Thoroughbred racehorses are asked to carry a jockey at high speed, for long distances, in one of the most strenuous equine sports there is, at the age of two. Yet Lipizzaner stallions in Vienna, who carry out leaps and pirouettes requiring the greatest of suppleness and concentration, are left in their fields until they reach the age of five. Which is right? The debate over what age to start riding a young horse is a fierce one in the horsey world, and it raises tempers faster than you can say "physically mature". Which is what the whole debate hinges on - for opinions differ widely as to when a horse is sufficiently developed enough to take the weight of a human being. As your horse grows, his bones and joints get stronger through the fusion of his growth plates - flexible areas which, at birth, are separated by a layer of crushable cartilage and allow the horse's bones to lengthen and grow. There's a widely-held belief that these growth plates only exist in a horse's knee: but in fact, there are growth plates almost everywhere that a horse has joints. They are all weak points, and unable to bear much weight, until they fuse - that is, the cartilage disappears and they join together in one strong unit. So the horse's strength - his physical maturity - is determined by when this turning point is reached. This happens at differing rates in different areas of the body - and some growth plates in a horse's body have still not fused by the time he is six. Here's what's happening to your horse's skeletal structure at different times in its life, as outlined by the celebrated vet and conformation specialist, Dr Deb Bennett (who runs the Equestrian Training website):
At the age of 1 year: the horse's pasterns have fused
At 18 months: his cannon bones are mature
At 30 months (2.5 yrs): he now has stronger - but not entirely mature - knees (the small bones have fused), and his fetlock joints are mature
At 3 years: the weight-bearing area at the base of the knees is fused, as well as his hindleg between hock and stifle
At 3-and-a-half: the highest part of his foreleg, the humerus, is fused, as are parts of his femur, the area of his hindleg between stifle and hip
At 4 years: the shoulder is fused, and the hocks and pelvis are now mature
At 5-and-a-half: the growth plates over the centrum, which allows the spine to flex, become fused
The ages above vary slightly (by about 6 months) according to the breed and type of horse, and the growth plates between the 32 vertebrae continue to fuse until a horse is up to 8 years old. So it's clear from this that a horse's knees will not be ready to take weight until he is 3 years old. His hocks will continue to be weak until he is four, as will his hips; and his back is vulnerable until he is at least five and a half. This is perhaps the most powerful argument against the riding, especially in advanced training or competition, of horses aged two or younger. It is borne out by the number of racehorses who started young who suffer physical breakdown, sometimes at a tragically young age. Horses ridden at the age of two - quite apart from being emotionally immature and less able to deal with the mental stresses and strains of competition - suffer more from developmental diseases and structural problems. They are at risk from navicular, splints, ringbone, and tendon weakness. The practice of "firing" - passing a hot needle or laser through a horse's damaged tendons to cauterise the nerves and stop pain, allowing further work - came about as an attempt to lengthen the working lives of horses put on the racetrack too young. Training intensively and riding an animal this young places him in serious danger of physical and mental damage - a factor which is becoming more widely recognised by vets and other equine professionals as time goes on. But even at the age of three - the age I first rode my horse, and a popular choice for anyone starting a riding horse - you can see from the figures above, the hocks, hips and back are still very immature. This is where the whole issue becomes more of a question of personal judgement, with a number of different factors to take into account. The first of these is the amount of work a horse is asked to do. When I started riding my youngster, at about three and a half, I began with short sessions, no more than 15-20 minutes. Even now, when she is 4 years and 2 months old, I don't work her in the school for more than half an hour, and I don't hack her out for more than a couple of hours. I also don't ride her that often - no more than three times a week. I am, maybe, unusual in that - many people I know with young horses try to do a little riding with them each day. But I take the view that it's better, if you do want to train every day, to vary things by introducing a little lungeing, loose-schooling or long-reining instead of riding. This develops different muscles as well as keeping life more interesting and working on all of her different skills. The second is the type of work you do. A young horse has to learn how to balance himself with a rider on his back: he cannot do it automatically, and he must develop the relevant muscles. Asking a three-year-old to work in an outline, canter in circles (even big ones), or extend and collect his paces is like asking a ten-year-old child to do weight training. Even if he understands what you are asking him, he will have to really strain himself to perform these relatively advanced movements. Once again, you are risking long-term damage to joints and back problems. There is also the risk of mental strain, which will show itself in temperamental behaviour and a "bad attitude". The horse at age 3 is something like a teenager: if you ask too much of him, he'll get sulky and stroppy, give you lip and eventually just refuse! And the third - a sensitive subject at the best of times! - is the weight of the rider he is to carry. Forget what you may have heard about measuring the "bone" a horse has to work out what weight he can carry. This all goes out of the window when talking about young horses, who may reach their full "bone" measurement long before they are physically able to carry the weight it suggests. Young horses, of whatever build, are much less at risk if a light rider can be found to train them under saddle. A basic timetable which you could use as a starting point for a training programme, adjusting it according to your own horse and your own circumstances, is:
At two years old: Introduce the horse to new tack and different situations At three years old: "Back" him - that is, mount and dismount, lunge him with a rider at walk only and in straight lines - and then turn him away again At four years old: Begin riding with simple manoeuvres, walking and trotting only in the school, not asking for collection and keeping circles very large At five years old: Introduce more difficult manoeuvres, such as canter in the school and smaller circles, and begin collection and lateral moves. You can also start teaching him specific disciplines, such as introducing small jumps. At six years old: He can begin full work and competition as an adult horse.
