Wednesday, July 13, 2016

What Do Wednesday: Pushing It

I may or may not have posted similar to this in the past, but as "they" say, the past only repeats itself and in light of recent events, and witnessing some questionable horsemanship, I bring you our next episode of What Do Wednesday...

Denny Emerson so beautifully stated recently what I have been thinking and have always thought, but he states it little more eloquently than I would;

We, the collective "we," are encouraged in 101 ways to push horses.
We have young horse classes. We have futurities. We have makeover programs. We have all that glitz and glamour of showing and competing, and not much being said about the satisfaction of the slow, daily process of bringing horses along, slow step by slow step.
The impression being made, I think, is that the finished product is of greater worth than the process of becoming.
Real trainers don't think the same way that driven competitors think. For a competitor the goal is the win. For a trainer the goal is the progress of the horse, irrelevant of the win

God, Denny, you are my spirit animal. I highly recommend following him on Facebook, always resounds so close to my heart and speaks when most others refuse to. Love him.

What he is saying though is something I see every. damn. day. On Facebook. On Instagram. On Blogs. In my personal life. Everywhere.

People are so concerned with WINNING that they push push push their horses to breaking point. Using gimmicks, forcing horses to do things they aren't ready for, working them everyday, etc....all for the sake of winning. Amateurs and pro's alike. We have all seen it at the upper levels, even though everyone makes excuses for them and stuffs it away like its not happening.

B as a gangly, skinny, unschooled lil babe (age 5, 1 month after I got him)
At what point is too much, too soon? At what point is too much? Too far?

That is the age old question isn't it?

It really depends on who you ask, I've discovered, and in regards to the beginning of training the general "acceptable" age to start a youngster is increasingly and terrifyingly getting younger and younger. No doubt the ability to adopt very young OTTBs and give them second careers is the cause of  what *I* see in my circle, but as all of us know, sometimes our circles can be small and I tend to generalize a little bit too much. I am more curious to hear others experiences and opinions before I damn everyone, but my opinions are my opinions and they will remain, regardless.

Its difficult to change my opinion when its backed by facts, science and the overwhelming evidence that is real life stories of horses breaking down du to overwork. I can't just claim that my thoughts are mine alone, when they are supported by actual occurrences. Maybe its none of my business though and I should just concern myself with my own horses and leave the other monkeys in their own circus...


Yanks at his first ever USEA show BN, almost age 6
Back when I started riding almost 20 years ago, the "norm" to start training was 4 years old... to START. Not already in work, but to pluck them from the fields and BEGIN. Four. Not 2. Not a yearling. Four.

It is a well known fact that most horses do not even finish growing until age 5, some even later. Vets, feel free to correct me if I am wrong and cite your evidence, for we can all use education, but as far as I know, horses are not quite ready to take the weight of a grown ass man at age 2. No way, no how.

So who's to say its acceptable to show these youngsters, when most of us are aware of the dangers of starting them so early? Joint degeneration, muscle wear and tear, mental instability are all caused by starting too young and pushing too hard and fast.

Yanks winning the 2014 First Level Midwest USDF Champs (just noticed, same half pad LOL)

Even my beloved eventers are competing the babies at higher levels than I have ever seen before. A 7 year old running Prelim+? A 4 year old running Novice? WHY? What is the actual point?

I don't mean simply starting them under saddle or readjusting them to new life if they're OTTBs, I mean full on hauling them to shows, competing and running around Novice + and not keeping the babies at the lower levels for the appropriate amount of time.

At some point, they are going to break down. Its inevitable. Mentally or physically, they will break. At what cost? Some ribbons? A championship? Humans own selfish ideas, goals and plans?

One can throw the money card at me and state that horse are expensive to raise and thats why they start them so early, but to me that is unacceptable. To me, thats saying one's own resources are more important than that horse and its well being. One's goals take precedence and have ZERO regard for the animal one owns and care for.

The dressage test that sat us 2nd in a field of 18 at Training
I'm not saying leave them in a field until they are pushing 5, but to take it slow and steady. What is the rush? Where is the beauty in GOOD training? Who cares if you're jumping 2 feet [still] when your horse is 7 (HI, whats up, name's Monica) years old?

For me, I prefer to have a horse who will be happy, healthy and sound for years and years to come, instead of shiny ribbons on  my wall. I prefer to take it slow with the babies, because thats how they learn and thrive.

Sure, B is a mess. He's the outlier. Not all horses are like him and take the needed amount of time to decompress from racing, or get started backing in general. And sure, there are babies that are insanely smart and capable, like Yankee was.

BUT, just because you CAN doesn't mean you SHOULD.

