I recently realized that Dr. Deb Bennett has updated her classic article on skeletal development in horses. I was searching for it and most of the internet links I found for it were bad links. So, I ended up on her main website, were I was pleasantly surprised to see that the article had been updated.
If you’re a horse person and aren’t familiar with this article (it’s real title is “Timing and Rate of Skeletal Maturation in Horses, with comments on starting young horses and the state of the industry,” but it is commonly known as “the Ranger Piece”) than you really really need to go read it now.
For those who don’t want to read the whole piece, here’s a bit about it:
Dr. Deb Bennett has a degree in vertebrate paleontology and is internationally known for her work on horse conformation, development and anatomy. The piece deals mainly with bone growth and maturation in horses, and when a young horse can safely be ridden.
Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise–a horse’s spine and other bones do not finish fusing until the animal is 5-6 years old. Yet, we start racing horses when they are 2-3, and many horses are put into training months before they start their first race.
Horse races were originally quite long (up to 4 miles) and involved several heats throughout the day, so that in a single day a horse might be asked to go close to 20 miles. Eventually, shorter races were added for younger horses because it was known (even over 100 years ago!) that a young horse was not physically mature and could not handle going that distance without breaking down. However, the short races slowly replaced the longer races as they were popular with spectators and profitable for track managers.
However, it’s not just the Thoroughbred industry, many other breeder start their horses incredibly early. (The Quarter Horse industry immediately comes to mind, however, they are just one of many). Many people think it’s alright to start certain breeds at age 2-3 because they are “fast-maturing.” However, it is utterly false, all horses actually mature at approximately the same rate. As Dr. Deb says:
For there are some breeds of horse–the Quarter Horse is the premier among these–which have been bred in such a manner as to look mature long before they actually are mature. This puts these horses in jeapardy from people who are either ignorant of the closure schedule, or more interested in their own schedule (for futurities or other competition) than they are in teh welfare of the animal.
Basically, many people think when the growth plates in a horse’s knees are finished fusing, that the animal is safe to ride. However, these aren’t the only important growth plates. Many other bones fuse much later, and the spine fuses last of all. Even small horses don’t finish growing until they are 5 1/2. Now, add 6 months for a gelding and add more time for larger, taller horses. A big saddlebred or Thoroughbred might not be fully mature until he is 8. The growth plates in the spine are some of the last ones to close and (importantly) take a lot of stress when the horse is being ridden.
Riding a horse at 2-3 is unlikely to damage the growth plates in his legs. However, it can put stress on the back, which can make it harder for the horse to move properly and learn how to collect himself. However, there’s plenty of light work on the ground that can be done with a young horse.
How many horses do you know that won’t trailer load, are hard to lead, don’t know how to properly lunge, won’t stand tied, or have other ground problems? How about properly teaching these skills to your 2 year old horse rather than riding him? Then, when he’s 15, not only will he still be perfectly sound, but he’ll also know how to trailer load! What a concept.