Can under saddle training start too early?

I receive emails or phone calls from people asking about training a horse. I am deeply concerned with this matter as I feel a lot of breaking down of horses come from training at a too early an age. Dr. Deb Bennett is an expert on this and from research, along with field work I come to understand why starting a horse too young can be a trouble maker in the future.

Before I go into the matter I want to make clear that I am regarding the physical body of a horse in this topic. A horse’s mind should start training as soon as possible – but not the body. In other words the horse’s mind will develop quicker than the body. If the body is rushed long-term problems can and will result from early training. A horse’s body takes a good four to six years to develop; the bigger the horse the slower the development. Similar to that of humans horses need time to grow and develop. The bones need to harden, the joints need to fully close or lock into place etc. Groundwork is wonderful as it works with the mind and less with the body. Waiting until the horse is 4 or older, 6 is the preferred age, may seem a long time. Let me tell you right now it may seem a long time but your vet bills will not be a high in the horse’s later years.

Many owners or trainers start horses at the age of two. This is poor judgment as the horse is not developed physically. His spine is not strong enough to hold up a saddle and rider. Plus horses that use a lot of strength for sports such as roping, the joints will wear out quicker, and a horse runs into a risk of having lesions in the spine, and because of the impact of these techniques or timing the horse will break down before ten. Horses can live a long life of 25 plus years if sound, healthy, and properly cared for.

Race horses are one example of the ones who break down by the age of 5. These horses are started at the of between 1 and 2, ridden hard and fast before they are even 4, and breaking down starts occurring by the age of between 3 and 4. These horses round up at slaughter because they are too lame or unsound to keep alive, or end up in an owner’s hands as a pet or broken-down pleasure horse. I am not saying the race industry is terrible, in fact they had and are improving remarkably, I am simply explaining an example of the most common, most understood situation.

To take pressure off the race industry there are also the trainers or riders who start riding a horse at the age of 2 years. Again this presents a problem. The rider plus saddle are too heavy, and the horse cannot handle the job. Average riders are not supportive enough in the saddles for most young horses as the riders usually do not have good balance, know how move with the horse, or “ride” properly. Young horses tend to be cheaper but in the long run the vet bills paid for long-term injuries inflicted upon the horse as a youngster are higher than a price for an older, sound horse.

If riding is so important I suggest an older, sound horse. One may pay more but the vet bills, if the horse remains sound and healthy, will be more affordable. I’ve massaged horses, the majority having problems, who cannot use their joints properly, who’s legs are not straight, who is hollow-backed due to spine injuries and this makes me concern. Please pay close attention to horse health magazines and science research. Keep your horse sound and long-term injuries will be discouraged.