Sure, B can jump 3'6, but I schooled that height one time when he was feeling good. Once. Sure, Yankee can rock Intermediate XC, but have I schooled that this year? Last year? No, there's no point.

With my boys I have taken it insanely slow in their training. Yanks for example, I got when he wasn't even four. I waited until the fall before his 6th birthday to compete him at a recognized event and even then that was BN when BN was tiiiiiiny (lol). Then we chilled at BN forever and then Novice forever before moving up to Training. It wasn't until he was almost 12 that I started schooling him regularly over Prelim heights, and even then, I was never ready to compete that high, so we just didn't do it that often. What if I had pushed him? Would he be sound? Happy?

With B, he's been an even slower process. Flatwork especially took ages. I think it took us year to canter properly and then finally start some crossrails. He was god awful at jumping at first, so we backed off on experimental height and then stopped altogether. I'm glad I did. Once we picked it back up, I kept it low for the most part. He started to learn how to use his body better and began enjoying it. Had I pushed him to keep going, I for sure would have ruined him. Now, I think he's insanely BORED at 2'3 and that makes me happy. Bored is better than scared, or injured or crazy pants. Maybe, just maybe this fall we will start at 3ft again. Maybe.

Point being, I take my time. Thats just how I do it. I enjoy the time spent with the beasts and they learn to trust me and enjoy their jobs. Especially with the OTTBs who were started waaaayyyyy too early in their life, they need an adjustment period to "find themselves" and their bodies and then the real work can begin.

I'm sorry, but I find it asinine to compete a young, ripe off the track four year old weekend after weekend or push it to the point of breaking.

 I will ask again, what is the actual point? I will say again, just because one can, doesnt mean one should. The temptation is great when the talent is there, but it takes incredible foresight to resist the temptation in order to create long lasting partnerships and healthy horses.

I have sadly seen several youngsters break down because their owners were stupid enough to push push push and it broke my heart everytime. Those horses didn't deserve to be thrown out like trash, or put down because their human was a fucktard. Call me high & mighty, I don't care, I just think it is incredibly dumb to push a youngster and so not worth it in the end.


Now that I'm done and stepped off the box, I want to know what you all think. I know it varies between breeds, discipline, etc, so I want to hear your thoughts. I personally wouldn't even start a QH super young but that is MY opinion. TBs tend to have more sounds issue than a hardier breed, say like an Arab or QH, but that would still be my MO with any of my own personal horses.

SO what do you all think? With your horses do you prefer to take your time? When do you know your horse is "ready"? How do you know when to move "up"? Tell me dear readers, what do??


  1. Denny Emerson is my spirit animal too! I can't agree with you more on your rant. I think it's unfair to their skeletal system and their brain to start horses so young! I personally waited until my mare was close to 5 before getting into serious training - now there are things I could have done better in prepping her for a "late" start but I think I've done the right thing by her. Could we have done more since then? Sure, if I was really into the showing thing (we are aspiring eventers) but only lately have we taken up more concentrated work. Granted she's 12 now and like I said, there are things I could have done better and we could have accomplished a lot more by now, but c'est la vie.
    I know she's ready to move up when she's bored of something - and not just a fluke bored but proven bored (one nice xc school or stadium school does not a move-up make).
    I see NO need to move horses along at any speed we set. They can tell us in a myriad of ways that they are ready - and we need to listen to all the clues. Just because they might have a ready brain doesn't mean their body is ready and vice versa!
    If I ever get a young one again, I know how I'll change my process but I'll still give them plenty of puttering time!

    1. You do you girl! Sounds like you did right by your girl and the puttering was worth it! I say, putter away!!

  2. I feel pretty conflicted about this post honestly. I think you can bring a young horse along without ruining it if you are smart and careful - regardless of if you compete or not. I started jumping Annie over small jumps this spring as she was coming 4. She rarely jumped more than 1x a week and usually only a handful of efforts. It was clear that she was enjoying herself and very happy with the job. As long as you are aware of what your horse can and cannot handle I don't see issues with competing a young (4-5yo) horse.

    I have been very deliberate about Annie's training and have the help of multiple respected professionals (including vets) in determining what is good for her. Jumping small fences and running BN courses (even jumping the speed bump jumpers) isn't going to cause my horse or most horses to break down provided they aren't being worked into the ground.

    Do I think that Annie should compete in the YEH series? No. I think she is capable and probably could but I personally don't think that it is the right move for us. That doesn't mean that I think that it is unrealistic for talented young horses to do so with the right program or rider though.

