Wednesday, December 3, 2008

On starting horses...

I noticed that a few of you commented that I expressed concern over the fact that a prospect I was considering was not started until the age of four. I'd like to speak to my thoughts on that issue. First and foremost, I preface all of this by stating, sincerely that this is IMHO (In My Humble Opinion), I welcome your thoughts and respect when people have a different opinion.

I feel that the right age and time to start a horse should always depend on the individual. The physical and mental maturity of a colt can very dramatically from horse to horse. I dont think that there should be any set age that is right but in the industry that I am involved in, people breed horses to be physically and mentally mature at an earlier age than lets say, warmbloods or arabs, because the money for aged events (3-6 year olds) is much higher than in later years. Bloodlines that lend themselves towards late bloomers do not survive in the reined cow horse, reining and cutting world. I have noticed that, in general, the larger the horse at maturity, the longer it takes for him to reach it. As a rule, I dont look at horses over 15HH unless they are exceptional. My mare Abby is just barely 14.2H. Most reiners, cutters are 14.3 max while the reined cow horses can get up to 15.2 but average out at around 15-15.1. These are not big, heavy boned horses. They look much the same at three as they do at six or seven.

I am not a fan of futurities. Or rather, I should say that I dont think that the level of competition and what is expected of the horses is just. I would not buy a horse that was shown competitively at a futurity. Not in a million years. The industry motivates owners, trainers and breeders to press their horses at an earlier and earlier ages to reach a higher and higher levels. It is simply and unequivocally wrong and abusive.

With that being said, my focus is on reining and cutting bred quarter horses that are, in most cases, ready to start at some point in the spring of their two year old year. The level of work that they are asked for can vary from simple saddling and sacking out, to getting them loping balanced and comfortably. I dont want them stopping hard, turning around or doing anything physically stressful for that first 6 months or so. I do think that it is important in almost all cases to get a horse working in their two year old year. At that age their minds are at an impressionable stage and they are not quite as set in their ways. I would prefer that after putting 90-120 days on them, they be turned out for the fall and winter and then started back up in the spring of their three year old year. This method is time tested and true. As horses age, their habits become more ingrained and I find that they are less likely to be mailable in their training if they are left to be started at four. But if they get that SOLID foundation laid as a two year old, you can pick back up on them later and find that they are a better broke horse overall than how you left them in the fall of their two year old year.

On the other hand, if you leave a horse unbroke until their 3-4 year old year, I find that they are more likely to have resistance towards training. They are adults, they are used to being masters of their own universe and have established their personalities, likes, dislikes, etc.. Again, this is not the case in all horses and I am talking about getting a horse to be a finished bridle horse, not just getting them broke enough to putter around the farm on. I also dont like my horses to be over exposed as weanlings-two year olds. I love to buy horses that have been raised in a herd and that were not exposed to much besides halter breaking and getting their feet done until they are ready to be started as a two year old. Again, it depends on what your intended outcome would be for the horse. If I were looking to make a kids mount, then by all means, get them out there and have them exposed to everything under the sun as early as possible. But for a highly responsive bridle horse, I dont want a horse that is dull and sticky. I want them to be as much horse as possible, light on their feet, quick to react and easy to manipulate. Some sketchier horses might need more exposure, some quieter horses might need less, but getting them "hauled" (exposed to new settings) is not as much of a challenge as getting a sticky, dead head, unresponsive horse to lighten up.

To be continued...


  1. An interesting post, although I don't necessarily agree with you on all of it.

    You say:

    "On the other hand, if you leave a horse unbroke until their 3-4 year old year, I find that they are more likely to have resistance towards training."

    However, I do agree whole-heartedly with this. Yet, I feel there's some sort of middle ground between the two extremes.

    The best horses I've ever known were ranch horses that didn't have much riding at all until they were 4. However, they did have a SOLID foundation on them. They were handled extensively as foals and yearlings by all sorts of people (including being exposed extensively to ranch guests who were often children or non-horse people). As 2 and 3 year-olds, they received quite a bit of handling and ground work.

    By 4, when we starting riding them, they rode far better than many older more seasoned horses. I could do about anything on them, from leading trail rides to teaching lessons to giving pole bending demonstrations.

    I think my biggest concern with riding young horses is that their bones are still developing and fusing. (Even QHs don't finish maturing until they're about 6.


  2. Nice post. I think you have a lot of good points. I tend to lean towards the idea of starting horses later, maybe more like 3 yr. olds (under saddle.) I think there is a lot of groundwork, ground-driving, etc., that could be done in the 2 yr. old year. But I'm not a colt starter so what do I know! I think My Boy was started as a 2 year old.
    That being said, both of the young horses I owned as a teen were both started at 2! ;)

  3. I have been on both sides of the fence, and after seeing the results of both approaches I am a big fan of starting them later.

