Throughout the horse industry it seems we are working horses younger and younger. TWH’s are being ridden – sored, on stacks, and wearing huge curbs, as “well-broke” two-year-olds. Racehorses are usually started as yearlings (heck, I’ve seen videos of yearlings living on the track in Kentucky!) and some owners/trainers race their two-year-olds hard and heavy. Recently, I stumbled on an ad for a very nice 2yo gelding. He had 180 days on him already and was very well started. It isn’t just professionals competing within the industry that are partaking in this, it’s also your every-day owners and trainers who want their horse to have an edge on the sale industry. I just sold a 5yo mare who I considered green (all her dressage basics and even packing around green riders at a w/t/c, etc) – she had had 60 days on her last year (when I started her), then had about 90 days put on her this year, but spread out due to my work schedule. I had a number of people come in, impressed with where she was at, but I also had a lot of people come in expecting a lot more out of her. Her eventual buyers came in initially expecting her to fully collect, neck rein, and be all sorts of robot-like perfect. I had to gently explain to them that this was a young horse and that I don’t start young horses the way they had obviously expected me to. There is a lot of general industry pressure, I think in particular from individuals not realizing what it takes to make a solid, lasting horse. They see horses like the 2yo mentioned above and expect all horses they see thereafter to also be at that level. Of course then trainers and sellers are pressured into producing such horses!
As much as I am about not judging others, I am also about the welfare of the horse. And a horse’s growth plates do not finish fusing until approximately 6 years of age (some horses may appear to mature prior to 6, but they are not finished maturing). Here is an interesting article. Obviously starting a horse young can have the short-term advantages such as a sale edge over others (unstarted) its age or the potential as a money earner in its designated discipline. However these horses are often eventually losing out. Their hocks start needing to be injected within a few years, fractures occur, tendons bow, hooves start breaking down – the horse breaks down in general. Sometimes the break-down occurs right away (as in, the first year), sometimes the damage does not become obvious until years later, maybe when the horse is in his teens. The horse loses out when he becomes unusable, a pasture ornament. Horses are expensive luxuries to most people, and feeding a pasture ornament is not always an option, so the horse moves from home to home until he likely eventually winds up in a feedlot. While it is important to note that exercise - which might include lightly starting a young horse under-saddle at the age of say 3 or maybe even as a late 2yo - can be advantageous to a young horse, the issue is that (in my opinion) many young horses are worked and pushed too hard at such an early age, before their bodies are capable of such work. Light work and lots of exercise (such as in a large pasture with herdmates) will build, develop, and strengthen ligaments, tendons, muscles, and even affect bone density positively. However it is very easy to cross the line into negatively impacting the horse and, in my opinion, such is done often. Personally, I much prefer extensive groundwork and other extensive exercise (ie, ponying, large pasture with playmates) to applying weight to a young horse's back potentially too early. By applying weight to a young horse's back too early (and "too early" is subject to that individual horse), you create a habit of tension. This is because when the young horse does not possess the strength to carry the weight of a rider, he must tense his back to support his rider. Since everything - ligaments, tendons, muscles, bone - are interconnected within the horse's body, tension in one area creates tension and stress in other areas. This eventually creates wear and tear which can affect longevity. When we create a habit of tension as opposed to a habit of relaxation, we potentially cause damage to the horse physically.
I can understand a lot of people might start a horse young out of lack of knowledge (in which case education is the answer, not condemnation), while others do it out of greed or impatience. For the latter case, I think industry standards are the key – racetracks should move their big races up a year, eliminating 2yo races. Or offer incentives for an owner/trainer choosing to forego 2yo races. In fact, the same could be done across the board in the horse industry – stop offering incentives (either directly or inadvertently) to start horses so young. I think we as participants of the horse industry though need to take a stand on starting horses. Educate those around us, set a good example by waiting to start our own horses (slowly) until they are more mature, and refuse to bow to the pressure of a client requesting you start a horse you deem too young. Personally, the youngest I start a client horse is at a full 3 years of age. Most of the horses I have started thus far have gone on to be lightly ridden enough that I do not think it was harmful to them. In fact, starting them at this age was likely greatly beneficial in a number of ways. As a trainer however, I might start a youngster only lightly but how am I supposed to regulate what an owner does with their horse after it has been started, in a responsible fashion? Of our own homebred horses, I started one (very lightly) as a 3yo and the other as 4yo. Both, now at nine and fourteen, remain sound. Knowing what I do now, I wouldn’t actually start anything of my own under-saddle until they were four. In fact, I am casually looking for a mare to train alongside our Thoroughbred, as a jumper, and am looking at unstarted 3yo’s. There is so much you can do until then, to make the youngster a better future partner under-saddle, anyway!
The Mental Aspect
Just as a brief sidenote, I wanted to point out that while some horses might be physically mature enough to deal with being lightly started, they might not be mentally mature yet! Mental and emotional fitness and maturity definitely reflects in a horse's body - his relaxation, suppleness, etc, and can obviously then play a role in both his short-term and his long-term mental, emotional, and physical health. Most of the horses we had in our barn on the track were decently mature enough to handle the training, however I can recall this one gelding in particular, with a ton of potential, who was not even close to being mentally or emotionally mature yet. Though he was a 2yo, he looked like a 4 or 5yo. Had he been my horse, he would have been out on pasture for at least another year, if not more. On the other side of the fence, I recently sold a Warmblood mare who was not started until she was 4. She was then turned back out onto pasture and returned to me as a 5yo for another few months. I had dressage professionals come in and comment on how loose and supple she was, they couldn't believe it! Contrary to what happens much of the time in this industry, this mare was not started until she possessed the maturity - including mentally - to handle training. This resulted in a horse that was relaxed mentally and ready to learn - which reflected as a loose and relaxed horse physically. Starting a horse before he or she is mentally mature will reflect in his body as a tense horse and tension in the horse's body can be detrimental, especially if that tension becomes a habit. That tension will stress ligaments, tendons, muscles, and bones, and may contribute to future break-down.
I am of the personal belief that a horse should not be started until at least three years. Yearlings and 2yo’s are a no-go. For me, it is a matter of not only evaluating that individual horse, but also of ultimately simply playing it safe rather than sorry. What are your experiences or opinions?
Sidenote: the horse in the photo above, Cheval, sustained a hairline fracture to one of her knees while training and racing as a 3yo.