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?
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.