Ask Vickie, Equestrian, is a new feature, which will be posted every Wednesday, where you the audience get to ask an equestrian related question. Todays question comes from Kendra and she asked, “What is the best age to start training for show jumping?”
There is a very fine and well-researched article at Equine Studies called Timing And Rate Of Skeletal Maturation in Horses that all horse owners, trainers and breeders would be well advised to read before starting any horse under 6 years old. It gives charts and specific descriptions of which bones close at what age in ALL horse breeds and…SURPRISE…research shows that all breeds of horse mature at the same rate. This is contrary to the belief that Thoroughbreds, Quarterhorses and Arabians mature fast and Warmbloods mature more slowly, and explains the constant hock and stifle issues that horses who are started young are prone to.
The singular exceptions are very tall horses that can take up to two extra years to complete their growth. As long as the horse is growing structurally there is chance of injury to the growth plates, and the higher in the body the growth plate is, the longer it takes to mature. This means that the last part of the horse to finish growing is the spine from the back of the head to the dock of the tail. Hocks typically don’t fuse until the horse is 3 to 3.5 years old and I believe it is for this reason that recognized shows do not allow eventers to enter horses under 4 years old, regardless of breed.
I realize that most people want to start training their horses as soon as they are large enough to put a saddle on. Especially in the Thoroughbred and Quarterhorse circles, it is felt that two year old horses should be backed and at the shows or races. However, at two years the horse has soft growth plates from the knees up. In fact, these days even the jumpers have 4 year old incentive classes and want a horse doing a full course of fences with changes by that age. Unfortunately, the spine in even an average size horse will not be fused until the horse is 6 years old.
If you consider that the hocks, which receive a considerable amount of stress from the act of jumping, do not fuse until the horse is 3.5 years old, give or take six months, I would suggest ground work at least until that time. Also, although the growth plates in the lower leg are fused, the canon bone itself is still very slim compared to what it will be in the mature horse.
One more thing to consider…the more stress that is put on a bone, the more remodeled or distorted the bone grows. In other words, if you ride a horse always to the left the growth of the bone in the horse’s leg will be distorted by the constant stress in the same direction. If you jump a young horse the bones will be distorted by the pounding of the landing and the stress of the take off. And even if the horse LOOKS mature, the bones inside are still maturing at the normal rate.
Bottom line, no horse is mature before the age of 6 years. Larger horses may not mature until they are 8 years old. The legs are mostly fused by 3.5 years but the round bone that goes into the hip socket is not fused until the horse is between 3 and 4 years old and the pelvis doesn’t stop growing until the horse is 5 or older. This is why a 3 year old horse still looks short-bodied but by age 5 is beginning to lengthen through the body and as the spine fuses by age 6 the average size horse is finally at his mature height and length.
So…when can you safely start training a horse for show jumping?
Well, to quote the Timing And Rate Of Skeletal Maturation in Horses:
“Bottom line: if you are one of those who equates “starting” with “riding”, then I guess you better not start your horse until he’s four. That would be the old, traditional, worldwide view: introduce the horse to equipment (all kinds of equipment and situations, with the handler on the ground) when he’s two, add crawling on and off of him at three, saddle him to begin riding him and teaching him to guide at four, start teaching him maneuvers or the basics of whatever job he’s going to do–cavalletti or stops or racing or something beyond trailing cattle–at five, and he’s on the payroll at six. The old Spanish way of biting reflected this also; because the horse’s teeth aren’t mature (the tushes haven’t fully come in, nor all of the permanent cheek teeth either) until he’s six.”
The entire article is extremely informative and in pdf downloadable format so you can save it to your computer to review again and again as your horse matures.
I hope this has helped. Vickie
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