John Strassburger, esteemed horseman and journalist, believes that depending on the individual horse, three to four years of age is a safe time to start training a horse under saddle. At this age, a horse is generally physically and mentally ready to handle the work, yet still young enough to learn. Some horse breeds such as Arabians mature slowly and should not be placed under saddle until four or even five years of age.
A horse needs time to mature mentally. Two year olds are still youngsters mentally. Starting too young under saddle can break a horse’s spirit. Horses should respect a trainer, not fear him/her.
A light weight trainer is best for young horses. Most horsemen will agree that the young horse should be ridden for very short spans in the beginning (five or ten minute intervals). The intervals may be slowly increased at a walk or jog only. Limited loping and cantering might be considered for horses that mature earlier the following spring.
Riding horses before full maturity can prove physically harmful. Work on hard surfaces may strain the joints of a two year old. Heavier riders before full maturity may result in excessive wear and tear. This wear and tear may cause osteophyte formation (excess bone growth). The horse may begin having problems with joint disease and inflammation as well.
Unfortunately some horses develop osteoarthritis, which becomes progressively debilitating with time. The vet may prescribe pain killers and/or steroid shots to help keep the horse moving. If a horse with osteoarthritis is not exercised daily, the joints will stiffen. Some veterinarians recommend surgery to remove bone spurs; however, the bone spurs eventually return.
Spurs are nature’s way of stabilizing a painful joint by fusion or placing pressure along the joint edges. Fusion may totally prevent motion in a particular joint. Bone spurs sometimes detach or enlarge and rub against tendons resulting in pain.
Swelling of the joint and pain on flexion are definite signs the horse should be seen by a veterinarian. The vet may x-ray the joint(s) in question or perform an ultrasound to determine the extent of the problem. Per Dr. R. Reid Hanson, surgical faculty at Auburn University, horses with arthritis may be treated with oral supplements or joint injections.
Allowing horses to reach maturity before placing under saddle may prevent many joint and inflammation problems. Chris Irwin, Gold Certified Trainer, states, “I’ve never found that starting them later was more difficult.” The trainer prefers to allow horses additional time to grow and mature before placing under saddle.
*Royalty free photo courtesy of Imcreator, Horses by Paraflyer.
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