The decision as to when to begin training with the young horse, including that aspect of training that would involve riding is, in fact, relatively subjective. Until science becomes a good deal more advanced in this area there are only a few benchmarks available to us which are based on objective, proven science. One aspect that I see remaining subjective for a significant period of time would be the psychological factors where the young horse is concerned.
The procedure whereby we x-ray the growth plates (epiphyseal closures) is now about 40 years in use. This science has not been encouraged sufficiently in my opinion. It is a relatively easy test of the skeletal maturity of young horses. It is my opinion that virtually every youngster that we begin to train seriously should undergo observations in this area.
Body conformation is a factor. While it is relatively subjective, good horsemen can detect immature aspects of body conformation that the beginner would be hard pressed to identify.
These characteristics will often vary relative to the breeds in question. It is the rule of thumb that the larger breeds require more time to mature than the smaller ones do.
This is certainly not a consistent measure as the Arabian horse is relatively small but is generally thought to require longer maturing than many breeds of a similar size.
Many experienced horsemen will first observe whether or not the overall conformation of the horse is level or unlevel. The individual which seems to be significantly higher in the front or conversely higher behind is thought to be less mature than one that is relatively level.
The next consideration is often measured by muscular development. The immature horse will often be referred to as “not filled out yet”. What the horseman means by this is there is lack of developed muscling. One can readily see that this is utterly subjective as many 10 year olds will be unlevel or lack significant muscle. These are only rather insignificant benchmarks by which to judge maturity in the young horse.
When one reaches into the area of psychological maturity it raises the bar as to subjectivity. Unless one is blessed with significant experience it is difficult to identify behavioral patterns where psychological maturity is concerned. A young warm blood show jumper may well express the ability to jump great heights in his third year but often the athletic output necessary will affect his young mind in such a way so as to instill significant amounts of anxiety toward his work. This will tend to create a youngster which will charge at his fences or simply stop to avoid the stress and exertion.
One will often see the early stresses of dressage training cause an immature youngster to resent his work resulting in rearing or bolting in an effort to avoid execution of maneuvers which in fact overmatch him. I have often seen young cutting horses which when overmatched while immature actually refuse to turn and bolt away from their cattle. Once these behavioral manifestations have been expressed they are very difficult to overcome. I believe that once a horse sees a way out of his responsibilities then he becomes habituated to avoiding them.
It is the obligation of every horseman to observe and execute maneuvers with the young horse that allow for a feeling of confidence. The immature horse, like the immature human, needs to have fun so as to maintain interest and generosity in their chosen efforts. One needs to balance progress so as not to bore the youngster riding a fine line between advancement and the maintenance of a healthy attitude.
It is my opinion that interested horsemen should be cautious not to develop a knee-jerk attitude toward rules and regulations that would mandate the restriction of competition based on maturity. I have heard many people say “two year old racing should be banned from existence”. This tends to sound good to people who view them selves as caring for the horse. In fact one should be quite careful to consider both sides of every issue. If two year old racing was summarily banned several factors would immediately come into play.
One would be that it would require the industry to have two year old sales instead of yearling sales. Buyers would be reluctant to face two years of non-competition instead of one. At present yearling sales typically occur when the animals are 16 -18 months of age. This means the first saddling generally occurs around 20 months of age and the time of the first race round about the 28-30th month.
The second consideration would be that each of the breeding farms would have to accommodate the colts from about 16-28 months of age in individual paddocks. Any Thoroughbred colt being prepared for sale would have to be individualized during these months or his battle scars would present an unacceptable picture in the auction ring. It is my opinion that during these months some organized exercise is strongly advised in order to develop a strong body destined for professional athletics. Individual paddocks would obviously be extremely small and afford far less opportunity for stretching the limbs during these formative months.
My third consideration would take the form of being adverse to legislating morality. I am strongly of the opinion that we should try at all times to cause people and horses to want to do the proper thing rather than telling them they must do the proper thing. Rules and regulations that would ban anything are often looked upon as challenges and are more often than not broken. In addition, one could anticipate enormous resistance to this idea and in my opinion it would be very difficult to prevail as a legislative edict.
My personal preference in areas such as this is to first say it’s perfectly fine to race two year olds but it should be done only when the best interest of the horse has been assured. With that in mind it is my recommendation that the associations should be approached with the proposal that it is fine to race 2 year olds but only when their X-rays clearly place them in category “A”. This status cannot be achieved until the individual is fully matured from a skeletal standpoint. While I realize that this would not address psychological issues it would go along way to allowing the horse sufficient time to be psychologically mature even considering the subjective nature of that benchmark.
What this would effectively mean is that there would be very few two year olds eligible to race before August or September when they are about 29-30 months of age. It is difficult to imagine any owner would argue that he wants to race his 2 year old even though there is significant risk that injury would compromise his racing career. It is my opinion that there has not been enough educational effort to inform owners and trainers of the value of this analysis. The various associations involved should be immediately willing to address this issue.
It is probably true that much less opposition would be exerted against this idea because in order to oppose it one must take the position that it is OK to risk the health and safety of these young horses. As I see it there would be so few 2 year olds eligible to race that this category of competitions would disappear until the August and September meets were in progress. With this system in place the 2 year olds could race a little before their 3 year old career begins. With these tests the 3 year old category would have a chance to take shape before the classic races begin in spring of the 3 year old season.
It is beyond imaginable what a cavalry charge would result if there was no 2 year old racing and then in first couple of months of their 3 year old year every owner believing he had a classic horse would issue orders to run in the Kentucky Derby in the first weekend in May. We would then be grinding up horse like hamburger. It is simply not effective to advocate for their banning of any particular division until one examines the consequences of the decision.
A caring person might say just make the 3 year old classics later in the year. This, in my opinion, is a great thing to do. The logistics of it however would throw us right back in the area of trying to pass legislation that would equal the effort of climbing Mount Everest. We need to remember that the Breeders Cup is in October and is designed to find a Champion and Classic winner of the 3 year old season. To move races like the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont would be akin to moving mountains. Personally, I would try to do it, however I would make that attempt after the rule to race only Category A 2 year olds was in place for a season or two. I believe that once caring owners saw how it worked it might not be so difficult to put pressure on race organizations to move their classic dates. It would be a much more user-friendly world if the Classics began in July.
Recently I was told by an Olympic Medal Winner that the 3 year old futurity for cutting, reining and working cow horse competitors was a year too early. It seems to me that it is a slippery slope to begin criticizing competitive efforts by simply saying make them a year later. It wouldn’t bother me to see these futurities one year later and I believe that on balance the horses would be better off. It is a subjective call however and difficult to defend on specific scientific grounds.
In this particular case I would once again employ motivation rather than legislation. Interested owners and trainers should petition the association to offer greater amounts of prize money and prestige to the 4 year old derbies than they currently offer for the 3 year old futurities. I have personally advised corporations to guide their sponsorships to the later age groups in an effort to start the ball rolling in the direction away from demanding 3 year old competitions. Recently there was a 100,000 reined cow horse event open to all ages. Much talk has been generated subsequent to this event which would indicate that people are beginning to save their more promising young horses for the more mature competitions.