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Why People Start Horses Too Hard, Too Young

by Laura Phelps-Bell

I’ve been a professional trainer/instructor in the horse industry in many different disciplines, including competitive dressage to the upper levels, hunter/jumpers, western pleasure and western riding, trail trials and trail/pleasure riding, for 30 years. Following are a few of my own opinions regarding starting horses too young, too hard and the negative repercussions that these horses possibly suffer at a young age, or when they are in their teens:

In my opinion, many people that are involved with horses, and this goes for hobbyists as well as professionals in the industry, are in it for themselves, not for the love, or the consideration, of the horses. When deciding when to start a young horse in mounted training, people need to be brutally honest with themselves and examine and determine what their motivation for starting a two or three-year-old horse in heavy under-saddle, mounted training is.

For some owners, the motivation is to be competitive in the reining, cutting, western pleasure or pre-green hunter futurities. Maybe it’s because they want to send their Warmblood stallion to the 100 Day Testing as a three-year-old and the horse must be able to free jump, jump under saddle, perform a dressage test and gallop a distance in a certain amount of time. And then of course, there is horse racing where the horses are racing heavily as two and three-year-olds. More and more, the big money futurities for performance horses are for three-year-olds, so in order to be competitive, these horses MUST be started as two-year-olds, and sometimes even when they are long-yearlings (18-24 months old). Because of this, many of these horses end up with bowed tendons, Navicular Syndrome, bone spavins, bone chips, stifle injuries, blown-out hocks, hairline fractures, arthritis, severe back problems, sprained necks and a myriad of other problems and conditions associated with stress and strain to young, developing bodies. Many horses will end up with debilitating problems at only four or five-years-old and already receiving anti-inflammatory medications and/or painkillers on a daily basis in their feed, or in the form of injections. Some older horses, in their teens, will develop problems that can be traced directly back to being started too young and too hard. It will take 10 or so years for the stresses they experienced when younger to appear as problematic (this I learned from Dr. Robert Miller in the late-‘70’s).

Another motivation is the false assumption that if you don’t “get to” these horses when they are very young, they will become difficult to start under saddle because they are getting bigger and stronger and also developing more “attitude” psychologically. Many people refer to how difficult horses seem to be as four-year-olds, but I haven’t experienced this at all in the hundreds of horses that I’ve started. This may be true if the horse has NOT BEEN HANDLED AT ALL, or had barely any handling to speak of, from the time of birth until under saddle training begins. If the horse is brought in from pasture at four or five and someone tries to get them started immediately under saddle, with no ground-level training in place and no trust or understanding between horse and human in place, the horse will be understandably confused, scared and lacking trust and may “act-out”, creating the illusion of being difficult because they were started late. In most of these cases, this is not the problem at all. The problem is in not receiving any, or hardly any, early ground-level training and developing mutually respectful and trusting relationships with humans from a young age. It’s a fact that the younger the horse is, the easier they are to manipulate and intimidate from a psychological standpoint and also being not yet fully developed physically, they can also be “pushed-around” a little easier. However, an educated horseman does not train from a position of intimidation or strength; they instead train from a position of establishing a bond of mutual respect, trust and understanding with whatever horse they are interacting with. A wise horseman knows what each and every horse “needs” and applies the appropriate training for that individual horse. Once the correct foundation has been laid, you can start a horse at eight, ten or over 12 years old and still be completely successful with mounted training. A “true” horseman also develops a spiritual relationship with their horse and really knows and cares about how they are feeling.

Through the use of a systematic approach, technique and establishing mutual respect and trust and also establishing your “position” with the horse in your “herd-of-two”, all things are possible. The age is not the huge factor in under saddle training, the previous history of training/handling, or not, and the type of relationships that the horse has had with humans previously are the critical factors to consider.

One other VERY BIG motivation for starting horses very young under saddle is the human’s impatience and haste in wanting to “just get on and ride”. As a species, humans do tend to be impatient and some people do want everything to happen NOW. Is this fair to the horse that is started in heavy, “serious” training at two-three years old? Absolutely not! Most parents of four or five-year-old children would not have their children participating at that young age in full-contact tackle football, or intensive gymnastic training. There would be major concern that their child could perhaps be irreparably damaged physically (and mentally) from the stresses and rigors of these activities on young bodies and minds. The problem here is that human children “look” like children, whereas many young horses “look” mature on the outside, but in reality, they still only mature structurally at the same rate as a less mature looking horse for the most part. Appearances can be very deceiving in the case of horses!

I feel the same way about horses as I would about putting a human child through rigorous activities because I truly love them (even the ones who try to act unlovable) and horses sense when a human really cares about them and will respond to that caring and love. A horse that is devoted to their human will try-their-heart-out to accomplish that which they are asked to do. It’s for this reason that humans must never forget the huge honor that is given to them by a horse that loves them. I don’t ever want to be the cause of a horse being rendered with physical and/or psychological problems when they are young, or when they get into their teens, because I started them too hard, too young. I always ask myself “what would I do if this horse were my human child?” By asking this question, I always get the best answer; go slow, be patient and wait until the horse is developed adequately both mentally and physically for that which I will be asking them to do. My advice for people who are contemplating buying a young horse, but they are also wanting to do “serious” riding sooner-rather-than-later, is to buy a horse that’s a little older (and hopefully not started too young themselves) and spare a young horse the possible physical and mental negativity of being ridden too hard, too young.

In my opinion, there is nothing wrong with starting a horse lightly under saddle at two-three-years-old. However, when I say “start under saddle” at that age, what I mean is to already have the leading, tying and basic handling aspects in place and then accustom them to the tack and equipment, moving with the equipment in place during leading, light lunging, and perhaps ponying and ground driving if you’re so inclined when they are two. Very light exercise, that’s all. At three, get a rider up (someone lighter) and do a little light walking and maybe a few steps of trotting/jogging here-and-there, but no cantering/loping and absolutely no riding that will stress their joints such as jumping, rolling a horse back over their hocks, etc. If a person can force themselves to wait, then I prefer to not start a horse in mounted under-saddle training until four. Horses should not be in “serious” training in my opinion until at least four at the earliest, if not five or six-years-old. By “serious”, I mean the horse is beginning to be trained for their “career” in life, such as dressage, jumping, reining, cutting, endurance riding, pleasure trail riding, etc. Of course, all of the above are just my opinions for what they’re worth!

After reading what I have to say on the subject of starting young horses under saddle from a trainer’s perspective, I would hope that it will cause some people to at least think long and hard before they put their horse into training, doing things that are not appropriate for their level of physical and/or mental development. After all, if we don’t protect our horses, who will?

Reprinted with the kind permission of the author.