Saddle Training At What Age?

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There is so much misinformation and hotly debated opinions surrounding this topic.  This question deserves some clarity for the sake of our young equine athletes.  What's fact?  What's fiction created by those who stand to profit from early starts?  What do you need to know to make the right decision for your horse?

There is an article written by Dr. Deb Bennet that has been referenced and published more than any other on the topic called "Timing and Rate of Skeletal Maturation in Horses".  It's 21 pages long with pictures, charts, and commentary from Dr. Deb, and it's worth reading every word.  I'll leave a link to the PDF at the bottom of this post.

A Thinking Point

I'd like to make one observation up front that I'll present to you as a thinking point.  

If a person had all of the scientific facts and their only priority was to do what was absolutely best for the horse, they wouldn't start saddle training until the horse was 6 years old.  The motivation for starting young horses earlier than that comes from the person wanting something for themselves that involves the horse being ridden sooner.  So, the real question seems to be, "How soon can I start my young horse under saddle and not damage him to the point where I won't get what I want?"

Yes, I know. There's no sugar coating there. But this article is meant to improve the quality of lives of young horses, not to make horse owners feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Don't worry. There is some room for compromise. We just need to begin by having the correct information. Then we can make informed and ethical decisions that will work out for everyone involved, including the horse.

Some Key Facts 

  • There is no such thing a fast/slow maturing individual horse or breed.  "No horse on earth, of any breed, at any time, is or has ever been mature before the age of 6 (plus or minus six months).
  • Skeletally Mature is when all of the growth plates at the ends of a horse's bones have converted from cartilage to bone.
  • The taller the horse and the longer the neck, the later the last fusions will occur.  Thoroghbreds, Saddlebreds, and Warmbloods mature at around 7 years.  If the horse is a gelding, add 6 more months.  A 17 hand Warmblood gelding may not mature until his 8th year.
  • There is a growth plate on either end of every bone in the horse's body that is behind his skull. Some bones, like the pelvis, have multiple end points and growth plates for each point.
  • It's true that the growth plates in a horse's knees will "close" between 3 and 3.5 years old, but the force created on his knees from riding or carrying weight is applied perpendicularly to that joint.  You see relatively few injuries related to that particular joint in 3 year old ridden horses.
  • Forces of weight on the back of a horse run parallel to the joints of the spine, which don't close until closer to 6 years. It's far easier to sprain a horse's back, neck, or withers than his legs.
  • The vertebrae at the base of the horse's neck are the last to close, and that could be well past 6 years on to 8 years.

Something To Consider

Imagine all of the ways that a young horse being started under saddle has force applied to his neck via lunge lines, tying, side reins, reins, etc.  Now add saddles to the mix.  Saddle fitting is far from an exact science.  Even when people do the best that they can and put considerable effort into it, saddles cause damage to horses of all ages.

Because of their overall physical size, it's too easy to assume that horses are indestructible.  It's not overly obvious to most riders when there has been back trauma, because there is rarely a distinct limp as in a leg injury.  It can show up as high-headed inverted posture, not moving forward, running through the bridle, not extending their legs to full range of motion, one-sidedness or not turning, bucking, and general resistance from the horse.  All of these are commonly addressed at training issues by applying more physical pressure to "fix" the problem.

It's probably a good idea to let the horse mature as long as we can possibly wait, so that the unavoidable stresses of training and riding don't shorten our horses' careers or lives.  The good news is that there is a ridiculously extensive list of things that a horse can and should learn on the ground before they ever carry a rider.  Not only is training in that way a great way to preserve your horse's body, it does amazing things for their mind and makes for a long, successful riding career.  

You'll find a short list of those pre-ride training tasks on page 14 of Dr. Deb's article.  In reality pre-ride training is a huge topic that deserves some real consideration, if you don't already have a plan for your young horse.  

Here's the link: The Ranger Piece, by Dr. Deb Bennet

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K. Baxter
Maria saved my horse and I. She taught me how to understand the body language and needs of my horse and has completely changed my life as an … read more