Too Much Too Soon?

IMG_5442.JPGI know that there are many different thoughts among horse people on what is too much too soon in terms of schooling young horses. After talking to multiple pros and also doing a bunch of my own research I feel really confident that what I am asking of Annie is both fair and reasonable. There is no reason that as an almost 4 year old she cannot handle speed bumps. I am not jumping her over 3′ fences 5 days a week. She jumps 2′ maybe 1x a week – obviously more at her occasional show. As we go through this year she will probably jump up to 2’6 and I feel really comfortable about that and did not make any of the decisions pertaining to her training lightly.

Amandaย shared this article from with me and I thought that the snippet below was particularly interesting…

Dr. Marks also touched on what keeps a horse sound for a long career and he said, โ€œthe problem with a horse staying sound for a long time is not when you start them, but at the age that you start to show it at a very high level.โ€

unnamedI don’t know about you guys but I think I am probably going to take the advice of the team vet of USET to heart. Dr Marks was even recently inducted to the Show Jumping Hall of Fame! No matter what your discipline I think that there is a lot to be said about the fact that it is not so much when you start a horse but rather what you do with them when you start them.

Do any of you have any strong opinions one way or another? Are there reasons or research that lead you to feel the way you do?

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  1. You already know my stance, but I totally agree with this. I think it helps young horses tremendously to have a job, and if you’re smart about it, it will actually help them long term instead of harm them. All the rudest horses I’ve ever seen, with the worst work ethics, were the ones who were started later. Also there are studies that show that lightly stressing the ligaments and bones while the horses are 3-5 years old actually makes them stronger and more sound in the long run. Obviously the key word there is lightly, but what you’re doing is exactly what I would do too.

    1. I read a super neato study that described different methods of lightly stressing bones and tendons in young racehorses. Some people like to let them trot around the track with their moms and some people went so far as to run them around the track in yearling herds — not chasing them, just getting them used to the idea of track life, I guess. Anyway, their ligaments DID strengthen, but obviously did so unevenly. They also laid down bone unevenly, and their overall bone density wasn’t higher than individuals that hadn’t been stressed that way.

      Only tangentially relevant but really fascinating!

  2. i think the way you guys are doing it with Annie is totally acceptable. light and methodical work is beneficial physically, esp if you’re measuring each training choice so carefully. seems like some young horses aren’t always ready emotionally, but if you’re paying attention it’s pretty easy to figure out how much pressure each horse can work with happily

  3. I am glad you wrote about this because as another young horse owner, I was curious what your philosophy was with Annie.

    Personally, I agree that taking them over low jumps has advantages mentally and isn’t hurting them physically. In my head I sort of think, nothing over 2’6″ until after they are 5 but I have heard others say 3′ and their horses aren’t all crippled.

    For Odin we are going extra slow because of his body, not his age (he’ll be 5 in May). His stifles needed to grow up and stop sticking, he still needs to get a stronger canter, etc but that is the only reason we have stuck to trotting cross rails so far.

    1. It definitely depends on the horse. I don’t think the occasional 3′ fence at 4 will kill anyone but I don’t know that I will do that with Annie. It will depend on how she develops and progresses.

  4. In my mind, jumping 2′ once a week and doing some basic flatwork probably isn’t much more strain than they would put on themselves playing in a pasture, and like Amanda, I’ve also heard/read research that says light work is actually better for their strength and longevity. Plus, instilling work ethic and a good attitude at a young age goes a long way.

  5. I always cringe when people say they don’t ride/start/whatever their young horses until 4 or later. I vastly prefer to handle horses who have had good training from a young age vs the brutes who are used to getting their own way and don’t even notice the people they’re running over.

    Otoh, I also dislike babies of all species, so I’ve intentionally avoided having one.

  6. I think this question is always up to the individual. How mature is the horse? What is the work? What is the program? Younger horses can and should be in work pretty early IMO, it’s just how you do it.

  7. My horse is a bit of a special case, all around. He was handled, lunged and saddled, but never actually ridden until he was 6. Let me start off by saying I he were my young horse, that would not be my plan of action, but it was what it was when I found him. Now would I buy an unridden 6 year old horse again? I doubt it. Namely one that had never been trailered, been off the property at all or anything. But all things considered he has a pretty good work ethic and is good to be around. That would be vastly different if he flat was not handled though. I agree it is good to do lighter work with the young ones. The ones who are heavily worked at 2 to 3 tend to break down a lot faster. So more than anything, it’s really important to find the balance between just enough and too much.