    1. I think we just have varying opinions on how much competition can affect a young horse and what a high fence height is for a baby. To each their own! Thanks for the comment, I always like hearing varying opinions :)

  3. I dislike horses being started so young too... my current genie was started at 7... and you know what, she is ready and willing and so so so much easier to train than the babies I've had before. She's an Arabian so she'll live forever and I know that riding her now will not hurt her growth or development and we can hopefully enjoy 20 or more years enjoying each other... can't say enough about how awesome my late start mare is!

    1. Could not agree more!! Happy to hear there are more like minded individuals out there than I orginally thought

  4. I'm not a big fan of four year old classes, and anything earlier than that is gross. I think at five they are ready to start learning and doing things and I think you have to let the horse dictate the pace he goes at.

    Chinaman was eligible for a tb makeover but I wasn't prepared to put that pressure on either of us

  5. I don't think my TB ever grew up until he was 9. That said, what he is doing at 14 is what I initially thought (and thought wrong) that every horse should be doing at 7 when I bought him. My yearling I'm just having fun with. He likes people and attention so I mostly just hug on him and scratch him for fifteen minutes a day. He seems to enjoy baby horse learning. I don't plan on doing any real groundwork for at least another year. But I give him attention he enjoys and to me that is training as well.

  6. Wonderful wonderful comments; your guys are so lucky to have an owner/trainer like you! Just today, browsing horses for sale, I saw a 4 year old (!!) gleefully offered for sale, jumping 3' +. In shows. I felt so terrible for the (gorgeous) animal but fear for his future. Wonderful now, but at what cost?

  7. Well, I'm a vet and I completely agree with your comments. At the end you say TBs tend to have more soundness issues than "hardier" breeds... Er yes, BECAUSE THEY ARE STARTED SO YOUNG. Skeletally they're no different to any other breed. I spend so much time trying to convince people that just because a horse LOOKS mature at 2 (QH, some TBs) doesn't mean it is...
    My own horse was started at 4, didn't compete till he was 6 (and he doesn't even jump - we do endurance). He grew an inch in his 6th year... The only way you can grow is if you still have growth plates. Which are made of cartilage, and easily damaged.

  8. Having a yearling that I bred myself, I find that I'm getting asked that question a lot - when are you going to start her? What are the plans?
    Well, the plans are to let her be a baby horse and grow up outside like a wild animal.
    She does all of the things a baby should do - leads, trailers, ties, stands for trimming, clippers, baths, flyspray. She just started being ponied out at the walk on short little trips through the neighborhood to look at mailboxes, trash cans, cars, and errant dogs. And that's what she'll do this year, go be ponied around a bit.
    Next year, I might do a couple in-hand classes with her at some shows, for experience. If I feel like she's mentally ready.
    And probably the year after that too. Probably sit on her as a three year old, a few times.
    And then when she is four, then I'll start her.
    Because what's the hurry? What is the big damn hurry these days.

    Although that said, Gogo was not started until she was nearly 5 - not started at ALL, I mean, nothing - and that did not save her from having soundness problems down the road. But, they were probably because I suck and have bad karma more than anything else.

  9. I too love Denny's FB page - and I agree with his frequent comments that a lot of people don't put in the time necessary to get their horses as fit as they need to be for the work they're expected to do.

    In terms of what age to start a horse - interesting, it's not as clear cut as what some people think ie starting a horse at age 2 is not necessarily a terrible, bad, awful thing to do that will cause your horse to break down faster. Read this article, it does a good job of summarizing:

    Obviously there is a lot more research needed - but it is possible that conditioning and training a young horse in the correct way, before the skeleton fully matures, may increase the likelihood of adaptive changes that actually help prevent future injury.

  10. Love this post! I've been gently pushing Slider (who is 5) and he is saying that he needs it slower and I am agreeing with him. There is so much pressure to do the young horse classes, or prove that you can get a horse from the track to a show in just a few months, it drives me crazy. Yes, some are capable, but most are not. As far as starting young horses goes I think that moderation is the name of the game. Sure a two year old shouldn't be worked hard, but a saddle and a light rider walking them around isn't going to hurt anything and can prepare them for a great attitude in the future. I've been around brains fried from being ignored until they were 6 and brains fried from being pushed at two. It is all about reading the horse and seeing what each one can handle. Just like human children learn in 100 different ways so do horses. We have to be willing to shape our training plan to them instead of them to our training plan.

  11. I think even if you take out the question of how fast is too fast to push a young horse physically, there's almost more of a chance of burning them out mentally. Like you pointed out, just because you CAN doesn't mean you SHOULD.

