Sunday was Noble’s birthday. I would have made a cake, but quite frankly, the boy is the pickiest eater in the barn! Anything not within his normal diet range is met with complete suspicion, and rarely even given so much as a taste. That is, of course, unless it is one of our trees or shrubs – he gave the weeping elm quite a pruning the other day! One year I did try the hat thing – but he was having none of it! So, this year his birthday was marked with no particular fanfare.
It seems hard to believe that it’s only been two and a half years since we brought Noble home. That fuzzy colt that stood glaring at me, charging if I tried to get near him, bears little resemblance to the large horse who comes galloping from the back when I call, and offers his itchy parts for me to scratch while his upper lip twitches with pleasure. Three is an interesting age in horses, when most start to seem like adults, yet are still years from maturity.
My farrier was here on Friday, and he asked his usual question about Noble: “So, when are you going to start him?” He is a former rider and trainer of Western horses, for reining and cutting. In that world, Noble would have been under saddle now for at least a year – more likely a year and a half. In fact, as a talented Quarter Horse, he would already have had a year of showing under his girth. It’s the norm in that world. A coworker has had her three year old already in training for reining and cutting for about six months now, and that is considered a late start. This early start is taken for granted in the Western show world, just as they take for granted that their horses will be washed up before they are eight years old.
If Noble was a speedy Thoroughbred, he would already have a year of training and a number of races run by now. If he were in the elite, he probably would have already run the most important races of his career, in the Triple Crown. Yet I recently saw a statistic that only 5% of Thoroughbreds ever have an actual career at the track. Most either breakdown emotionally or physically. Perhaps the luckiest are those who never show enough speed to warrant the effort to train them, and end up in another career all together. Sadly, too many end up in a can or on a dinner plate.
There are other breeds where humans do not have the patience to let nature finish her job before giving the horse his. Recent videos have shown Big Lick trainers of Tennessee Walking horses already riding long yearlings, sometimes not even a year and a half old. At that tender age they are already weighted with huge shoes, and have their heads forced up by harsh bits. Hard to handle such images – yet, in areas of the world where horses are used as draught animals, images surface of such young horses harnessed and hauling huge loads.
“The difference between the breeds does not allow a cut and dried definition as to when a horse can be called “young”. As a rule, an age of three or four years can be viewed as the lower limit for the beginning of the training. Anything below this has to be considered “child labor”, and will result most definitely in a premature unsoundness, with very few exceptions, not to mention the psychological pressure.
But even the three to four year old horse (three years can certainly not be considered the ideal age for beginning the training, unless the trainer knows how to use and how to structure the training at this age) cannot be called fully “grown up”, even if it already shows the body contours. Especially the joints do not possess the necessary strength or the support from muscles and ligaments, which, in case of an overuse, sows the seeds for diseases whose effects will surprise the rider at a much later time.”
(Kurt Albrecht, 1996)
When my farrier asks when I’ll start Noble, his next comment is always “He’s big enough!” At just over 16.2 hands, he is certainly “big enough” – if that is a criteria for starting a young horse. The reality is that a horse’s skeleton is still growing until the age of about six. The growth plates in Noble’s legs are probably closed, but he’s still growing a shoulder and hip (his actually look rather like a cow’s at the moment). The last bones to close the growth plates are the vertebrae – the very things that we decide to sit upon! The order in which the bones ‘finish’ is excellently outlined in this article by Dr. Deb Bennett.
“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.
“Timing and Rate of Skeletal Maturation in Horses”, Dr. Deb Bennett, PhD, 2008
So, my fine young Noble, as you turn three you have a few years to learn and grow before you have the join working crowd. Enjoy it while you can, Birthday Boy!