Let’s Discuss: When to start a horse?

You may have picked up from recent posts that I am looking at babies (or tweens, however you want to classify 3 yo ponies) that have not been started in addition to horses already under saddle. With these horses I have to consider when and how they will be brought under saddle.

For myself, I have done the following as far as starting a baby horse:

  • Teaching leading, cross-tying, desensitization, bathing, clipping, fly-spraying, etc
  • Introduce bridle and saddle
  • Sit on horse for first time
  • Ride horse with <10 rides under saddle

… And onward from there. It’s my own personal opinion that the time to start horses depends largely on their bodies. Some breeds mature faster than others and can then be started earlier. Haflingers, for instance, are typically started at the age of 2, though I wouldn’t recommend any really heavy work until later. The Irish Draught gelding pictured yesterday I would start immediately, but hold off jumping for another year.

Introducing tack to a baby

Introducing tack to a baby

A lot of warmbloods mature a bit later, and need more time to grow before getting started under saddle. With these guys, I would prefer the approach of throwing on tack, learning to hack, walk trot and maybe cantering under saddle, and then being chucked out in a field for a season to grow up and just horse. Then, assuming they have matured and everything appears a little more “in place” with their bodies, they could be started in a light program with gradually increasing workload.

Riding Mac as a 3 year old

Riding Mac as a 3 year old

With both of these scenarios, I think it’s important to wait to jump until the 4 year old year. Sure, start them over poles, cavaletti, and maybe some teeny tiny fences, but I think its better to treat those joints as being precious rather than attack a full jumping program. Personally, that’s why the Young Event Horse program makes me a little edgy- if these horses are competing at basically the novice level for these competitions, they are presumably schooling higher at home on a regular basis. Jumping a 4 year old that high makes me cringe a little inside thinking of those fragile joints. I know there are those that will disagree with me, but hey, my blog, my opinion.

Young Event Horse Jumping Heights

Young Event Horse Jumping Heights

What are your thoughts on starting horses? When is the ideal time to get a baby under saddle? Do you have a certain approach you prefer, or an approach that you abhor?

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15 thoughts on “Let’s Discuss: When to start a horse?

  1. I think it really depends. I sure like the 3 and 4 y/o Quarter Horses that are pretty damn broke, but their joints don’t always like being started that much at 2.

  2. I think there has to be a balance. I really don’t care for jumping young horses early in general, but I even more hate the “didn’t start this giant wb until he was 6” crowd because I think horses need to start learning their jobs before they’re giant and opinionated.

    Also I have a penchant for older horses with a lot of miles and rather dislike babies of all species, so the odds of this becoming an actual issue in my life are low.

    • I agree- I don’t care for starting a horse that late. There’s no reason (IMO) that even growing bodies can’t handle a saddle and walking and trotting about once they hit a certain stage.

  3. I have no experience with young horses, or breaking horses, but I tend to lean with you, in that starting horses young is okay and that it’s really all about the amount of hard work you do when. I’d rather see a horse do less as a 2, 3 and 4 year old, depending on breed and personal formation.

  4. So much of my opinion is an “it depends” as well. I do believe firmly in getting some regular rides on them at 3… how much they do depends. Age 4 is kind of the same… how fast they come along just depends. I feel a bit more comfortable with the YEH 5yo program, but if my 4 year old is reasonably easy and doesn’t require a lot of drilling, I’m not opposed to participating in the 4yo division. Some of them develop so easily it takes very little to get them ready, others, not so much.

    • I agree that the YEH 5 yo program seems more reasonable. Regarding the 4 yo program though, even with an easy youngster I’d be wary- particularly in that first half of the year where the just-turned-4yo is still jumping a fair amount. It’s often said that with the really easy horses it’s sometimes harder to practice discipline and not take advantage of their good brains at the expense of their bodies. I do take your point though, I just imagine that the easy/smart/athletic baby is more of the exception than the rule at that stage.

      • I don’t think I’d take anything out in the spring of it’s 4yo year. Unless it was literally a “well it’s never jumped a line before, but lets see how this goes” kind of adventure. Which I have done more than once… (what, they’re supposed to have actually done more than cantered a few fences before they go jump around 2’6″? Neeeeh.)

  5. With a warmblood baby that turned 2 this year, this is actually quite relevant for me right now. Right now she has pretty good ground manners and does do some very light lunging from time to time, just to practice important skills. Since she’s showing on the line, she won’t be backed at all until at least the show season is over, but she has started hanging out in a pony saddle and doing a little lunging in it just for practice. She’ll probably get backed at the end of the year, and next year will learn basic w/t/c so that she can do some hill work/trail riding on and off the property, and she’ll hopefully do the young horse flat classes held at some of the bigger shows on the east coast. But throughout the whole process, the idea is to teach good skills without breaking the horse. In all reality, she’ll rarely work harder under saddle than she does playing on her own in the field. But of course, it varies based on each breed, and each horse. Some horses need a lot of pounding to learn how to work under saddle, while others are so compliant that it doesn’t take but a few 15 minute rides a week to teach them what they need to know.

    • Totally agree- the baby pictured in the post is a 2 yo, and I felt like it was the perfect time to teach some of those “life skills” without putting too much pressure on her body. And for me, good ground manners are a must, as soon as they can lead on their own they need to be respectful, because a baby with no manners can be just as dangerous as a pushy adult horse. Best of luck with your baby! So exciting!

  6. I think it depends on both physical and mental maturity. Every horse is different and if they seem mature enough to start doing light work then I don’t see a problem with it but I would hold off jumping them or doing anything advanced until they are a little more older and experienced. I also think that the horses personality and how much they try for you comes into it. I have a 17.2 warmblood and he was started at 4 despite being physically immature but I think it did him good to learn the basics because its easier to teach big horses manners and respect before they hit their ‘teenage years’ and potentially start trying to challenge you. I also have an Arab mare who was only properly broken this year at 5 due to her being incredibly physically immature but much more mentally mature than my warmblood. I just sat on her before this for short periods of time so she could get used to weight on her back and otherwise she just did in hand showing and ground work. She has picked everything up almost instantly and I am glad that I waited to get her broken until 5 because we have had no problems whatsoever so far (fingers crossed).

    • I agree that when they are going to be big monsters of horses (that’s my definitely of anything 17h+) I like the idea of starting them lightly before they get too big and bad, at the very least accept a person on their back and have excellent ground manners. Nobody wants to die teaching a giant baby how to horse 🙂

  7. I would say this really depends. I brought Annie home her 3yo year. She hadn’t done much besides some limited race training and she didn’t do a lot in 2015 with me. She lunged maybe 1-2x a month and had a few short rides a month. probably averaging at 1-2 a week on a good week. She hauled anywhere I could get her though and even went on a “XC” schooling adventure where she was able to meander through some water and over some speed bumps.

    Coming into her 4yo year I really wasn’t sure what the plan was. When a show wth another horse didn’t go well Annie got to go hang out in the stall I paid for for experience. Our first show together was a few weeks later and was very much what Amanda described – it was her first experience with coursing and we didn’t push anything. She got to happy go lucky pop around and while no ribbons were to be had it was a perfect experience. Since then Annie has gone to 2 other schooling shows with 2 OF classes at 2′. We have been very careful to make sure that we don’t push her too hard or too fast but 2′ is barely a jump for most. Given the experience that I have been able to have with her I am confident that going to her first starter event next weekend is the right decision. It won’t be perfect but it’ll be another experience in the books!

    So long story short – it depends on the horse but done carefully I don’t see why a young horse can’t get lots safe of experience in their 4yo year.

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