    This doesn't mean hands off till they are 3, you can do stuff with them - it means lets get them halter broke, get them used to standing while tied up for long periods of time. I am opposed to any round pen work till they are a long yearlings or two year olds because of the pressure it puts on their bones. Even then you should work them only for short bursts.

    Then they can learn round basics - they can learn to be saddled and bridled, they can learn to drive and to be lunged outside of the round pen. By the time your horse is in its late two-year old or early three year old year it can be very submissive to humans and have very little resistance. It will already be fairly broke by the time anyone steps on it - without being set up for future lameness problems.

    In the Pleasure world I hate yearling lunge futurities - I just know one of my QH pals is gonna jump my ass for saying that but its how I feel. They are too young for that crap, and I have yet to see a "big lunge liner" go on to be a sound and successful pleasure horse. And I really, really hate two year old futurities.

    I Especially hate the real expensive ones, I have personally seen more than one horse be ruined for those. The owners usually have to have their money locked in way early in the year and by the time they realize their horse isn't quite gonna make it - its too late and because they have thousands of dollars locked up in it - BY GOD THEIR HORSE IS GONNA GET SHOWN. Poor babes that try so hard....

    Those Futurities glorify themselves by saying "you can only show your horse in our futurity if it has never been shown" up to that point in time. They claim they are helping "save the two year-olds till fall time" but the truth is that they are even worse because the money is so much that the stakes are so great that it triples the amount of pressure put on those poor two-years olds to perform, to get broke enough to show and win.

    I don't like it at all.

    My next horse will not even be sent to a trainer until the spring of his two year-old year with instructions not to ride till fall or later. I am done with two year stuff - I don't think its right.

    AOHCM - I am not bitching at you just venting in general, that has been brewing for a long time and I can say it to very many people or they pitch a fit.

  4. PS - I fixed the video links - try again! Sorry about that

  5. Sooooo...ya think the 8 and 9y/o's I've been working with might be a little set in their ways huh? LOL-I'm just kidding Chelsi. We've always been fans of the starting a 2y/o, get them going lightly and then turn them back out for a year or even two. Usually someone in the family takes a shine to them about then and they go to work.

    Because I gear toward rodeo type horses these days, they aren't much good to me until they are about 4. Then I want to get them solidly broke, handling nicely and haul them to a few shows for experience. I'll start barrel and pole patterning them as soon as I can, but it is all walk, trot stuff. Maybe a tiny bit of loping to the barrel, stop, trot around and lope to the next. Absolutely no running. Ideally, I like to exhibition them a few times their 5y/o year to see how they do-no more than 10 runs on them all year. Of course by this time I have usually sold them and I start on another, but since I kept the last few, I'm backed up on my timeline, by at least a couple of years-LOL.

  6. I have to agree that too much as a two year old isn't good. We handle them as yearlings and two's and then as a three year old they get ridden a few times and turned back out. As a four year old their bonnes have matured and so has their mind. It works for us but when we use a horse on the ranch they NEED to be able to handle it.

  7. is my turn to put my two cents!!! I have had similar experiences to you, in that if a horse sits for too long, it gets set in its ways...or it has a more difficult time adjusting to what is being asked of it.

    I think that (depending on the breed)there is nothing wrong with starting a two or three year old (ground work and light riding)and that they should be started by no later than three for breeds like QH's, and four for lighter horses like Arabs.

    Obviously horses are all individuals, but I have to kind of side with you on this one. In my own experience, horses that go to long do not make the best riding companions (not enough trust...I don't know?)

    Maybe you should go try this mare and see if you like her! :)

  8. So I just read Stephanie's post and found the word that I was looking for...resistance!!

    Horses that sit for too long without ANY training at all become resistant to humans and our training methods. They have survived just fine without us placing all of these demands on them, so why do they need us now??

  9. Exceptional post! I feel the same way! ( Of course) Too many people feel the NEED to start these youngsters way too early- they fry their minds, and fray their bones and joints- and for what? A horse show? ERK!
    The individual should be as you say- judged on an individual basis!
    I know I wasn't going to sell my gelding and he wasn't fully started until he was about four. He's seven now, and healthy, his mind is solid, his legs are great. He learned his ground manners early from his first owner. I got him as a yearling. I started ground driving him at 2, We was sent to training -30 days - at 3- He wasn't ridden again until he was nearly four.
    I don't think there is a need to rush any horse.