 miles one day, or 60 miles over 2 days).

    Honestly, I wouldn’t ask a 4-year-old to do more than the 12-mile Leisure division, but that’s me and my part of the country: our trails tend to be more technical than other areas and our ground is very hard. I do ride Arabians, and in my experience, a full 25 mile AERC ride would mentally be a bit much for a lot of 4YOs. Again, just my experience and preference.

    The best distance horses I know spent their first years of life roaming large pastures (10+ acres) over rolling hills. Most were lightly started between ages 3 and 5, and not competed heavily until age 6 or older: keeping in mind that quite a bit of saddle time goes into conditioning a horse for a distance ride. Many of them are still sound for distance well into their early 20s!

    Personally, if I were to breed or buy an Arabian foal for distance riding, I would do everything in my power to let it grow up roaming hilly pastures: even if that meant shipping it to a friend with enough land for this. I would pony on some easy trails starting as a long yearling, and I’d start some groundwork (beyond basic halter training, I’d want that to be an early priority!) like long lining/ground driving later in the 2YO year, and then start saddle training late in the 3YO year: assuming the horse told me it was physically and mentally ready. I might try a 12-mile competition in the 4YO year, but probably wouldn’t work up to the longer distances until age 5 or 6. I’d rather start and build slowly than go too quickly and cause an overuse injury. But not competing doesn’t mean not riding: once beyond the “green broke” stage I’d be gradually increasing the miles on the trail (and arena sessions: quite a bit of the necessary skills for the trail can safely be learned and practiced in an arena!)

    I like the trajectory you’ve taken with Presto: slow, easy, and keeping it fun. Mental wellness is really, really important for babies!

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  2. I’ll admit to not reading the full paper and just reading the summary posted on FB. I feel like I can agree with his major takeaways; confining a young animal and then expecting them to immediately jump into intense work/training is a recipe for disaster, and using pain masking drugs to continue training instead of allowing rest and recovery is also going to cause breakdowns.

    I don’t think that young horses should be asked to do lots of long, hard training, but I do strongly believe that allowing them to be turned out as much as possible AND asking them for moderate levels of work at a young age increases the likelihood of them being sound when the workload increases and as they age. I agree with Hannah above that the ideal place for a young horse to grow up is out in large, hilly fields that allow them the opportunity to get exercise in their own. Combined with easy “forced” exercise on varying surfaces is also good for their bodies.

    I also think that introducing the idea of “work” to horses while they’re young and making it a fun and relaxing time not only provides mental stimulation, but also prepares them for having a job in the future and teaches them to want to work with humans. I do not agree with just chucking young horses out in a field and leaving them to be feral until they are 3 or 4 and ready to be started under saddle.

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  3. I think the science and study is absolutely helpful and necessary.

    My anecdotal experience is limited, but I started my QH when he was 2. Only flat work and only WTC. He’s 27 now and was sound until he was 24. His unsoundness is most likely due to the job he did from ages 3/4-10 (reining). I also have an OTTB that ran 2 races as a 2yo. He’s sound now at age 7. And my warmblood mare that I started when she was 4 and is sound at age 9. I’ve had lots of other horses and all the QHs were started at 2. None we ever had (rodeo, cutting and ranch horses) ever retired due to unsoundness. We did have one ancient QH mare that raced until she was like 3 or 4 when her knee blew apart while racing. It got screwed back together and she had lots of really nice babies, but she was always too lame to ride after the knee thing.

    That being said, it is my absolute preference to turn the babies out on as rugged terrain as I can find for as long as possible. My tiny 10 acres is super rocky and hilly with lots of trees, so I think it does well for my baby horses. Currently have an almost yearling Chincoteague pony and I got my warmblood mare when she was 6 mo. The 27 yo QH was turned out on thousands of acres in Montana until he was 2.

    Standing in a stall or a flat paddock seems to be the worst thing you can do for baby horses, but some people just don’t have another option and in those cases, starting them early is probably better. I’d love to see more research and science!

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  4. So Pammon lived out in a herd until he was 5, and then was first broke. Not entirely sure what he was doing between then and when I got him at 12, but he promptly broke. So my anecdotal evidences suggests this article holds some truth. Ha.
    Seriously though, I’m a you-do-you kind of person. I don’t think I would personally want to start a yearling or very young 2 year old. But I do think light work is great at 3. Similar to how you started Presto. And agree they should be able to be out and do baby things like running and bucking and whatever else they need to do. But also, I don’t ride race horses. If I did, I’m sure my preference would be different. I also think every horse is different in what they’re ready for physically and mentally. So many pieces to the puzzle. So I’m not here to judge anyone that starts them young, nor old. But from my limited knowledge, and also what this article is showing, it’s using the body that gives it strength. And that seems to happen from the start.

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  5. Key takeaway for me: “However, exercise of dynamic nature in moderate distances, such as that attained with pasture access or prescribed sprints”. Physically, the two things are the same. Psychologically? Not so much. Let ’em be babies, then start them nice and slowly, somewhere between 3 and 5 DEPENDING ON THEIR BRAIN. Got a pushy extroverted baby hippo Warmblood? Start at 3. Nervous, wide eyed at the world, gangly Arab? Wait a while.

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  6. I feel like most horses can get lightly backed a three, do a bit more at 4 then begin a 4-5 day schedule at 5. At 6, start playing with a single change here and there. Maybe play with half pass and the like. Introduce the double at 7 lightly, start sequence of changes at 8 and hit it their 9yo year. PSG and I1 their 9-10 year, I2 and GP from 11 on to retirement. If you go much faster than that you won’t get there because they will break. Go any slower and they’ll not get there due to age related issues.

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  7. Downloaded the paper to read between my work readings sometime soon. As someone who has some pretty flexible beliefs around this topic (flexible because each horse is an individual), I expect I’ll nod along with most of this paper and find a lot of interest in the science they executed.

    My favorite thing from a quick glean of his summary though is the parting statement: “Rather than spending time having discussions (again, which often tend to just be arguments) on social media, I will spend my time working in this area to keep improving the lives of horses.” Bravo, sir. Bravo.

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    1. That statement resonated with me too! If someone is truly set on “all horses must be started at age ___”, you’re not going to change that person’s mind. But with enough evidence the more flexible folks will consider and listen and hopefully ultimately do what’s best for the individual.

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  8. I love reading about this kind of thing – I have tentative fuzzy future dreams of bringing in a younger sibling for Frankie, and have often considered what I would want to find that’s similar to him (most things) and what I would want to do differently in early years. Frankie was turned out in a field until he was backed at 6yo, and there are definite pros and cons to that – he’s very sound at all jump heights in his mid-teens, but it also took a LOT longer for him to figure out his legs and body since he didn’t really have to do anything until he was already enormous.

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  9. The race horse industry has the money to do these kinds of studies. But the rest of the horse world can benefit from the info. Knowing that the vertebra keep growing till a horse is 7 means keep checking that saddle fit and don’t pay for a custom saddle till your horse is grown. Knowing that shoulder and femur mature at 5 means give that gawky hind-end high youngster a chance to finish growing before you ask him to move and look like a finished horse. And so on.

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