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How Old Should My Horse Be Before Starting?

I usually have two kinds of horses attending my clinics. There are horses people are having problems with and there are horses that people are getting along fine with but they just want to get along with just a bit better.

When I'm able to find out the training histories of the horses attending the clinics, I find the majority of the horses people are getting along with fine have usually been started under saddle later in life than what is commonly done. When I can find out the training history of the problem horses I find the majority were started under saddle traditionally.

Horses are traditionally started under saddle when they are around two, big enough to be ridden without staggering under the rider and when the "knees are closed." These conditions are not valid reasons for starting young horses under saddle.

Developing bones have what are called "growth plates" on each end. These growth plates are essentially cartilage or not completely hardened bone. The growth plates in the knees usually harden or "close" in the horse's 2nd or early 3rd year.

If horses are started young, and these growth plates are stressed, they will likely have knee problems to some degree all of their lives. They may be susceptible to arthritis or other joint conditions.

The growth plates of the knees are not the only growth plates in the horse. EVERY bone in the horse has growth plates that will ultimately fuse from cartilage to bone, harden, before the horse is mature. No horse matures until it is somewhere between six and seven. Stressing some of these growth plates before they have fused can lead to lifelong chronic ailments.

Does that mean you have to wait until the horses is fully mature before putting it under saddle stress? No. Make no mistake, putting a saddle on a horse stresses the horse's structure but ideally you should wait until the horse's skeletal structure is ready for under saddle work.

We had a Holsteiner warmblood mare we just procrastinated in taking to the Holsteiner Approvals, where a bunch of hoity-toity Holsteiners fanatics would judge and rate Holsteiner quality and decide whether or not they were suitable to be included in the "Book" until she was about seven or however old the deadline limit was. Since they had to be presented in the proper expensive bridle, we got one.

When she was nine I decided I'd start her under saddle, after all, I already had a bridle. It was too small and it wouldn't begin to fit. She had grown considerably between seven and nine.

The title of this page is "How Old Should My Horse Be Before Starting?" Most people assume "starting" is under saddle work. You can start training a horse long before any growth plates begin to fuse. The subject of this page is not about training or starting anything, it is about stressing the horse before it is physically able to handle the stress so that you increase the chances of having a trouble free long life with it.

I put these words on for a little search engine teaser so that maybe they might draw some visits to the site. But there is little I can add to what Dr. Deb Bennett, who I consider to be the world's most knowledgeable person on the subject of growth plates in horses has already said. Most of what I have to say she has already said and it would be like me re-inventing the wheel. I suggest you carefully read what she has written.

You may find Googling growth plates in horses informative.

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