How Old Should a Horse Be Before You Ride Him?

Somewhere amid the avalanche of social media, a reader asked me this question. It’s an excellent question, often debated, and tempers can run high on all sides. So, let me first declare that I am a Late-Startist, and (as so many of us are) am passionate in my beliefs, so there’s my bias before we begin.

Also before we begin, there’s an article that we Late-Startists swear by (and others swear at), which talks about the skeletal maturation of the horse. Go. Read it. We’ll wait.

OK. Now you’ve got the parameters of the structure a rider sits on. Here’s what they mean in nontechnical, layperson-al, writer-writing-about-horses terms.

People start riding horses pretty much whenever they feel like it. I’ve seen pictures of people putting their offspring on young foals, which is flatly insane on both sides–the kids aren’t nearly coordinated or balanced enough, and neither are the baby horses, which weigh several hundred pounds and may have strong opinions about the monkeys on their backs. Realistically however, people wait until the horse is out of babyhood and has reached sufficient size (if not musculoskeletal maturity) to at least look as if he’s able to do the job. In American Thoroughbred racing and a number of horse-show styles, that’s around eighteen months.

The horse at that age is still, structurally, a baby. He’s the equivalent of a human early adolescent. He may look like a horse, if he’s from a breed that’s been selected for rapid growth at an early age, but under the skin he’s a growing kid. The weight on his back and the increased poundage on his legs and feet can and will do damage. Those racehorse breakdowns are the result of excessive stress on immature structures. Much less notorious but possibly more frequent are all the show horses who are labeled “aged” at five and retired or put down, hopelessly lame, by the age of ten.

So why do it?

Money.

It’s as simple as that. Horses cost money to feed, board, medicate, and train. Get them out there, get them earning prize money, get them into the breeding shed to make more just like them, bim, bam, boom. So what if the turnover is as low as three or four years? You’re making millions. Who wants to spread that over a twenty-five-year lifespan, if you can make it all up front and enjoy the proceeds right now? Not that it’s a bad thing if the horse makes it into his teens or, wow, twenties. More money! But the big profits are right down there at the start, while the wins are still fresh and the big bucks come pouring in.

There’s just no compelling financial incentive to wait until the horse is four before you put a saddle on him, then bring him along gradually for another year or two before he starts his earning career.  Each year he sits around eating and growing is a year where the thousands of monetary units go out and the millions don’t come in.

OK. So not everybody’s financially motivated. Much. What about the guy down the road with the ranch, who’s out breaking his colts by the time they’re two? He waits an extra  six months compared to the racehorse trainer and the show guy. He says he’s not working them hard, just half an hour a day, three, four, five days a week. If he’s really considerate, he puts his kid on them instead of loading them with his full-grown weight. That’s fine for the colts, he says. Won’t hurt them a bit. Why, he might even give them a summer’s start, then turn them out on the range for a year and let them grow some more and think over what they’ve learned.

That’s the cowboy way. The reasoning is that a young horse, especially if he’s a range horse and hasn’t been handled much if at all, benefits from the work mentally and isn’t harmed (much) physically. He doesn’t start real work–the all-day labor of the ranch or the working show string–until he’s three or four.

He’s still carrying weight and performing forced exercise. Immature structures are undergoing stress they weren’t designed for. His working life may be shortened; by the late teens he’s old. He’ll retire, generally, in ten years. Maybe fifteen. If he reaches twenty and is still ridable, he’s remarked on.

Meanwhile, down the road in the other direction, there’s the dressage barn. The trainer there is starting her horses at three. Even older, yes, good. She can’t compete them younger than thirty-six months, and for the most part she waits for their third birthday to start riding her youngsters. She shares her philosophy with some show trainers, and many casual riders and trainers. Three is starting age for quite a few horses in the US. They’re not ridden heavily until they’re four, usually, but they’re out there carrying riders and learning the basics of their discipline.

The problem here is less that the horse is started too young than that he’s brought along too fast. If he’s pushed to high levels by age five or six so he can compete internationally at eight or nine, he’s a broken-down shell by his late teens. He’ll retire around seventeen, and if he’s lucky will have enough legs left to teach people to ride the fancy stuff for another few years before he has to stop.

