Monday, November 9, 2009

The Greatest Dilemma

Well, one of them anyways. Oh, you say...not another controversial topic! Yes, my friends, I am afraid so. :)

When to start a horse's training, or more accurately, when to start a young horse under saddle. Recently this issue has been discussed and debated on two forums I regularly participate in, becoming relatively heated in the dialogue between the pro and con sides.

For me, it's fairly simple. There has yet to be a horse foaled that is physically mature until at least the age of three. I prefer to wait until four (and in some cases, five, because of a lack of mental maturation) in order to begin real, true work.

Within some circles, horses are started under saddle as early as long yearlings in order to have young Futurity candidates ready to show as two year olds. This occurs mostly with Quarter Horses, Paint Horses and Appaloosas, though in other breeds there are also Performance Futurities. Thankfully, in my breed of choice (Arabians, of course!) our Futurities are being mostly reworked to include both three year olds and four year olds, with the addition of five year old Maturities.

Frequently we see breakdowns and a multitude of physical problems caused by starting horses far too young. Back pain, leg issues and bitting problems are just a few of what I've encountered over the years. Basically, the fact of the matter is, it's not okay to ride baby horses. At least not in my book ~ and I've heard all the excuses as to why doing so is considered acceptable, but the bottom line is money. An already broke two year old is more marketable, because of the ability to move forward into those big dollar Futurities. "No one wants to buy an unstarted two year old!" some will wail. My suggestion would be to look into a better, more sustainable market for your horses that actually has the horse's best interest in mind.

Why force an immature, undeveloped baby horse to work like a mature animal? What is the rush, anyhow? You guessed it. Again. Money. They are worth more because they can win some of that pot o' gold.

Here is a challenge I would love for someone that has an in with the powers that be within various breed organizations to take and run with: Begin a payback program for older horses. Sure, it doesn't encourage breeding and registration (which is the major motive behind the Futurities and other prize money programs), but it would be a way to reward folks who take pride in the longevity and long term soundness of their horses.

When the International Arabian Horse Association (now called AHA, after merging with the registration body) partnered with the Arabian Horse Registry of America, pre-merger, to begin the Amateur Bonanza program, many thought it would be a grand idea to expand into having a similarly structured Senior Horse competition. Not only that, but the showcase of Arabian versatility was spectacular: Horses had to compete in Trail, then two of the following three divisions as well ~ Western Pleasure, Hunter Pleasure or Country English Pleasure. Not since the Gelding Pentathlon of 1981 had anyone within the hierarchy of Arabiandom had such a great idea.

Unfortunately, AHRA wouldn't go for it, as their business was (is, as the PAT/Purebred Arabian Trust, the arm that holds the stud book these days) registering horses and any equine competitor in such a class would have already been registered...and AHRA was the funding source for the Bonanza.

Back on track here...please, I implore you, if you have a youngster you would like to go forward into a performance career in the near future? Think about the horse's welfare first, instead of your pocketbook.

I and your horse both thank you. :)



  1. Excellent advice here, and I totally agree. When I showed AQHA performance back in the 70s, a horse was considered a youngster (and snaffle bits were acceptable) to age 5. In the English classes back then, snaffles were permitted "forever." I'm sure things have changed since then, but the point is, there is no rush. Yeah, there were futurities, and plenty of people I know rushed their youngsters to qualify for them, but the oldsters just kept on chugging because they were ridden carefully as youngsters, the way they should be cared for.

    Too often the young and BIG horse is deemed "ready to go" (racehorses, as the most egregious example) and ridden too hard for too long at too young an age. Warmbloods are also "strappers" as youngsters and ridden to levels their baby bones and joints aren't ready to cope with.

    Sad, really, but you're right--money rules.

  2. Thank you, the Senior Horse competition is such a great idea. Wouldn't the AHA make more money in the long term by encouraging more longevity in performance horses? I mean, they'd be getting their cut from horses that are able to show year after year after year...The current attitude of "instant gratification" sucks.

  3. TBDancer, that is why I always preach that we don't need to rush young horses in order to get them into the show ring.

    Actually, in most breeds snaffle bits are allowable in English classes, with a few exceptions. Arabian Park horses older than five must be in a full bridle and I believe with Morgan flat saddle horses they have restrictions on snaffles versus double bridles, though I have not looked them up in the rulebook.

    It sucks that the horse industry has to be all about money. I'd much prefer if it was actually all about the horses...

  4. LD, considering the present financial dilemma AHA actually finds itself in, one would think it would be a worthwhile consideration.

    One thing our club is going to be doing next year is offering a "Seniority" award to horses older than 15 who are shown. We haven't worked out the details, but I envision it to be a high point sort of program for owners to enter their horses in and gain recognition.

    Maybe if it's a success it can be something other clubs add to the mix. :)


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