Many professionals start horses at 3 years old, but there are several reasons why you should wait to put that saddle — and rider — on a young horses’ back.
Physical And Mental Readiness
Every horse is an individual. Some grow up fast, some don’t. Some appear ready at 2 years old, others still look like babies at 4 years old. Starting a horse, and riding a horse, are two different things. Just because a horse looks ready, doesn’t mean it is.
Because it isn’t. No 3 year old is ready to carry weight, even if they look and act like they are much older. This has nothing to do with being physically or mentally ready — it has everything to do with being structurally ready.
There is a little thing called “Growth Plates”. The growth plates are what fuses the bones into a weight-bearing structure. Starting a horse has everything to do with those.
What Are Growth Plates?
A growth plate (epiphyseal plate) is the area the bone grows from. They are considered “closed” when the bone stops growing.
No matter what horse trainers tell you, there is no such thing as a “mature” three-year-old. I also hear “But he’s a thoroughbred (or insert breed of choice), they grow faster / are ready sooner.” The skeletal structure on horses develops along the same time frame. Draft horses often develop much slower. Add a year or two.
There is plenty of scientific research to back this up.
All Horses, of All Breeds, Mature Skeletally at the Same RateDr. Deb Bennett, Ph. D.
There is an excellent document here, written by Dr. Deb Bennett, Ph.D about skeletal maturation in horses. I highly recommend reading it.
Opinions about when to start a young horse are as varied as the breeds. I’m always told it’s “subjective”, and my answer is always “No, it isn’t.” If you ask 5 horse people, you’ll probably get 7 different answers.
It’s up to you to do the research and decide what is best for your horse.
Developing The Young Horse
Just because you should wait to put a rider on your youngster, doesn’t mean your horse has to lounge in a field for five years. There is plenty you can do to develop the mind and body of a young horse.
- Exposure to different environments
- Spray bottles
- and many more
Groundwork can be anything. From picking up the feet of a foal to working on a lunge as a two-year-old. Just bear in mind to keep sessions short, interesting, and infrequent to start. You can teach to lead, to stand, to walk over poles, backing up, yielding front and hind — there is a lot you can do from a young age that will prepare your horse to be a responsive partner when it comes to being backed.
I started to work with Stormy when he was… one day old. Haltering and leading, nothing more, never more than 5 minutes. At 3 months old we started to pick up feet, playfully and gently in the field. By the time he had his first trim, he was a seasoned pro at picking up feet, much to the delight of the trimmer. While the rasping was new, having to stand on 3 feet wasn’t scary or unbalancing anymore. Far less stress for the youngster, handler, and trimmer.
At 18 months, we started with a lunge line. 10 minutes once a week, slowly increasing the sessions until it was 3-4 times a week, for 10-15 minutes. No force, just practice. It didn’t matter if he didn’t get it. We just tried again the next time. Eventually, it sank in, and we went from there.
It is very, very important to reward every try. It is even more important to release pressure the second that try is there, so you can build on it eventually. Don’t try training a horse to the standard you think your horse should be at. Train to the standard he is at. There is no point in asking for full sentences before they know the alphabet.
What About Bridles?
I started bridling (with a bit) at 4. My youngster will be started bitless, but I would do him a disservice if I only trained him bitless. If something happens to me, he needs to be prepared for a life in a bit. Whether I agree with it or not, doesn’t matter. Stuff happens. I don’t want this to be a shock, so he will be trained both ways, even if I only ever ride him bitless. However, I was teaching aids and did groundwork on a rope halter long before that.
Getting a young horse used to a bit is a good thing. I waited because I wasn’t going to start him under saddle before age 5 anyway. Plus, he still has baby teeth, and with lockdown in France, the equine dentist wasn’t available to remove the wolf teeth. This will be done before he’s started, but I’m not about to have it done in summer when the flies are rampant.
What About Saddling?
You can get them used to a light saddle, the girth, things flapping. Nothing wrong with that. I use my other horse’s dressage saddle on my 4-year-old, but I started with a saddle pad and a lunging roller at age 2. I’d put those on, and we’d go for a walk. He got used to the girth this way, without having any weight on his back.
There is another reason you should wait with backing: The saddle.
Your young horse is going to change shape dramatically over the first 4-5 years. Any saddle you fit and buy at age 3 is likely the wrong saddle at age 5, because muscles and bone change the shape of the horse. Don’t waste your money.
Even if you have a saddle fitted at age 5, you will need to get it checked frequently. The last thing you want on a young horse is an ill-fitting saddle that causes discomfort.
I’ve Been Told To Start Early
When I told the breeder that Stormy won’t be backed before age 5, there was an audible gasp. I was warned that he will be unmanageable, wild, strong, difficult… you name it. Then I said I’m keeping him entire to certify him, and possibly get some frozen sperm, in case I ever want a foal from him.
This was met with even more warnings and dire predictions about keeping a stallion.
Frankly? Ignore people who try to talk you into starting your horse early. The later you leave it, the better for the horse. If you want a partner that is around for a long, long time — wait.
Waiting doesn’t mean “unhandled”. It just means you wait with putting on weight.
The neighbor farmer’s wife and niece popped in a couple of weeks ago, and the young lady asked if she could meet my horses. While she schmoozed Stormy, she happened to notice that he’s entire. “He’s a stallion?” she asked, incredulous.
She’d never met a stallion who lives in a bachelor herd. Nor could she believe how calm, friendly, and well behaved he was. He is handled every day, he knows what he’s allowed to do, and what is unacceptable. He interacts with other equines and is taught by them, as well.
“I thought he was a gelding,” she told me. “He doesn’t behave like a stallion.”
Oh, he does. Just not like any stallion she’d ever met.
I do not recommend keeping a colt entire if you have no experience with stallions. That way lies trouble. If it means you have to isolate him from other horses — geld him. It is not fair on any horse, regardless of gender, to be kept in isolation.
Sadly, most stallions spend their days in a stable, behind bars. It’s no life for them.
Too Many Broken Horses
When I see “Six-year-old schoolmaster” or “Dead broke three year old” in ads…it makes me want to cry.
You wouldn’t put a 10-year-old child through medical school, to be a doctor at 14.
Unfortunately keeping horses is expensive, and people want to make a profit as soon as possible.
The reason for broken in (and I use that term deliberately) three-year-old horses, and for 2-year-old racehorses isn’t that they were ready to do their jobs. It’s money. Nothing else.
It is up to the owners to inform themselves and to make the best decision for their horse.
A 3-year-old shouldn’t know how to perform Olympic level dressage. A 3-year-old should barely know what a saddle looks like, let alone have a rider on its back. I would be very wary of any 3-year-old who is sold as a “finished” riding horse. Even backed, I would decline.
I want my horses to live a happy, sound, healthy, long life. I’m sure we all want that for our horses.
So why would we set them up to fail, just because we can’t wait another year?
How do you feel about it? Did you know about the growth plates?
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