My first thought is that a 2 year old is too young to be ridden, so I hope you are just doing ground driving or something like that. Why? Please allow me to Quote trainer Sally White and Equine physiology expert, Dr. Deb Bennett: The Great Age Debate
by author and trainer, Sally White
Thoroughbred racehorses are asked to carry a jockey at high speed, for long distances, in one of the most strenuous equine sports there is, at the age of two. Yet Lipizzaner stallions in Vienna, who carry out leaps and pirouettes requiring the greatest of suppleness and concentration, are left in their fields until they reach the age of five. Which is right?
The debate over what age to start riding a young horse is a fierce one in the horsey world, and it raises tempers faster than you can say “physically mature”. Which is what the whole debate hinges on - for opinions differ widely as to when a horse is sufficiently developed enough to take the weight of a human being.
As your horse grows, his bones and joints get stronger through the fusion of his growth plates - flexible areas which, at birth, are separated by a layer of crushable cartilage and allow the horse’s bones to lengthen and grow. There’s a widely-held belief that these growth plates only exist in a horse’s knee: but in fact, there are growth plates almost everywhere that a horse has joints. They are all weak points, and unable to bear much weight, until they fuse
– that is, the cartilage disappears and they join together in one strong unit.
So the horse’s strength - his physical maturity - is determined by when this turning point is reached. This happens at differing rates in different areas of the body – and some growth plates in a horse’s body have still not fused by the time he is six.
Here’s what’s happening to your horse’s skeletal structure at different times in its life, as outlined by the celebrated vet and conformation specialist, Dr Deb Bennett:
At the age of 1 year:
the horse’s pasterns have fused
At 18 months:
his cannon bones are mature
At 30 months (2.5 yrs):
he now has stronger - but not entirely mature - knees (the small bones have fused), and his fetlock joints are mature
At 3 years:
the weight-bearing area at the base of the knees is fused, as well as his hindleg between hock and stifle
the highest part of his foreleg, the humerus, is fused, as are parts of his femur, the area of his hindleg between stifle and hip
At 4 years:
the shoulder is fused, and the hocks and pelvis are now mature
the growth plates over the centrum, which allows the spine to flex, become fused
The ages above vary slightly (by about 6 months) according to the breed and type of horse, and the growth plates between the 32 vertebrae continue to fuse until a horse is up to 8 years old.
So it’s clear from this that a horse’s knees will not be ready to take weight until he is 3 years old. His hocks will continue to be weak until he is four, as will his hips; and his back is vulnerable until he is at least five and a half. This is perhaps the most powerful argument against the riding, especially in advanced training or competition, of horses aged two or younger.
It is borne out by the number of racehorses who started young who suffer physical breakdown, sometimes at a tragically young age. Horses ridden at the age of two - quite apart from being emotionally immature and less able to deal with the mental stresses and strains of competition - suffer more from developmental diseases and structural problems. They are at risk from navicular, splints, ringbone, and tendon weakness.
The practice of “firing” - passing a hot needle or laser through a horse’s damaged tendons to cauterise the nerves and stop pain, allowing further work - came about as an attempt to lengthen the working lives of horses put on the racetrack too young. Training intensively and riding an animal this young places him in serious danger of physical and mental damage - a factor which is becoming more widely recognised by vets and other equine professionals as time goes on.
But even at the age of three - the age I first rode my horse, and a popular choice for anyone starting a riding horse - you can see from the figures above, the hocks, hips and back are still very immature. This is where the whole issue becomes more of a question of personal judgement, with a number of different factors to take into account.
The first of these is the amount of work a horse is asked to do. When I started riding my youngster, at about three and a half, I began with short sessions, no more than 15-20 minutes. Even now, when she is 4 years and 2 months old, I don’t work her in the school for more than half an hour, and I don’t hack her out for more than a couple of hours. I also don’t ride her that often - no more than three times a week. I am, maybe, unusual in that - many people I know with young horses try to do a little riding with them each day. But I take the view that it’s better, if you do want to train every day, to vary things by introducing a little lungeing, loose-schooling or long-reining instead of riding. This develops different muscles as well as keeping life more interesting and working on all of her different skills.
The second is the type of work you do. A young horse has to learn how to balance himself with a rider on his back: he cannot do it automatically, and he must develop the relevant muscles. Asking a three-year-old to work in an outline, canter in circles (even big ones), or extend and collect his paces is like asking a ten-year-old child to do weight training. Even if he understands what you are asking him, he will have to really strain himself to perform these relatively advanced movements. Once again, you are risking long-term damage to joints and back problems. There is also the risk of mental strain, which will show itself in temperamental behaviour and a “bad attitude”. The horse at age 3 is something like a teenager: if you ask too much of him, he’ll get sulky and stroppy, give you lip and eventually just refuse!
And the third - a sensitive subject at the best of times! - is the weight of the rider he is to carry. Forget what you may have heard about measuring the “bone” a horse has to work out what weight he can carry. This all goes out of the window when talking about young horses, who may reach their full “bone” measurement long before they are physically able to carry the weight it suggests. Young horses, of whatever build, are much less at risk if a light rider can be found to train them under saddle.
A basic timetable which you could use as a starting point for a training programme, adjusting it according to your own horse and your own circumstances, is:
At two years old:
Introduce the horse to new tack and different situations
At three years old:
“Back” him – that is, mount and dismount, lunge him with a rider at walk only and in straight lines – and then turn him away again
At four years old:
Begin riding with simple manoeuvres, walking and trotting only in the school, not asking for collection and keeping circles very large
At five years old:
Introduce more difficult manoeuvres, such as canter in the school and smaller circles, and begin collection and lateral moves. You can also start teaching him specific disciplines, such as introducing small jumps.
At six years old:
He can begin full work and competition as an adult horse.
Many horse trainers would see this as a very conservative programme. It is, but that is only because it goes at exactly the same pace as the physical development of the horse. It has become customary in the horse world to move faster than that, but perhaps it is time to ask questions about the reasons for this perpetual hurry to have the horse grow up faster than he would do naturally.
One example which speaks louder than any words is that of the extremely highly-regarded dressage rider, Reiner Klimke. This talented German rider consistently produces well-adjusted horses with outstanding balance and exceptional performance. Yet he says in his book, Basic Training of the Young Horse,
“I believe that the experienced trainer of riding horses will not start work with his charge until the growth of the joints, bones and tendons is well advanced”. His training programme includes riding only at the end of the third year, and sometimes not until the horse is four. His excellent results do not seem to suffer from giving his horses a late start: indeed, he says, “I am convinced that had I started these horses earlier I would not have been so successful.”
Perhaps we can learn from the gentle pace of this expert approach. As Klimke says, “One must have the patience to wait until the horse is physically and mentally ready for the work demanded of it.”