What is the best age to start a horse under saddle?
Horses with back problems are becoming more common. Could this have something to do with the horse’s backing age?
The skeleton of horses of all breeds grows in the same proportion. Many people think that Quarter horses are fully grown early and that for example an Arab is growing more slowly. This turns out to be a mistunderstanding because they are the same in terms of skeleton. So no horse, no breed is more fully grown than with 5.5 years old (geldings, stallions + 6 months). So back to the question what is the best age to start a horse under saddle?
When is the horse’s skeleton fully grown?
attached to every bone (from the head on) is a “growth disc” at the end. And some bones (such as the pelvis) have multiple growth discs.
These growth discs are compressible cartilage, which changes over time so that the growth discs become one with the bone. Do you have to wait to start a horse under saddel until all these growth discs in the body have become solid bone? No, but the longer you wait, the better.
It is important to realize that there is a schedule for the growth of these growth discs to become solid bone and that the decision when to ride the horse is made based on this and not on the appearance of the horse. The Quarter horse is an example of a breed that has been bred in such a way that they look mature more quickly, before they are really mature …
The scheme: from growth disc to bone
The process whereby the growth disks turn into bone runs from bottom to top, so from the hooves up through the body. In other words, the lower legs mature much faster than the back. The spine with all its vertebrae takes the longest to reach full maturity. The heel also takes a relatively long time to close, namely around the age of 3.5 / 4 years. That is why, since the 18th century, warnings have been made not to let young horses work in a heavy surface, to make them jump or to work with a heavy load.
The spine of a normal horse consists of approximately 32 vertebrae from the skull and there are several growth discs per vertebra. These close when the horse is around 5.5 years old. The larger the horse and the longer the neck, the longer it takes for the entire back to close. With a gelding or stallion you then have to add an additional 6 months to this. A large thoroughbred or warmblood gelding can be fully grown when he is 8 years old !!
Why you should keep in mind that the spine is closing slowly
It is important to take into account the late time of maturing of the spine for two reasons:
- There are 32 growth discs in this part of the horse
- The growth discs in the limbs are oriented (more or less) perpendicularly (vertically) to the load and can therefore bear it better, while the load on the spine is horizontal and gravity is also a factor.
The back is thus damaged much faster than, for example, than the legs.
At the latest, the base of the neck grows solid in the spine (that is also the reason why it may take more than 6 years for horses with a long neck to fully mature).
Therefore, be extremely careful with the necks of young horses. Therefore, never train a horse too early in an upright posture and pay attention, for example, that tying is done properly and that the horse is taught this well and does not hang itself.
Possible consequences when starting to early
- The legs are not easily damaged by starting horses too early, this often happens because people overfeed young horses (you must still be able to see the ribs a little until the age of 2)
- However, structural damage to the back can occur quickly! In addition to the previously mentioned damage to the spine, muscle damage may also occur. A young horse instinctively knows that the weight of the rider on his back limits him in his movements. This will cause the horse to stiffen in the muscles of its top line (neck and back). In addition, the horse often also tightens the muscles in the legs and holds the breath (stiffens in the diaphragm). The earlier you decide to start to ride the horse, the sooner the horse will react like this and the more often you ride, the more often the horse will react like this.
- Young horses that are started are often difficult to get ’round’. But a horse can only get ’round’ or better to say, carry himself better when it is using it’s body properly.
Basic training at a young age, starting under saddle between 5 and 6 years
For many people, training a young horse primarily means riding, but those who take the time to get started with ground work will notice better communication, trust, and respect, and will ultimately “earn back” the years. After the basic groundwork when the horse is about 4 years old, one can slowly continue with the gymnastic groundwork to make the horse physically strong, supple and the muscles more symmetrical and to give it a good preparation for carrying a rider.
The actual starting of a horse under saddle can be started when the spine is almost closed, between 5 and 6 years old and will go smoothly with the previous steps taken.
Give yourself and your horse time and you will find that every year that you wait comes back in triplicate.