The Horse Training Age Criteria
(How old should the horse be before he enters regular training?)

     There are many published opinions in reference to how old the horse should be when he enters training for riding. Most of the information concerning this issue comes from people that do not have sufficient experience with the horses in question and/or do not understand the determining factors. There are simple criteria by which the trainer determines when he should enter the horse in regular training without endangering the horse's physical and mental well-being.

A very advance jump of a Lipizzaner in the Courbette, achieved through special systematic training lasting several years.

    The pre-training education (psychological), concerning handling , begins in the early age of the foal, but should be limited only to the necessities, because the young foals have difficulty comprehending a reprimand. Hence the education of young foals is a different issue that will be discussed separately. The key word in the education of young foals is “familiarity”.

    When the horse enters full training for riding, it must be done regularly and on a daily basis. Lazy folks usually justify infrequent training of a riding horse by claiming that they are taking their time and they do not wish to rush the horse (training horses every other day or four times per week or less). Of course this is all nothing but nonsense. The regularity of daily training is essential not only for the mental and physical well being of the animal, but mainly for the acceptance of training by the horse. Much like when you are gathering school supplies and building a schedule for your children entering school for the first time, once the horse accepts training as a part of his daily routine everything from that point is much easier.

    Many horses suffer injuries during their early stages of training mainly because of incompetent trainers.  Very seldom are injuries caused by their “too young” age. What we do with the horse and how often we do it are very important factors in maintaining a healthy horse. The breed of a horse, his individual nature, the work he is intended for, his overall health and physical development are the factors that determine the age when we enter the horse in daily training.

    Regarding the age issue, I will be using the Lipizzaner and the English Thoroughbred for examples. The Lipizzaner is a late maturing horse; hence most of them should not start training before they are three-year-olds, usually at four but not later than four. The solid on the ground work must be established before the horse starts work on the “airs above the ground.” In my experience, ground work took about four to five years before the horse began training for the jumps. The jump work in the Lipizzaner is very strenuous and only some horses can handle it. The stress on the limbs of a Lipizzaner during jump work can be compared to the “sliding stop” of the reining horse. As far as I am aware, most Lipizzaners do not start the jumps before they are eight years old, while on the other hand the reining folks proudly demonstrate their two or three-years-olds in sliding stops. The results are of course obvious in the count of injured or permanently disabled horses in the reining industry, contrasted by the very few Lipizzaners injured.    

The stress on the horse in the so-called sliding stop equals the above jumps of the Lipizzaner. Yet these horses perform this as early as two-year-olds.

    The thoroughbred is an early maturing horse, usually ending his flat racing career by the end of his eighth year on account of his natural decrease in speed, providing he manages to stay sound. In the older days, some eight-year-old and older horses then took part in steeplechases. At one time (1971-73), I worked as a “ feed master” for a champion trainer in Munich, Germany. All yearlings, without exception, started their initial training right at the track, not on the farm. During the three years that I was there, out of about 100 horses, not one broke down beyond further use and only three went lame during all that time. So, as you can see, the age issue of a thoroughbred does not play a role whether he stays sound or not, but mainly it rests in what we do with them. Many yearlings did not race as two-year-olds, but remained in uninterrupted training until their first race as three-year-olds; hence some trained 20 months before they ran their first race. This is unheard of in the US, since no owner would pay a bill for training a horse that would not run at least within a year of his training.
    One should keep in mind, that most thoroughbred yearlings do not carry weight greater than 150 pounds and do not train more than 15 minutes per day (not counting walking under saddle). Many trainers of other disciplines, reining trainers for example, are ignorant of the weight issue in relevance to the age of the horse. In thoroughbred racing the starting age is about 18 months, during the yearling year in the month of September or October. It is very important to start the horse at such a young age in order for his body to develop for racing while still growing. Once the bones are fully grown and set, it becomes more difficult for them to adjust for the stress caused by the rider's weight. For example: no matter how old the horse is when he starts, he will have the same chances in bucking shins. Hence the trainer that bucks shins on two-year-olds will also buck them on the three or four-year-olds, when started that late, and the recovery of older horses is much more complicated. 

The horse’s body needs to grow and develop beyond its natural ability in order to carry the additional weight of the rider at high speeds. This is done at an early age, through easy, systematic training, which usually takes about 10 months to a year and in some cases more. In the US, this is usually shortened to six or eight months; one of the main reasons why so many youngsters break down.

   Other then thoroughbreds, quarter horses and other horses intended for racing, no horses should start in their yearling year, because most of them are later maturing and work in limited spaces, unlike the racehorses that work in more open spaces.  When to begin training depends on the amount of Arabian or thoroughbred blood; less "refined" horses start later.  Most warmbloods start in their second year, about 30 months of age.  Training for jumping with a rider should not start before the horse has at least one year of flat work, hence the minimum age of about 42 months. No horse should take part in a jumping competition before the age of five. Similarly if someone insists on participating in reining, because of the immense stress on the hind end, no horse should start showing the “sliding stop” before the age of six (that is if the people care about their horses). A barrel racing horse should not race before the age of five. Simply said, any discipline that requires an extreme, unnaturally repetitious, stress on a horse should not be preformed before the early-maturing-horse is at least five years old and the later-maturing-horse before the age of eight.

   In conclusion the age criteria can be summed up into the following factors: the breed of a horse, his individual nature, the work he is intended for and the overall health (normal development). 

    An early and easy start, when done properly, will help the horse further in developing and adjusting his body (bones, muscles and tendons), while he is still growing, for the work that he is intended to perform in the future. For example, if someone says: “I will wait until his knees close before I start his training”, he most likely does not know what he is talking about. We can start to train a horse before his knees are closed, but what we should not do, is to stress him to the point that he will injure them. On the average a racing horse should spend at least 6 months in training (by that time his knees will be closed), before we start to increase the speed from a working gallop, and at least 10 months before he runs his first race. This is of course ignored in the racing industry; hence the horses break down, not because of early training, but because of the incompetence of trainers that do not give enough time for the individual horses to develop physically and adjust for carrying weight at high speeds. When the horse is in the pasture it will develop for doing nothing, hence giving longer time for growing in the pasture will do nothing in relevance to his body’s adjustment to upcoming stress, related to work/racing.

    The suitability of a horse is another issue that will be brought to attention in our future publications, because in this age, people commonly use unsuitable horses for chosen disciplines, which of course adds to lameness and abuse problems.

    The horse’s body needs to grow and develop beyond its natural ability in order to carry the additional weight of the rider at high speeds. This is done at an early age, through easy, systematic training, which usually takes about one year. In the US, this is usually shortened to six or eight months, which is one of the main reasons why so many youngsters break down.

Written by Ludvik K Stanek a.k.a Lee Stanek