  8. I think what you do with a young horse really depends on the horse. I have a student’s horse who is coming 7 and getting ready for her first Prelim and her first PSG this year. She was schooling over preliminary level fences at 5 and started over fences with the YEH stuff. But she positively steps over a meter like it’s nothing, vs my guy who would probably have to crack his back over 2’6.

    Obviously I’m not thinking jumps with my guy, but the 5yo FEI young horse test is Second level, and there’s no way (even without the injury) that we would have made it. He was ridden very lightly his 3yo year, just 1x per week and every other week was a trail ride. As a 4yo he was slowly moved up to 4x per week. This year he’ll start 5x/week probably this fall. I don’t like working more than that anyway.

    I err on the side of less work as a young horse (still a job and exposure and handling though, not leaving them in a field). But I primarily work with warmbloods and I’ve known enough horses that have issues from overwork as a young horse where I’m extra cautious with my own. Rico didn’t start heavy work until he was older and he didn’t need injections until he was 16. When I see horses getting injected at 7, 8, 9… well, it’s not something I want to have to do!

  9. Slow and steady! And just being in tune with your horse, which I know you are. ๐Ÿ™‚ I totally agree with light work being good for young horse brains and bodies.

    For a lot of polo horses in Argentina most of the horses are backed at 3 and lightly ridden for a few months, then they get put back out to pasture for. They don’t actually start lightly working a few days a week until they’re about 4-4.5, and don’t’ really start playing polo till about 6. I’ve seen a lot of the older polo horses stay sound and are still feisty and wanting to play at 23!

  10. I think it depends on each individual horse and rider. My horse is older and I still worry what my training schedule is doing to his soundness. Not because I’m doing anything crazy just because it’s a normal concern. Sounds like you have a good plan in place for the little redhead.

  11. I agree 100% with your plan. I actually started Hampton when he was 2. Light riding, steering, etc. I got a little flack for that. But he was barely doing anything! I think the daily handling, and consistent riding – even if it’s just a good 15 minutes is so important to their future career AND soundness. Of course you don’t want to jump a gangly 3-year-old over big 3’6 courses … but overall I think people treat their horses like they are much more fragile than they are.

    1. Porkchop. Yeah I agree… If i treat her like she is made of glass she is probably going to end up doing more harm than good. Thats how I feel about human kids and I am leaning that way for horses too.

  12. I think what you are doing is completely fine and I agree with everything that is said in your post. In my opinion I think that for sure jumping and competing 3′ or higher (especially regularly) is definitely not okay for a young horse at the age of 5 or less. But from 4 up there is no reason you can’t train or even compete at the lower levels. I think its important for a young horse to have a “job” to do thats not all schooling and “going round in circles”

    Good topic – interesting to read all the comments and opinions of others.

    1. Your 5yo cap is interesting given the YJC classes where often a 4yo is jumping at 3′ or higher otherwise they would not be competitive in those classes.

      Also agreed that diversity is important for all horses especially young horse brains.

  13. I think a lot of it just depends on the horse and your goals. Sometimes to get pretty far down the road and something happens that means you need to take a step back, but I think your approach sounds very well balanced.

  14. This is something I really struggled with when I first bought C because many places (forums mainly) that I looked at online said that riding at 3 (even late 3) was essentially abuse. But he didn’t like not having a job, and he W/T/Cs out in pasture anyway, but without the structure and extra 140 lbs. I didn’t think that was enough to break a horse!
    For this year (4) I’m planning to do BN height all the way through the season, but much later in this year would probably feel comfortable, if he was mentally ready (and me, lol), to do 2’9″. But I only jump him once every week and a half or two weeks, so I suppose results may vary. Anyway, I know some people who swear horses shouldn’t jump till they’re 6, and I’m very willing to disagree with that, lol.
    My trainer spent much of her training in France and said there they aim to have 4 year olds doing Novice, 5 years Training, and 6 Prelim, earlier if the horse is ready– she said it was very case by case but they never had lameness issues because the horses were started right.
    I’ve also noticed, at least in the circles I run, it varies between disciplines– H/J seem more conservative/the wait-till-they’re-5 group, while Eventers seem to want more exposure. A H/J trainer at my barn seemed kind of horrified that I jumped C over a 2′ oxer… I’d hope a good trainer wouldn’t let a client move to a level that they /or/ their horse wasn’t ready for, though.
    Whew, that was long-winded. Thanks for the thought-provoking post ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. Thanks for sharing your experience. I definitely have people that seem to think I am being awful by jumping her but she is 4 in a month and the occasional course certainly won’t kill her. 2′ is like a speed bump to her.