Starting a Young Horse
Updated: Aug 29, 2019
I see the question “How old should my horse be before I drive him?” all the time. All over Facebook, in my message box and in my email. Some of this answer will be MY opinion and some will be based entirely on scientific facts.
First of all, when I was a little girl my mom raised Shetland ponies. When I’m saying Shetland ponies I don’t mean the adorable little ones from the Shetland island, but oh how we wished that were the case! They also were not the extremely refined Shetland ponies that we mostly see today. These Shetlands were 45-48″ tall and very robust. They had big bone and where very stout. They were pretty, don’t get me wrong, but they were not tiny or refined. My mom started them in cart around 1 year of age and then we rode them when they turned 2 and 3 years old. Now this was about 35 years ago, when riding the 2 year old was a more common practice. Most of our cowboy friends started all their horses at 2. It was very rare to see an unstarted 5 year old then.
This was one of my first Shetland ponies, Sister. She is a young pony in this photo. I think this was the day we picked her out! That’s my mom and our dog Lodi.
I asked an old cowboy friend why they started their horses so young. He told me that starting a young 2 year old is so much easier than starting the older horse because they are still babies and it’s easier to force them to do something. They are not mature in body or mind so they won’t buck as long once you put a foot in the stirrup. They just don’t have the stamina of a fully mature, well muscled, well developed 5 year does. Also they are easier to bully mentally. (I am not kidding here. This is the exact answer he gave me.)
I talked with another old cowboy about this and he agreed. Yes the young horse is much easier to convince that riding is a good idea. However his thinking was to toss a saddle on a two year old, get him leading and following a feel on the ground, get on and off a few times. Walk, trot and canter a few times, and then turn him back out to grow up for 2 more years. He swore that this made for a much better saddle horse. One that could think for himself and would be usable for many many years.
My first big horse was a 2 year old and I was 10 when I got her. She had 30 days under her belt and I rode the snot out of that horse. We rode the several miles to town so I could get an ice cream cone from Diary Queen. We did rodeo, we did lots of showing in 4-H, I rode her in the mountains and on the road. I had to have her put down when she was 9 because she had such horrible navicular disease. She could no longer even lean forward to graze at the end, her pain was so great. Was this because she was ridden so much so young? I barely weighed 100 pounds for most of that time, but I was also not walking anywhere. We trotted or cantered all over. I really do believe had she had more time to grow up physically she would have lived a much longer pain free life.
I don’t know how long those Shetland ponies lived and stayed sound that my mom started. I have a feeling that for the most part they lived long healthy lives. But I don’t know that for sure.
When we got into the miniature horses we thought we would train them the same way mom trained the Shetlands when I was little, except we wouldn’t ride them obviously! LOL!
So our first three minis were started driving very very young. The first two started pulling the cart when they were about 1 1/2 years old. Just short little jaunts around our property, then we moved them to the road and started putting on the miles at 2. We quickly found out this did not work with them. They got over loaded mentally and physically. They were running their feet off on the gravel roads, they were losing their top lines, they did not want us to catch them. Hmmmm. We took a step back and decided we wouldn’t start our minis until they were 3 or 4. After that things went much better.
I have learned so much in the years since we started with the miniature horses. Miniature horses are typically very light boned. They are refined and little!! To expect them to pull the cart at 2 was just not fair to their little bodies. (This part is still my opinion! We are not at the facts yet…) Also, why? Why do I need to drive them so young? What is my goal here? I was showing my horses, but I could show them in halter and trail for a few years without losing anything. So because I needed to show them wasn’t an answer. I was thinking about my Quarter Horse mare and how young I lost her. So I decided I wanted to wait until my minis were older for longevity reasons. I wanted my minis to be around for a long time, living pain free.
Now we can talk about Sky. She was started at 2. She was one of our first minis. We lightly started her and then put more miles on her at 3. She was driven on the road a lot. We did lots of parades. She was a show horse. Back then we didn’t have hoof boots for our road driving so her joints took all that shock. She does have arthritis now. If I am driving her a lot she can get quite stiff the next day if I don’t give her supplements to help with this. She gets a turmeric based supplement, both Sky and Mikey get this. Mikey was a little older 2 year old when I started him because his owner wanted him started. BUT I don’t think he was driven much if at all when he went home. He gets the turmeric for other reasons, not for arthritis. Though his body has plenty of issues!
So here’s how I look at it. Why do you need to start your young horse in cart? What is the motivation behind putting him to cart before or at 2 years old? If you have a very good reason then you must do as you see fit. For me I did not need to start my young horse, Zorro, in cart as a 2 year old.
He was such a wonderful young horse. So easy going and very pleasing. He went hiking with me. He learned to trailer and be quiet in the trailer. He was a great companion for my other horses when we went to the vet or had to haul somewhere. Zorro can stand tied at the trailer all day and not bat an eyelash. That is just the way he is, easy going. His training has been so easy and spread out over so many years (he will be 4 in May) his preparation training for the cart is proving to be so smooth. The transition from being a baby, snuggly teddy bear, to a driving horse is proving to be quite easy.
My motivation for waiting was that I want Zorro to be my last horse, the one I grow old with. If he lives as long as I hope he does he will be in his 30’s when I am in my 70’s. I feel that we will be as well matched then we are now! And it’s my hope that he will be pain free and strong and still pulling a cart at that age. So there is no hurry, as my ultimate goal is longevity.
When people are talking about lightly driving a 2 year old horse they usually talking about big horses. Miniature horses are doing a bit more work pulling a person than a big horse would be. Especially if the cart is heavy and not well balanced. Why not just have them pull a travois or be your hiking partner for those young years?
Now for some scientific facts. One of the people that I follow around on the internet and listen to all her teachings is Dr. Deb Bennet. She is a wonderful teacher and I find her writings and her teaching so easy to follow, understand and implement. If you haven’t heard of her I highly suggest looking her up!
This page Knowledge Base Intro has a few links to some of her articles. The links will show up on the left hand and right hand side of the page.
One of her most popular and widely read articles is The Ranger Piece. This is a long article but if you are wondering about how the horse matures it is a valuable piece. It’s important to note that ALL horses mature at the same rate. Shetland ponies, Thoroughbreds, Arabians, Draft horses… they all grow and mature at the same rate skeletally. Of course how a horse fills out muscle wise is different for each individual. For example a halter horse will be fed a differently than a racing Thoroughbred which will mean that they fill out much differently.
Here is another article about the development of horses: A Safe Start: The reality of training early…. I find this part to be very interesting!
I have found in my searching this morning, that it is far more main stream for people to understand that horses all mature at the same rate and that we should just wait an extra year or two. Even just 5 years ago this was not a popular opinion and I took a lot of flak for waiting to ride my young horse until he was 5. Here are some more articles!
Timing and Rate of Skeletal Maturation in Horses
Myths & Facts About Your Horse’s Bone Development
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