  12. I'm a believer in slow & steady wins the race, but also listening to your horse!

    I adopted Hues when he was 3.. he had just finished racing that April and I got him in July. I did nothing with him until that following November... just let him throw his shoes and be a baby in our field. In the fall of his three year old year, I introduced lunging.. no side reins, no pressure.. just learning my voice commands for each gait and very very loose side reins by the end of the month. Let him have the winter off, come February (his 4 year old year) picked him out of the field and began very basic dressage lessons.. learning forward and straight, not even giving a shit about the contact. Come April, he jumped his first "jumps" and more like, just trotting over poles and very very small cross rails. We stuck to strictly trotting the first 6 months he was jumping because he was too big to canter. I tried taking him to first BN that summer but realized it was too much, too soon and backed off the rest of the summer. He got a full 6 weeks off in the summer doing nothing to let his brain recoup from the spring basics he had learned, and successfully completed his first BN finishing on his dressage score the fall of his 4 year old year. Another winter off (two months) and then in the Spring of his 5 year old year we did one BN and one N, realized he needed more XC schooling and took the whole summer to do just dressage... didn't jump from June-September of his 5 year old year. Started jumping again in October and finished on his dressage score at novice that fall. Again, November and half of December off to recover from the fall.

    Huey has been a very slow grower and has continued to grow height wise into the spring of his 6 year old year (this year.) He's obviously still putting on muscle and probably won't be filled out completely for another year or two, but I have been listening to him along the way and observing him mentally & physically, plus always doing my due diligence as his care taker to constantly have his body and saddles checked over, which I think will also help in the long term to keeping him sound his whole life. I think the long periods of time off every few months have helped him mentally -- I know not to push him and when he's feeling pushed, and I'm not afraid to take a step back if need be.

    That being said, Huey has done a lot more events this year & is running training level as a 6 year old. Old Mallory would've said that was way way too young for a horse to be running training, and I'm totally okay with running training level for several years if need be, but Huey has found much more enjoyment in going training than he did novice, and this is where he will stay for a while. He was to the point where he was bored to death at novice, it was noticeably obvious. For a horse his size (17+ h), he is still stepping over this height, but it's just high enough where it keeps him mentally engaged. I am very strategic about my plan with him and try to do my best to do right by my horse at all times... poultice, icing and linimenting often... and keep my vets on speed dial.

    I think it depends on a lot of different factors but to me personally the jist is basics to going under saddle-4 yr old, asking for a little more work/jumping- 5 yr old, showing & starting to ask more- 6 yr old.. I do not agree with the YEH series though, where they expect 4 and 5 year olds to be going training level.. that does not seem right to me at all.

  13. Yes! I so agree with you!!

    I always whip out this article when this subject comes up.

    I think every horse owner should read it. Here is a quote from the article.

    "Now I want to discuss the concept of skeletal maturity and deal with that concept thoroughly. Ranger is not mature, as I said, as a 2 1/2 year old. This is not because Ranger is a "slow-maturing" individual or because he comes from a "slow maturing" breed. There is no such thing. Let me repeat: no horse on earth, of any breed, at any time, is or has ever been mature before the age of six (plus or minus six months). So, for example, the Quarter Horse is not an "early maturing" breed - and neither is the Arabian a "slow maturing" breed. As far as their skeletons go, they are the same."

    There is no such thing as a horse or breed who matures early!!!!! I wish I could drill that into people's heads because all that is, is an excuse. An excuse to abuse an animal for financial gain. So now you know where I stand on this (your side hehe). This is a touchy subject with me and I get all riled up when I talk about it.

    Now... with that said, I honestly probably took things too slow with my horse lol. He's seven years old and has been ridden less only 149 times.... in four years! I started him at three (probably should have waited a year), but I only put thirty rides on him in his three year old year. Thirty! In a year!

    He is mature now at seven and I really should start riding him more simply to improve his fitness, but he has strained his flexor tendon, so he has time off right now. The sad thing about the tendon strain is that it's probably my fault because he's never been "fit"! I let him carry too much weight and don't exercise him enough. So it can go both ways. :\ You can harm them from going to the opposite extreme like I have. All I can do at this point is to get him healed and slowly increase his fitness. Tendons and bones can take, I think, six months (have to check my book) to become "fit".

    The things I would have changed if I could do it over with Chrome is that I wish I'd had a riding horse so I could have ponied him a LOT! Exercise isn't a bad thing for horses if done carefully and slowly, but weight on their immature backs is. So ponying would have been perfect because it would have been long, slow, straight rides (not circles like longeing). The other thing is I wish I had had trails, because I'm not sure how good the asphalt roads were for his growing bones. I did the best I could with what I had though and he's done alright so far. The tendon is probably just a fluke thing from all this blasted rain!! Anyway, sorry for the long comment.