Most quarter horse owners, trainers and riders feel comfortable putting a horse under saddle around age 2 or 3. Quarter horses tend to mature faster than other breeds, ensuring their bones and joints "close," or stop growing, earlier than other equines'. Nevertheless, each horse is individual and should start to train only when that individual horse is ready. Training and intense riding at an early age usually shortens the number of years of usability.
The primary problem with training and riding a horse too early is the risk of joint damage, arthritis and deterioration of hock joints, stifles, knees and ankles. "It would be like asking a 6-year-old child to run marathons or engage in professional sports," explains Dr. Timmie Pollock, a sport psychologist specializing in equestrian athletes. "They would most certainly end up with physical stress injuries, which would show up early and be very hard to reverse." Such injuries include stress fractures, bone spurs and "splints." These splints, like a runner's shin splints, occur when the stressed bone becomes inflamed and painful. It can interfere with surrounding tissue, ligaments and tendons.
Not all owners take mental maturity into consideration. Just like a human child may not be able to read well at age 3 or 4, a horse who is too young may not have the emotional and mental maturity to understand what a trainer is trying to teach. And, according to Pollock, a horse trained at an older age tends to learn quicker and catch up to horses who began training at a younger age.
The way humans and equines gain confidence greatly differ. This fact is important for a horse in training. Pollock believes pushing a horse to do things before he is emotionally and mentally old enough to process training can affect his self-confidence and his confidence in his riders. "It's just too much mental stress," says Pollock. "If they have bad or scary experiences, they just might never fully recover." For this reason, Pollock recommends starting each horse when that individual horse's body and mind are mature enough to handle training.
If you're not sure of the physical maturity of your horse and you're looking for confirmation that your horse is ready to train, call your veterinarian. And don't be afraid to call on the help of more experienced peers if you're unsure of a horse's emotional and mental maturity. Most quarter horses generally have temperaments that apparently allow them to handle training and stress better than other breeds; however constantly keep in mind that each horse, just like each human, is individual. There is not a specific age that's right for every equine.
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