But, we’re talking about age at starting, and three is getting into the sensible range. Still immature mentally as well as physically, as teenagers are, but starting to get to the point that he really, truly can do it.

Optimal age would be four to six depending on the structure and maturation rate of the horse. I’ve seen horses that are absolutely ready at four, mentally focused and physically solid, though they still need some care with the regimen until their bodies finish growing. Others have taken much longer to get there.

I’m starting an eight-year-old this summer. In fact, barring unforeseen circumstances, her big day is this Thursday. There were various delays on my end, having to do with changing trainers and training styles, which have pushed things out about a year and half past the “Yes, physically she’s ready” stage, but do the math and that puts her at age six. She seriously was not ready at three. She looked, at that age, like a couple of sawhorses and a two-by-four. At four, she got taller–not that she was small to begin with; for her breed she’s always been in the optimal range–but her back still had that board-on-its-side look. Five? Oy. Just Oy. And we all said, “Well, she’s a late bloomer.”

Finally at six, the hatrack turned into a swan. She had a back, she had muscles. She was beautiful. Mentally? Still not there. But getting there. Then she settled in and waited for me to get around to it.

And now it’s happening. She’s been handled all her life, has had various types of training in manners and deportment, loading and riding in trailers, wearing tack, and so on. She knows what riding is: she watches intently while I ride other horses. The other day, having reached the point of standing saddled at the mounting block and feeling my weight in the stirrups (and learning not to collapse like a rickety folding table), she came over and very carefully inspected the process while I set up and mounted her role model, the twenty-two-year-old schoolmaster.

She’s good to go. Late, but not terribly so. There are those who say that if you don’t start them by age seven, it’s harder for them, but as long as they’re not feral and have been regularly handled and taught the habit of obedience as I call it, I don’t believe this to be true. You can take a retired broodmare and turn her into a quite capable riding horse–been there, done that, grand old lady loves her new career.

There are also those who maintain, loudly and at length, that “you have to start them while they’re young and weak, because by the time they’re big and strong, they’ll kill you.” To which all I can say is, “Who you calling we, kemosabe?” I’d far rather start a mature horse with established balance and adult brain than a flighty baby with the attention span of a mayfly. Get the adult on your side and she’ll stick with you. The kid might not have the brain capacity to do that, even if she wants to. Plus she’s growing, she has awkward spells, and carrying herself some days is as much as she can do. How’s she supposed to carry you, too?

Count me on the side of the four-to-six-ers. They’re still young, if there’s a critical learning period for ridden work they’re right square in the middle of it, but they’re old enough to have mostly grown into their bodies, and their minds are developing that crucial extra brain cell.

There’s a longterm benefit in this, too. If the first year or two after the start between ages four and six consist of gradual, carefully managed escalation of work, the horse’s working life expectancy increases significantly. Instead of retiring in the late teens and being old or broken down by twenty, the horse has the potential to work to a high level well up toward age thirty. I once saw a twenty-six-year-old horse do movements that would seriously challenge a dressage competitor half his age–and he was sound, though that was his retirement tour. (For the horsepeople among us: piaffe, passage, and we counted twenty-five one-tempis in a row.)(Yes. Wow.)

He was exceptional, but not unique. I’ve read about a horse who was doing high-level work past age thirty; he hadn’t started really being pushed until he was eight. On my own farm, I have three mares in their twenties, and all are sound and working regularly. They look like much younger horses, and ride like them, too. (Often to the point of Wheeeeeee!)

So really, it comes down to this. Lots of money fast, and rapid turnaround? Or long career, lots less money, but also less time spent starting a new batch over and over? The former favors the horse-as-commodity approach. The latter works better for the horse as companion and partner. As for which favors the horse, I think that’s kind of obvious. (And that’s my bias, but it’s also observable fact.)

Oh, and the eight-year-old? has a five-year-old sister who is so so sooooo READY, Mom! Pleasepleaseplease start me, I want it NOW, Mom! She’ll get her turn as soon as big sis is settled in to the work. Kid’s got a nice strong back, sturdy legs and feet, and best of all, motivation.  She tags along when I ride the others, has learned all her gait commands, and has let me flop over her back without turning a hair. She’s just the right age, with just the right state of mind. She’s going to be fun to hang out with for the next twenty, twenty-five years.

