I am disappointed to see that still horses as young as two years old are started under saddle, despite the clear information on the detrimental effects on starting horses too young is readily available.
I am very aware there are many different opinions on when to start a horse under saddle and at what point a horse is fully matured. But there is concrete scientific evidence that horses are fully matured between the ages of five and seven years old.
This is clearly shown by the growth plates of the skeletal system (see attached image). For a horse to be fully matured ALL growth plates need to be closed, not just the once in the knees as many believe to be the case. There are many growth plates throughout the whole skeletal system from the hooves up. The last structures to mature are the vertebrae, pretty important as the horse’s spine controls the overall coordination of the limbs (so regulates the movement of the horse) and it is the back that we will sit on. If there is damage in the back the horse will have difficulties to move, let alone to carry us.
Growth plates begin as cartilage and become bone as the horse ages. It is obviously much easier to damage cartilage than bone, hence the waiting period. But it’s not only the growth plates that are important it is also the muscles that need to be developed to enable to arch the back and bring the hind legs under the point of weight to enable the horse to carry the rider in a relaxed manner.
It is shown in many studies that the cervical vertebrae are closed by three years and the thoracic vertebrae between five and seven years of age. By this information it is pretty clear that we should not back a horse until the age of four to six years old (this with proper gymnastic preparation).
Here I have only touched on the physical maturity of the horse but we also have to take in consideration the emotional and mental maturity of the horse. A two year old is just a baby.
The horse is a living being with feelings, fears and needs and not a sports tool. It has its own life and dignity and we humans are responsible to make sure to keep this in high regard.
I have attached a link here with a great article by Dr. Deb Bennett about the timing and rate of skeletal maturation in horses. It starts with the focus on the race horse but I encourage you to keep reading as the information in this article is for all horses.
There are many great things you can do with your young horse while waiting for its body and mind to be ready to carry you. You can start to get to know each other by just hanging out, spend quality time together. From here you can start with working on your communication through body language by basic leading exercises. Go for walks out in the woods or your neighbourhood. Once this is in place and your young horse is ready for it, you can start to slowly introduce the gymnastic groundwork. All this is a preparation for riding anyway.
I know that riding is the number 1 on most people’s mind when it comes to horses but I would ask you to keep in mind the health and wellbeing of your horse as well.