Musings of a Veterinary Student in Manhattan, Kansas

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Can I ride this horse? (The Ranger Piece, pt. 2)

December 7th, 2008 · 6 Comments

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.

The Ranger Piece

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.

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6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Denise // Dec 9, 2008 at 9:06 am

    Hi Mary, wow you’ve got a busy and intersting blog! Thanks for stopping by mine… regarding your question I’ve only used carrots and apples thus far as rewards- I say “rewards”, but it’s really just a given for him, lol. But my horse chiro said that honey is a natural sugar/ sweetner that is OK for them to eat. I keep meaning to experiment with honey, but I’ve been busy and I’m a procrastinator:-x
    I’ll have to catch up on your blog when I have more time!

  • 2 Sue // Dec 12, 2008 at 2:10 pm

    Mary, I wish you every success in your studies. we need more vets who understand this about horses. “Head” and “brick wall” are the words that spring to mind when trying to explain skeletal maturity to “loving” owners.

  • 3 What Racehorses Use to Be (the Ranger Piece, pt. 1) | OzVet // Mar 12, 2009 at 5:53 pm

    […] statistics stretching surgery tablet PC trailers turtles youtube ← Animals Are Dumb? Can I ride this horse? (The Ranger Piece, pt. 2) […]

  • 4 pu erh tea // Jul 30, 2010 at 3:50 pm


  • 5 Julie // Oct 30, 2010 at 1:26 pm

    This may sound like a completely stupid question but I’m wondering if there is any way to encourage bone growth in a ten year old horse? I have a Quarter Horse with a level IV club foot that had repeatedly become infected this year. We tried every sort of boot to protect this foot but it finally infected down to the bone. The coffin bone looks like a sponge. I had him scheduled for euthanasia this week but my husband protested as the horse is so full of life and vibrancy. We’re both having difficulty letting this horse go but I’m afraid we’re out of options. He reminded me that I always tell him that the body heals in strange ways. I feel, yeah, good luck on this one. Where should I go to find out the latest information on a situation like ours and what can I do about it; if anything. I soak the foot daily; wrap it in baby diapers and it seems to be improving his ability to lean on it but our vet showed me the disastrous x-rays of the coffin bone and the two bones around it eaten away. Any suggestions or advice are welcome. Thanks.

  • 6 Robin // Oct 26, 2012 at 8:58 pm

    Where is Dr. Deb’s second article? All I see is discussion about it, and a link to the original Ranger Piece.

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