When I was young, starting previously unhandled colts on summer jobs for cattle ranches in several states, the term “colt” usually referred to 4 or 5 year old horses.  Occasionally, one was older, maybe 6 or 7, or, rarely a 3 year old.

The exception was at the racetrack.  Racehorses and only racehorses were started as 2 year olds.  The term “futurity” was limited to racehorses.

Today horses are usually started under saddle as 2 year olds, in all breeds and all disciplines, and I see an increasing tendency to ride them even younger, at 22 months of age for example.

There is a popular misconception that, if the growth plates (the epiphyses) of the leg bones are closed, as revealed in radiography, that the colt is “mature”. 

That simply is untrue.  It just means that the end of the bone, which has been x-rayed is no longer growing, but other bones plus soft tissue structures such as tendons, ligaments and muscle may still be quite immature.

In my long career as an equine veterinary practitioner, I found that the most frequent cause of lameness in horses was damage done by excessive work at too young an age.  And, this is increasingly true.  How many times, examining a qualified performance horse, which moves soundly at 5 to 7 years of age, have I found that when I flexed a limb, the horse winced with pain.  Subsequent radiographs revealed the very early signs of joint deterioration.

A very generous client who had become a good friend once offered me and my wife a free reining horse, a mare who had competed successfully until the age of 5.  Then she had been bred and I was told that we could have her as a gift, as soon as her foal was weaned.

She moved soundly, but, when I flexed her right fetlock, she said, “Ouch!”  And, after sustained flexion, she walked out lame.  I turned her down and, two years later, I was asked to examine her for chronic right fore lameness.

Horsemanship, in our society, has greatly improved in most ways during the last four decades with one exception.  We are starting colts younger, working them harder (one reason being that we have selectively bred for better performance; faster, more agility, and all of this damages the immature body.)

Selling younger horses is profitable for the breeder, training younger horses is profitable for the trainer and easier than waiting for full maturity, but it is a disaster for too many of these young horses.

The epidemic of young horses becoming unsound is also a disaster for the owner, who too often defers to what the breeders and trainers recommend.  Only the veterinarian and the pharmaceutical industry profit by this increasing phenomenon.  Too much stress at too young an age.

You may hear deceptive results from “scientific studies,” that exercise is “good for growing colts”.

Of course! Exercise is good for all horses.  But reining, cutting, jumping, etc. an immature horse is damaging.

I never started one of my own colts under three.  Most were 6 to 12 months older.  And, I never overworked them.  At 5 I would turn them over to a selected trainer to begin their discipline training.

The one time I failed to do this was with the first mule I raised.  Because I mistakenly believed that mules were “tougher” than horses, I broke her to ride at 2 and turned her over to one of my clients to be trained as a hunter-jumper.

She had a very successful career, winning English and Western shows, often beating horses, going on pack trips and round ups, and even cutting cattle without a bridle.

Great! Right?  But she went lame in middle age, prematurely, because of too much, too soon.

I have a library of books written by famous horsemen.  A while ago I went through every book looking for the colt starting ages they recommend.

Why does the Spanish Riding School recommend starting their Lipizzaners at age 5 and not subjecting them to really hard work until age 7? Here’s why: The horses evolved on the Plains of North America.  They survived successfully despite the constant presence of carnivorous predators, mostly of the cat and dog family.  This included huge species like the cave lion and the primitive wolf.

They survived because of an effective defense.  They were fast, agile, bonded in herds, and had very, very perceptive senses to detect possible predators and respond with high-speed flight.  They could outrun most big cats and canines.

Also they are a precocial species, able to run, follow mom, and escape and learn, soon after birth.

So, obviously, exercise is beneficial for the young horse.  Indeed, it is essential for normal development. 

However, “exercise” does not mean excessive sprinting, longeing, or twisting and turning or sliding stops.  It means walking, trotting here and there, and running and playing once in a while.

Excessive exercise, which unnaturally stresses the young body is damaging: a common problem seen in human athletes, talented but not yet mature enough for competition they can survive when older.

So, if you love horses, if you care about them, if you want them to still be sound and working at 20 or 25 years of age, wait. You can do so much valuable training on the ground.  Don’t rush them.

I am presently, as I write this, 90 years of age, and I treasure Scooter, whom I started at 4 years of age.  She is now going on 30! (Together we are almost 120 years old.)  I am so glad I waited.  So glad I periodically worked her on the ground, producing such a calm, reliable, trustworthy, patient, capable old mount. I love riding her and hope we have more time together.

Incidentally, I was a gymnast at 16, a pole vaulter at 17, a rodeo contestant at 20 and have endless orthopedic problems.  That’s one reason I still ride.  It hurts to walk.