Training young horses is a major part of my life, so I've often pondered the question of ?what's the perfect age to start a young horse under saddle'? I believe that the answer is that there isn?t a ?perfect? age for starting horses. I believe that, like so much in horse training, it depends on the horse.
In my experience, horses who are 3 or 4 years old are at the prime age to start riding?they're old enough to mentally and physically handle the work, but they're usually not yet strong enough to resist horribly, and they haven't become too set in their ways to learn. But it can be done when they're younger or older, if you do it progressively.
By the way, I like to call this training act ?starting under saddle,? rather than ?breaking,? because what we're really trying to do is teach the young horse to work with us. We're not (or should not be) trying to break his spirit or simply dominate him. I've often written here that horses have to respect us, and this is the critical point of learning that respect. And it should be respect, not fear.
To illustrate my belief about the age at which to start horses under saddle, let me tell you about half a dozen horses We've trained.
We bred Amani, a Thoroughbred/Irish-cross, and I started working her when she was 2. She began in what we call our pre-school program?working three days a week, usually being ponied from an older horse on two days and being longed on one day. I knew that Amani was to be my event horse of the future, so my primary goal at age 2 was to establish a base level of fitness in her, especially the soft tissues of her legs. She worked from June to early October, and then she had the winter off to grow and to mature.
I put her back to work as a 3-year-old in early March, again working three days a week, but this time longeing twice a week after giving her a two- or three-week legging-up period. She held a rider on her back for the first time in mid-May. I introduced her to jumping on the longe line in late summer, and I started jumping her under saddle in early November. She went to her first competition (dressage and show jumping) and did her first cross-country school in mid-January, at the unrecognized Twin Rivers combined test in central California. Amani competed in 11 horse trials as a 4- and 5-year-old, climaxing her 5-year-old year by placing in the training-level three-day event at the Galway Downs International Horse Trials last November, and next weekend she'll make her first start at preliminary level.
Seeker and Ianto are true half-brothers whom we also bred (out of the same draft mare but by different stallions), and their program differed from Amani?s in that they didn't work as 2-year-olds. This was partly by choice and partly because of time conflicts. they're each big, heavy horses, and as 2-year-olds they were both gangly and clearly had a lot of growing left to do. In both years we had other distractions, so we decided to leave them alone, turned out in our 30-acre mountainous pasture, and let them grow into themselves.
And then we started them in March or early April of their 3-year-old years. We started riding Seeker in June and Ianto in August, and they each made their competitive debuts at the Twin Rivers combined test in January.
Seeker, now 9, then won his first beginner novice event a month later and was immediately purchased by a teenager, who rode him through training level and then sold him to be a dressage horse. Ianto, now 5, completed two beginner novice events in the spring and was then purchased to be the huntsman?s horse for the Los Altos Hounds last July.
Right now we have a warmblood filly named Tiny, whom we purchased as a weanling, in training. Tiny followed almost the identical schedule as Seeker and Ianto. Except that we didn't work her as a 2-year-old because she was so small and still young: She wasn?t born until mid-August, and her dam is a petite mare, so Tiny was clearly physically behind her classmates. So we waited until March of her 3-year-old year to start her in work, and then our working student bought her in May.
Tiny has progressed fabulously since then. SHe's an incredibly willing worker and fast learner, and in January she was a star with me on her back at the same Twin Rivers combined test. Her teenage owner has been riding her for a few weeks now, and sHe's looking forward to competing with Tiny soon.
We've found it best to start working babies as 2-, 3- and 4-year-olds, but sometimes the pressures of life make that impossible. We didn't start a Quarter Horse mare named Freckles, whom our barn manager, Roxanne, bred and owns, in November of her 5-year-old year. But Freckles was the easiest horses I've ever started. I'm sure that was partly due to her workmanlike reining blood, but I think her maturity helped too. She was mentally ready to go to work. The big challenge with Freckles was that she had no conditioning base, so we had to balance her willingness to do any task with her relative weakness. It wasn?t until last fall, after two years of work, that she really started to get strong. And last weekend Roxanne rode her to fourth place in their first novice-level horse trial.
We now have in training a 6-year-old who has never been ridden, and the jury is still out on whether he'll have the maturity to make it easier or whether a life of vacation has created a horse who's not interested in work. He went through our three-month pre-school program as a 3-year-old, and then some things happened in his owner?s life that prevented him from doing more. He returned in early January, and, thankfully, He's clearly demonstrated that he well remembers his lessons in ponying and longeing.
But he was nearly obese, so He's spent about 70 percent of his working time being ponied to lose weight and to develop some basic fitness. He could be either mentally tough or mentally easy to start under saddle, and I suspect that, like Freckles, it will take a year or two to develop his strength.
I hope these examples have demonstrated why I don't think there really is a ?right? answer to the question of when to start horses under saddle.