In today's horse show world, it is common to see classes for two and three year olds offering huge payouts and lots of competition. Some would presume these horses were green under saddle, due to their young age. Unfortunately, it has become common practice to put these horses into full time training long before they are physically mature. These practices ensure the young horse is ready to enter lucrative fall futurities, but can have a negative impact on the longevity of his riding career.
Horses may appear to be mature at around two or three years of age, but they are not skeletally mature until the age of six. This goes for horses of any breed. Many people believe that certain breeds mature faster or slower than others, but skeletal development and the closing of growth plates occur at the same age in every breed. The horse's many growth plates, also called epiphyseal plates, close at various stages of development. The growth plate located above the knee, which some people x-ray to determine if a horse is ready to be ridden, closes between three and three and a half. The growth plates in the horse's vertebrae are the last to close at five and a half to six and a half years old.
Waiting until a horse is four or five to start him under saddle, and then only riding him lightly until he is fully mature, will increase his odds for staying sound because his bones will be fully mature before he has to balance the burden of a rider. His soft tissues-muscles, tendons, and ligaments will also be protected. Young, growing horses can be awkward and gangly; adding a rider's weight to the young horse's growing body will put him further off balance and increase the likelihood of his injuring soft tissue. In addition to riding, the heavy longeing many people do to prepare a horse for riding is very taxing on a young horse's body. The repetitive motion and force placed on his joints by going in circles can cause wear to the cartilage in the leg joints and strain tendons and ligaments.
The safest way to prepare a horse for a future of soundness is to allow hours of daily turnout when he is young and growing. The short sprints of a playing youngster trigger natural bone remodeling, leading to stronger bones. It also encourages normal musculoskeletal development and is necessary for his psychological health. The young horse who is turned out daily will strengthen his growing body at his own pace and will be better prepared to start under saddle work than a young horse that is stalled most of the time.
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