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How Old Should a Horse Be Before You Ride Him? — 13 Comments

  1. I was brought up in the old cavallery tradition where you start horses at four (and might turn them away for another year if they’re immature) and ride them lightly for the next two years. By that time, you have a solid horse, but until they’re seven or eight or so, they’re still ‘young horses’ and not expected to be perfect. I also come from a yard where a twenty-year-old was normal and in full work, slowing down a bit by the age of twenty-five, and often working until their thirties. These were schoolies – hardworking, but not overworked.

    Among them was an ex-broodie who had been backed age fifteen. She didn’t kill anyone, either…

    The main problem with the early started horses is that it’s usually other people who get stuck with the unsoundness and the bills. They buy a relatively young horse – five or six – and expect it to stay around, and are devastated when the horse needs to retire permanently before they’re even fully grown.

  2. I’ll do the devil’s advocate for the other side, however (keeping in mind that my trainer starts late for the discipline). Starting late can be good for a breed you know is late-developing and relatively docile (such as Lipizzans). By docile, I don’t necessarily mean non-fireworks-ish, but rather that they don’t trend toward the fighting bloodlines (bloodlines where the horse’d just as soon pitch you as settle in to work, depending on the mood and the day). I’ve seen unstarted seven-year-olds come into the barn–unstarted in as much as they hadn’t even been taught to tie, barely to lead. Teaching to tie is definitely one of those things that needs to happen young….the last thing you want is a big old Impressive-bred gelding learning how to tie for the first time at age seven. Plus that one had coordination issues. We weren’t sure if he was undiagnosed HYPP or just slow to muscle up, but the one time I rode him at a jog, I was afraid he’d go down because he rode like he was drunk. Staggering. Scary. Even his walk was scary. Unbalanced seven year old green horses of this ilk (and 16.2 hh) are a bit worrisome to ride, especially since I could feel the brace in his back. He’d been unridden up to that point for a reason, and he had pretty hearty opinions about Not Liking It. Not the sort of horse you want deciding to buck.

    There’s a bit of that element in some QH lines which is why I think many bought into the futurity concept and starting those horses young. You still get the opinionated attitude, but it’s a bit easier to sort out and eliminate the broncish sorts from the breeding gene pool in performance and show disciplines. Plus starting the big rank Hancock horses at six or seven can be hard on a rider…

    I’m not a fan of two year old riding, but definitely at three for most QHs. Light start and then turn out to develop and think about it. More serious work at four and five, and then hard work at sevenish, though a lot of that is still conditioning and building up muscle. Ideally, most of that four to six year old riding time isn’t arena work but is open range work just packing a rider, going forward and learning to deal with strange situations (a lot of desensitizing should be happening in these age brackets).

    That said, my girl didn’t really get ridden much until I bought her, for various reasons. She was started at age 3, I bought her the summer of her 5 year old year, and that was when she started getting regular work (she’d had the very basics put on her but no regular work up to then). She still turned up with hock issues–she’d have blown out of a professional futurity program, no doubt in my mind–with relatively light work, but I don’t think waiting to back her would have made the difference. With her, we think the initial damage was something she did in turnout, possibly a fall I saw when she stepped into a gopher hole, add to that her old habit of racing as hard as she could up to a fence before sliding to a stop (which she still loves to do in turnout, as well as under saddle).

  3. This reminds me of the current controversies about youth sports. As kid soccer, junior football, etc. get more demanding, and acquire leagues or teams for younger ages, the sports injuries increase. It could be argued that six years old is too young to play football.

  4. The best horse I ever had was a 26 year old Hanoverian mare trained for high level cross country. Her owner thought she’d be old enough to retire and our neighbour bought her to keep his young horse company. But she didn’t want anything like retirement. I rode her in the hunt for several years and she was just amzaing. I would let her pick her speed, and she went like a clockwork. At the start, all those young sprogs were off ahead, but during the course she kept rolling the field up from behind because those young sprogs had overestimated their stamina. 😛 Plus she was wonderfully calm around the hounds – if some overeager pup barked at her, she would lower her head and snort, ‘behave yourself, kiddie.’ 🙂 Once the course was up a steep lane with deep, muddy ground, and I decided to walk her but when I dismounted, she gave me a look, ‘what do you think I am, a granny?’ So I rode her, gave her the reins and let her pick a course. She had all those years of experience and found a safe way – in the end, several horses kept trailing after her because the riders had realised that my mare knew what she was doing. Loved that girl.

