Continuation of an article by ©2005 By Deb Bennett, Ph.D.:
What Does it Mean to “Start” a Young Horse?
Let us now turn to the second discussion, which is what I mean by “starting” and the whole history of that. Many people today – at least in our privileged country – do not realize how hard you can actually work a mature horse – which is very, very hard. But before you can do that without significantly damaging the animal, you have to wait for him to mature, which means – waiting until he is four to six years old before asking him to carry you on his back.
What bad will happen if you put him to work as a riding horse before that? Two important things – and probably not what you’re thinking of. What is very unlikely to happen is that you’ll damage the growth plates in his legs. At the worst, there may be some crushing of the cartilages, but the number of cases of deformed limbs due to early use is tiny. The cutting-horse futurity people, who are big into riding horses as young as a year and a half, will tell you this and they are quite correct. Want to damage legs? There’s a much better way – just overfeed your livestock (you ought to be able to see a young horse’s ribs – not skeletal, but see ‘em – until he’s two).
Structural damage to the horse’s back from early riding is somewhat easier to produce than structural damage to his legs. There are some bloodlines (in Standardbreds, Arabians, and American Saddlebreds) that are known to inherit weak deep intervertebral ligament sheathing; these animals are especially prone to the early, sudden onset of “saddle back’” However, individuals belonging to these bloodlines are by no means the only ones who may have their back “slip” and that’s because, as mentioned above, the stress of weight bearing on the back passes parallel to its growth plates as well as parallel to the intervertebral joints. However, despite the fact that I have provided a photo of one such case for this posting, I want to add that the frequency of slipped backs in horses under 6 years old is also very low.
So, what’s to worry about? Well…did you ever wish your horse would “round up” a little better? Collect a little better? Respond to your leg by raising his back, coiling his loins, and getting his hindquarter up underneath him a little better? The young horse knows, by feel and by “instinct”, that having a weight on his back puts him in physical jeopardy. I’m sure that all of you start your youngstock in the most humane and considerate way that you know how, and just because of that, I assure you that after a little while, your horse knows exactly what that saddle is and what that situation where you go to mount him means. And he loves you, and he is wiser than you are, so he allows this. But he does not allow it foolishly, against his deepest nature, which amounts to a command from the Creator that he must survive; so when your foot goes in that stirrup, he takes measures to protect himself.
The measures he takes are the same ones you would take in anticipation of a load coming onto your back: he stiffens or braces the muscles of his topline, and to help himself do that he may also brace his legs and hold his breath (“brace” his diaphragm). The earlier you choose to ride your horse, the more the animal will do this, and the more often you ride him young, the more you reinforce the necessity of him responding to you in this way. So please – don’t come crying to me when your six-year-old (that you started under saddle as a two year old) proves difficult to round up. Any horse that does not know how to move with his back muscles in release cannot round up.
Bottom line: if you are one of those who equates “starting” with “riding”, then I guess you better not start your horse until he’s four. That would be the old, traditional, worldwide view: introduce the horse to equipment (all kinds of equipment and situations) when he’s two, crawl on and off of him at three, saddle him to begin riding him and teaching him to guide at four, start teaching him maneuvers or the basics of whatever job he’s going to do – cavalletti or stops or something beyond trailing cattle – at five, and he’s on the payroll at six. The old Spanish way of bitting reflected this also, because the horse’s teeth aren’t mature (the tushes haven’t come in, nor all of the permanent cheek teeth either) until he’s six.= This is what I’d do if it were my own horse. I’m at liberty to do that because I’m not on anybody else’s schedule except my horse’s own schedule. I’m not a participant in futurities or planning to be. Are you? If you are, well, that’s your business. But most horse owners aren’t futurity competitors. Please ask yourself: is there any reason that you have to be riding that particular horse before he’s four?