Many horse trainers would see this as a very conservative programme. It is, but that is only because it goes at exactly the same pace as the physical development of the horse. It has become customary in the horse world to move faster than that, but perhaps it is time to ask questions about the reasons for this perpetual hurry to have the horse grow up faster than he would do naturally. One example which speaks louder than any words is that of the extremely highly-regarded dressage rider, Reiner Klimke. This talented German rider consistently produces well-adjusted horses with outstanding balance and exceptional performance. Yet he says in his book, Basic Training of the Young Horse, "I believe that the experienced trainer of riding horses will not start work with his charge until the growth of the joints, bones and tendons is well advanced". His training programme includes riding only at the end of the third year, and sometimes not until the horse is four. His excellent results do not seem to suffer from giving his horses a late start: indeed, he says, "I am convinced that had I started these horses earlier I would not have been so successful." Perhaps we can learn from the gentle pace of this expert approach. As Klimke says, "One must have the patience to wait until the horse is physically and mentally ready for the work demanded of it."
The copyright of the article The Great Age Debate in Young Horses/Foals is owned by Sally White.
Robert Miller is a very well known and respected vet, throughout the country, and had published some very popular equine health and breeding books.
The Nation was shocked when Barbaro broke down shortly after leaving the gate at the Preakness. I saw the repaired fractures in TIME magazine. What I think happened is that the sesamoid bone fractured, a common injury. As a result, the fetlock collapses causing the pastern bone to explode into multiple fragments, probably with the next stride or two.The last time the general public was exposed to a racetrack tragedy like this was when the great filly, Ruffian, fractured; the injury eventually resulting in her death. The news media focuses on great champions like these, but what most people don't realize is that such injuries are relatively common occurrences in horse racing. Part of the cause is that we have bred athletic power into our racing breeds far exceeding what nature requires for the horse to survive in its natural environment.
All wild horses need to do is outrun a big cat. We have selectively bred for speeds that the anatomy of the horse cannot always cope with. In addition, we train and race them long before they are mature. The immature are often capable of spectacular athletic performance. Every time I watch an Olympics and I see gymnasts as young as 13, 14 or 15 years of age, I wince at the thought of the damage I know is occurring to some of their bodies. I started a year of gymnastics at17 years of age, and I wasn't very good, but I still managed to do damage that manifested itself many years later. Fortunately, I was drafted into the Army at 18, which ended my gymnastic career.Half a century ago, when I was cowboying, "colts" were started at four years of age or older.
Once in a while, one might be started as a three-year-old. Despite some very hard work, barring accidents, those ranch horses were still sound and working into their 20's. I'm not opposed to racing. It's a great sport and has motivated mankind to produce truly great horse breeds. But I am opposed to any practices which contribute to premature crippling of otherwise healthy horses.Some years ago, the annual convention of the American Association of Equine Practitioners (A.A.E.P.) was held in Dallas . The same week, the national cutting horse futurities were being held in nearby Fort Worth . Three colleagues from Sweden told me that they wanted to see the cutting horses.