    (And before someone jumps at me for riding in the hunt – we don’t use life foxes in Germany. Someone sets a scent trail or several a few hours ahead.)

  5. Great comments, guys! Thanks.

    Joyce, I was trying to be careful to repeat that the horse should be handled from a very young age. Bring them in wild off the range at seven or eight or older and you’ve got a completely different situation. The very least you want to do is bring them in as weanlings and get some hands on them, then as 2yos and work with them enough to remind them of the concept.

    My late bloomers are worked with from birth–in one way or another, every day, they get human interaction. Same goes for the young Lipizzans at the state stud in Piber. This is crucial. What is not so wise is incorporating weight-carrying or, at very young ages, any kind of constant forced exercsie into the regimen while the horse is still structurally a baby.

    Still, great take on one of the other sides of the question, as always. Thank you! I rely on you for those. 🙂

    Gabriele, that 30+yo Grand Prix horse I mentioned briefly? He was a Hann. Great horse, great trainer, who had had him all his life. At 32 he had had to stop doing extensions but still had his piaffe and passage. Now that was a well-maintained horse.

  6. AMEN! 🙂 Thank you for phrasing this so eloquently.

    Thanks to the link to Deb Bennett’s article! Definitely sharing that.

    All of my girls have been started usually between three and four, for the reasons you mention. The starting is part of continuous age/mentality appropriate training from when they are foals on. All of it builds on the foundation. If you go too fast with the foundation, what are you left with? Is that sand under those bricks?

    I worked in a tack shop in college and learned to bite my tongue when someone came in asking for a bike chain bit with a long shank to start a 2 year old “filly colt” or “stud colt.” Kinda like giving advice on parenting. Some things would never turn out well.

    I look forward to seeing the reports about your Lipp’s first rides.

  7. Fascinating! Somewhat serendipitously, I saw an exhibit recently about Genghis Khan which included information on modern Mongol culture. In a interview a Mongol man said that the children began riding before they could walk! And we saw what appeared to be a 5 year old boy riding, and apparently doing it well. No info given on starting the horses! I suspect Mongols, who live with their horses, have a pretty good idea of what works best though.
    MKK

  8. That’s one amazing horse indeed, Judith.

    What I love about older horses is the experience which you won’t get out of those fast career ones. ‘My’ girl had been galloping through all sorts of landscape in all sorts of weather and she really knew if a path was safe. Of course, the rider needs to respect such an experienced horse. Once I felt some resistance in her when I tried to cross a brook we had crossed several times before. The brook had high water and I left the decision to her. We took the route to the bridge instead. A younger horse may not have signalled it felt unhappy with the course but plunged into the water nevertheless.

  9. Gabriele,
    just found out that we met at Runboard years ago. *waves*

    Your mare sounds lovely. I’d pay much for an old, gentle and experienced horse, being the inexperienced rider that I am.

  10. Firle, yes, we did. You still have a forum there, right? I closed mine long ago because it was more work kicking out trolls than trying to get some good traffic. And I’m still following your LJ. 🙂

    The mare wasn’t mine. She belonged to a neighbour in a village where I lived years ago. He thought he got a horse happy to spend time with his young (and not yet trained) horse, but the girl wanted to do some work still, so I rode her whenever I had time. He wasn’t much of a rider but he loved to have horses around.

  11. Yes, I still have my board – you’re always welcome there.

    No matter how you got to ride the mare, I’m glad you had a great time with her.

  12. My feelings were already that a later start is by far preferably if one considers the physical aspects, but I hadn’t really considered the mental readiness so much so it was very interesting to read. I’ve never really had much experience with younger horses since the youngest we ever see at the riding school is five, but it translates well to dog training too.

    I’ve recently worked with two new trainers for my dog and they have emphasized how much to just focus on play to start with. One of them mentioned that her dog was approaching two years before she started doing any serious obedience training, prior to that it was all play but focused play to build up a good working relationship with the dog.

    Having that sort of handling as a base means, at least with dogs, that learning the actual “tricks” is pretty easy. I would guess that to some degree the same applies to horses; establish a good contact with the horse early on and you can start the specific work pretty late.