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A Horse,
of Course

with Don Blazer

A Horse of Course

I've always been an advocate of saddle training horses at a young age. It has always gotten me into trouble---not with horses, with people.

What I'm about to say will probably generate a lot more criticism.

I like to saddle break (I use the word "break" just to needle those who are already furious with me) using horses when they are one-year-old.

I like to saddle break race horses from age 15-months to 18-months.

Now I've heard all the arguments against early saddle training. "Horses shouldn't be racing as two year olds. You can't start a jumper before he's four. Never saddle break a horse until he's at least three years old. All you do, starting them young, is break them down."

Horse feathers! It just ain't true!

And if you don't like what I just said, find some scientific evidence to support the false notion early saddle training breaks horses down.

What breaks young horses down is man's ego. Pushing too hard, asking for too much, demanding they work beyond their conditioning, that's what breaks young horses down.

I've trained show horses and I've trained race horses, and I understand competition. I understand there are going to be injuries. It goes with any kind of sport. It's part of the deal.

But it's not the early training which is at fault. In fact, early training may be keeping horses from breaking down.

You've heard this before--no hoof, no horse. Studies on the relationship of foot imbalance to lameness conclude that up to 95 per cent of all horses have some form of foot imbalance which predisposes them to injury. Most are musculoskeletal disorders.

Don't blame those injuries on training at a young age.

According to Gail Williams BA (Hons) PhD and Martin Deacon FWCF, authors of No Foot, No Horse, about 70 per cent of all sport horses will sustain at least one musculoskeletal disorder in any one season. Of those injuries, 75 per cent are caused or contributed to by hoof imbalances.

That doesn't leave very many injuries to be blamed on early training.

According to Craig Bailey and colleagues from the University of Sydney, as reported in The Horse magazine, January 2001, horses having their first race during their 2-year-old season had longer racing careers than horses first racing at three years or older. Why? It can't yet be determined, say the researchers.

The researchers should ask some old horsemen, who have known for years that planned, controlled stresses are required to make young horses strong and ready for competition. Horses which work early, are stronger later in life. It takes stress to the muscle system to develop strong muscles. It takes stress to the skeletal system to encourage bone to remodel and become more dense where density is needed. It takes stress to the mental system to generate calmness in horses.

Great trainers, or conditioners if you will, have always advocated starting horses at a young age. Start them slowly, increase exercise slowly, increase stress slowly.

I've been advised, and I pass it along to you, never allow a young horse's training to get him hot, physically or mentally. The advice keeps the trainer from breaking the horse down.

I've started 12-month-old horses under saddle with no ill effects by taking a week to introduce them to their equipment, a week to get on them, and a week to walk them around. They don't panic, they don't buck, they don't get hurt. Then they get a few months off with no riding. At 15-months of age they get saddled and ridden off without trauma or fretting. (Each horse is an individual, and the physicalattributes of each must be taken into consideration. There is no hard and fast rule which applies to all horses at all times.) Of course, how soon the horse starts trotting or cantering is a matter to be decided as his training progresses.

Push the young horse too hard, and he'll get hurt.

Don't push the young horse--or the older horse for that matter--and they don't develop, becoming stronger and less subject to injury.

Not saddle training a horse doesn't help him in the least. In fact, some older horses may have less muscle strength in relationship to body mass than a young horse. This often does hurt them when training finally starts.

According to Bailey, "on-going studies of the effects of training on the body at a very young age indicate that we should be training horses before the skeleton is fully mature."

Saddle train them early, and keep their feet balanced, if you love your horse.

Yell at me later.

Don Blazer
Visit Don Blazer's Web Site

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"A Horse, Of Course"
Monthly Column
by Don Blazer

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