So, one evening, after the day of scientific lectures had ended, I accompanied the three Swedish vets to Fort Worth . After watching several horses perform, the senior Swede, a professor from the vet school in Upsula , Sweden , said, "This is incredible! It must take many years to obtain such performance from a horse." "But," I answered, "this is a futurity." "I do not understand this word," he said. "These are colts," I explained. "These are just three-year-olds. " He looked shocked, turned to his companions and explained to them in Swedish and then said to me in English, "I have only two comments: One, it must take great skill to be able to train a horse to do this in so brief a time. And, two, what is happening to their poor legs?"Today, we have all sorts of futurities - reining, cutting, barrel racing, etc. I have tried many times to get owners to postpone arduous training to give the colt a chance to mature.
Most of the time, I was ignored. The lure of winning something or making some money was too great to resist. My strategy when the owner insisted on going ahead with training and/or competition that I felt was premature was to say, "That's okay. You go ahead. What you are doing is very good for my business."Why is it that the protests against over-using young horses come primarily from the people who profit from such abuse - the veterinarians? Is it because we best understand the trauma being inflicted upon immature skeletons, joints, ligaments and tendons? Just as I am not opposed to racing, if properly conducted, I am not opposed to horse shows or competitive equine events. Horse shows, like all livestock shows, were conceived of long ago to "improve the breed". They were designed to demonstrate and reward the people who were doing the best job of breeding, of selecting bloodstock, and of creating superior bloodlines. Unfortunately, human nature, vanity and greed have corrupted the horse show industry.We see grotesque caricatures of the original character of each breed. Stock horses, the working ranch breeds, are shown in Western Pleasure classes traveling in a manner that would drive a working cowboy crazy. With lowered heads, going in a downhill manner, these horses greatly magnify the forces placed upon the forelimbs.
Once again, good for us vets. It produces income, but the horses suffer. The wonderful Tennessee Walking Horse is shod and shown in distorted gaits that can only be called "grotesque".If it weren't for the frequent veterinary checks, which are mandatory, can you imagine how many endurance racing horses would die because of their riders' consuming desire to win? I remember the early endurance races. Saddlebred, with surgically distorted tails, and gingered anuses, are exhibited with the pupils of their eyes dilated with atropine. How many people who sincerely consider themselves to be "horse lovers" wean foals at three months of age, or even earlier, which nature never intended?How many horses, a gregarious species, spend their lives locked in box stalls? How many horses in the U.S.A, like so much of our human population, are damaged healthwise by excessive nutrition? Such abuses exist in every breed, every discipline, in every equine sport.
We need to step back and analyze what we are doing. One of my clients was a prosperous, educated couple. They were very congenial, and they owned three Quarter Horses. One day, they called me to come to their home to worm their horses and check them over and booster their vaccinations. When I arrived, I found only two horses, so I asked where the third one was."Oh, he's in training as a reining horse, with ____________ " (a successful and notoriously brutal trainer who also happened to be one of my clients). I said, "Oh, I see." Then the wife said, "We know how cruel he is to the horses, but he wins!" I never felt the same toward those people, again. This same trainer (he's been dead for many years) once said to me, "Doc, why can't you guys cut the tails on my horses? Why do you make me drive 300 miles round trip to get my tails done?" He was referring to the illicit surgical paralyzing of the tail, common in reining horses so they can't switch their tails. ALL of the horses in his barn had their tails cut. I said, "Were you ever beaten in a show by a horse that you knew had its tail cut?" "Oh sure," he said. "Lots of times." "Well," I told him, "I didn't cut the tail nor did my partners. We won't do anything against the association rules." This same guy, a world-class competitor, kept every horse in his barn on Serpecil, a tranquilizer not approved by FDA for use in horses. I have no idea where he got the drug, but somebody was selling it to him.I believe that a conspiracy exists in the horse show industry. The trainers are judges, and the judges are trainers. Too often, they scratch each others' backs.
If Western Pleasure horses were shown as they were 50 or 60 years ago, a good amateur could turn out a champion. But it takes a real pro to produce the freaks seen in today's Western Pleasure classes. And, after the horse goes back to the owner from the trainer and is no longer winning, it has to go back to the trainer for a "tune-up". A few days before I wrote this article, I got back from Bishop Mule Days, a unique event I attend every year that has no equal anywhere in the world. I had the pleasure of seeing Western Pleasure mules that WERE NOT "peanut rollers". The trend began some years ago, but the mule people balked at it and ruled it out. GOOD FOR THEM! You see, to be a mule lover, you REALLY gotta love horses!