When you are looking for the Holy Grail of Horsemanship, you can’t help but also see a lot of things that you’d probably rather not.
One such thing is young horses being rushed in their training – doing things before they are ready to willingly accept them, and before their bodies are able to do as asked. There a couple of different video clips doing “the rounds” on Facebook at the moment, which illustrate these points so well for me.
The first is a video of a racehorse trainer that seems to have made a promotional video, which shows a young thoroughbred going through the “backing process”. Or should I say, the “breaking process”.
In this particular case, the young horse didn’t actually even lunge that well (though probably he had been lunged at least a bit before) and from the bronking involved when the saddle first went on, I’d say that he had quite clearly never had a saddle on before. So the horse was chased around a round arena, saddle on and long lines wrapping around his hind legs, until he stopped bronking in response to the saddle. Then the rider got on, despite the horse initially moving quickly away at the prospect. The rider got bronked off at first but got on again and the horse was quickly off the lunge line and getting smacks on his hind quarters to get him cantering around the area. The trainer was very proud at how quickly this could all be achieved. I was more struck by the way the horse was panting and wondering how the little racehorse possibly had the strength to carry his (not so small) male rider in a way that could even give him a hope of not later developing kissing spines.
The second video is a clip of a lovely stallion at the Belgium National stallion test 2015. The 3 year old had lovely paces but was being held into a frame well beyond his years, as evidenced by the rider’s busy hands, spurs and carriage of the horse. You also have to wonder how long he would have been ridden for previously, to prepare him for that test.
So, two very different examples – a racehorse quickly learning to be sat on and go, and a baby dressage horse being held into a frame. Both different. Both wrong.
A horse’s skeleton takes time to come to full maturity. Yes, even thoroughbreds. Most commentators agree that in fact the spine does not finish developing until at least the age of 6 (albeit most people would accept that generally a horse can be started at the age of 4, when the majority of his growing is done). But it’s not just the skeleton we need to worry about, there is muscle development. A horse isn’t naturally designed to carry a person – we need to help them strengthen in their backs to allow them to carry us in a fashion that is not damaging to them. This strengthening process takes time. Have you ever tried to take up a new sport and noticed how much your muscles later hurt? Your muscles need time to develop and adjust. Quite a lot of time, in some cases. Same for the horse.
There is then also the mental aspect. Proponents of starting young horses in a matter of minutes will tell you that the horse can handle it and to do anything else is to go at the human’s pace, rather than the horse’s pace. Really? So why, then, does starting the horse in a matter of minutes leave the horse sweating and panting? Do you really think that is something the horse is OK with? Just because he can be forced to accept it, doesn’t mean he should have to.
I love starting young horses. Truly, it’s a passion of mine. Preparing a horse for that first sit on him, with him understanding what is required of him, what is happening to him, and having him participate in the process with you. That’s what it’s all about. As far as I’m concerned, if you’ve done your job well, there should be no need to make the horse feel he has to start bronking, and the horse should feel OK with the process, from beginning to end. As for how long that process will take? Well how long is a piece of string? You can get better over the years at meeting a horse and judging how long you think it will take but to commit to a definitive timeframe, well I can’t see how you can do that without risk of rushing the horse – either mentally or physically. Some horses will be stronger than others, some will be better balanced than others, and so on. And I have, and will continue to, tell people I won’t start their horse unless he is physically strong enough, and well enough prepared.
The above said, if you are reading this, you will probably (more or less) already agree with me, or else I suspect we would not have much in common. I also suspect that rather a lot of people (even those not reading this blog!) would in general agree that rushing the backing of a horse is a bad idea. Great….. but then how come it still happens so often that we see horses started in less time than it takes me to make and drink a nice cup of tea, and 3 year old dressage horses at competitions?
Money would be the first answer I would think of. Most people commercially producing horses this way are doing it for monetary gain. If they didn’t make money doing this, they would do something else.
Add on top of that systems are already being created to reward the rushing of youngsters. Three year old ridden stallion gradings. Four year old young horse classes. What else is this other than a system for people producing young horses to make money as quickly as they can? And don’t even get me started on the age that some young thoroughbreds are out racing.
But here’s the rub…. These systems only continue because people make money out of them. Its supply and demand – if there are consumers to buy a product, then there is someone who will sell that product. Doesn’t really matter what the product is, the result is the same the world over. So, if you don’t like it, stop being a consumer of it.
Were you thinking this doesn’t apply to you because anyway you’re not in a position to buy 3 year old stallion out of the stallion gradings? Well, OK, maybe you’re not, and maybe you wouldn’t anyway. But have you ever bought a young horse and asked the producer when they start their young horses, or done your research on the producer to see what exactly they do and how they do it? Perhaps you should. Or if you have a young horse you want to send away for starting, or further training, have you actually gone and had a good chat with whomever you are paying for this service, to see what sort of practices they actually support?
Or even if you’re not in the market for a new horse, have you thought about sponsorship deals for the horsey products you buy? Why support a sponsor that in turn supports abusive practices? Or even the magazines you buy – if they are promoting practices that should quite rightly be called abuse and not training, why give your money to them?
By the way, buying a young horse from a producer more concerned with lining their pockets than the welfare and longevity of the horses they produce is not rescuing the horse. It is doing nothing more than continuing to promote and support a system that should come to an end. No better than buying a puppy from a puppy farmer – you might have helped that one puppy but you won’t have helped the many that will be bred after him.
And before you wonder what difference your little bit of purchasing power will make, consider this. When I was a teenager, ozone destroying CFC’s were commonly used, most cosmetics companies used products tested on animals and if you asked for vegetarian food at a restaurant you’d probably get a goats cheese salad, if you were lucky. These things have changed over the years because the consumer said they wanted something else. The power to make a change is in our hands. We should use it wisely.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, concerned citizens can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.”
— Margaret Mead