Development Of The Horse - What Age To Start Them?

As a response to a question I was asked about what do I think is a good age to start a horse under saddle, I’ve jotted down a few thoughts.

Most people would agree that starting horses under the age of 2 is not a good idea because of their physical immaturity. But I believe choosing 2 as the cut off age is kind of arbitrary since the skeletal structure of a horse don’t stop growing until around 6 years of age. People could just as easily choose 3 or 4 or 5 or 6 as the earliest age to break a horse in.

I think 2 to 3 years is a compromise for most people between a horse being strong enough to carry a rider for short periods, the cost of keeping a horse eating up the dollars standing around in a paddock and the desire to get their young ones started.

Old timers use to look at the knees of a horse to decide if they were ready for starting. They were looking for closure of the epiphyseal joints, which is where the terminal ends of the long bones transition from cartilage to bone. If they were closed or close to being closed most people figured the horse’s legs were strong enough to be broken in to saddle. But the long bones are about the earliest structures of the skeleton to mature at around 3 years of age. While it is important that a horse have strong and resilient legs for the tremendous forces they endure, adding a rider to the back of a horse does not add that much more stress to a horse’s legs than he would normally experience running around a paddock in a normal day.

Development of growth plates in a horse
What most people don’t consider when thinking about the age to start their horse are the slowest maturing parts of the skeleton – the spinal joints. These bones don’t reach full strength until around 5 to 6 years of age. Further, they are not designed to carry vertical forces like having something pushing down on them. Adding the weight of rider to an immature spine can be far more detrimental in the long term to a horse’s back than to his legs. In fact, if we wanted to avoid back problems with horses we should really design a way of sitting on his rump rather than on his back. The rump sits over the pelvis and hocks, which are not only strong but also have shock absorbing ability that don’t exist when we sit just behind the wither. My concern has more to do with the potential for long term damage on the horse’s back than his legs when we start horses at 2 or 3 years of age.

But even if a horse is broken in at 2, it doesn’t mean he has to go to work at 2 years of age. There is a difference between educating a horse to carry a rider and putting him to work. I don’t believe a horse should be working until around 5 years of age. At this time their bodies have matured or nearly so that they are ready to work up a sweat and not do undue physical harm to themselves.

Some people also prefer to start horses early in life because they feel they can better shape a horse’s mind before he is too old and has developed too many habits. This has not been my experience. I have started a lot of horses older than 5 years of age. In fact one of the easiest horses I have broken in was a 17-year-old stallion that had no previous education. If I were to generalize I would say that older horses are easier to start because they tend not to be as scatty in their brains as babies. They have more life experience and are more prone to take things in their stride. But that is a huge generalization and just from my own experiences.

The youngest horse I have started was 20 months old and the oldest was 22 years old – with a whole range in between. I think my preference is to err towards horses around 4 to 5 years of age. They are stronger and their minds are a little more settled. But that does not mean that I would not be working them until that age. There is virtually nothing you can do with a saddle horse that you can’t do with an unbroken horse, except ride them. All the education you are going to want in your riding horse can be prepared over the 4 or 5 years before you get on them. In my opinion a horse is better off if you begin their education from soon after birth. That way by the time the horse is ready to be ridden it will seem to him like the obvious next step to do, rather than an “oh my God” moment.

I have heard some people say they think horses should be left alone until it’s time to break them in. I even know a vet who tells his clients to do that. I think this is a big mistake and unfair to the horse. I think we should make people and learning to get along with them part of everyday life for every horse from the time they hit the ground. But I rarely understand the hurry to break them into saddle at 2.

These are just my thoughts and I am not criticizing anybody who starts horses early or late.