Ask the Vet: How to Develop Your Young Horse Into a Future Athlete

Photo courtesy Hilltop Farm

By Dr. Heather Beach, DVM

Raising a young horse from foal to athlete is a very rewarding process. It is important to know that there are several important factors in the raising and handling of a young horse that will determine whether or not your prospect will succeed and have a long, healthy career … or burn out and fade without reaching their full potential. Being mindful of the health and development of your youngster throughout its life and taking a patient, long-haul approach to their career gives you the best chance for success. 

Photo courtesy Hilltop Farm

Neonatal to Weanling 

There are events that happen in the first days/months of life that will impact the long-term athletic potential of a horse. Any foal who is born prematurely will likely have a long list of health struggles that they will need to overcome in order to survive the first weeks of life. 

In addition, these foals are at increased risk for serious joint disease. Premature foals are often born before the bones in the hock and carpus have fully ossified. The weight of the foal standing on these soft bones can cause them to crush, resulting in early onset osteoarthritis. 

Additionally, premature foals often do not receive all the colostrum from their dams needed to help them fight off infection in the first week of life so they are more prone to bacterial sepsis which can cause severe joint damage. In foals who are not premature, contracted tendons, angular limb deformities, and clubbed feet are possible medical conditions that, in certain circumstances, can be treated at a young age to correct the problem before the horse reaches maturity. 

Weight and growth during this stage of life should be slow and steady and the foal should be allowed plenty of movement outside in good footing with safe fencing (pasture is ideal). 

Yearling to Two-Year-Olds

During these years, it is ideal if the young horse can have a relaxed life socializing with other youngsters receiving a diet that is balanced in vitamins and minerals. Vitamin E is important for development of muscles and the nervous system. A ration balancer fed along with access to pasture and free movement is ideal. By the time a horse is a long two-year-old, it is ideal to have screening radiographs performed to look for evidence of developmental joint disease prior to the horse being backed and started in under saddle training. 

Additionally, a dental examination and float along with extraction of any wolf teeth that may be present should be scheduled prior to introducing serious work in a bridle in order to prevent any pain related contact or bridling issues. In racehorses it is not uncommon to take radiographs of the distal radius/carpus to see if the growth plates of the radius have “closed” as a sign that the horse is ready to start training. This is more relevant in disciplines where very young horses are asked to perform at a very high level such as thoroughbred/standardbred racing and Quarter Horse futurity events. 

Developmental orthopedic disease that may be discovered during these screening radiographs may uncover conditions that are not causing any clinical issues but could be a problem as the horse’s workload and career unfold. Many two-year-olds may have evidence of juvenile arthritis, osteochrondritis dessicans (OCD) lesions, or subchondral bone cysts. In many cases there will be surgical options available that may give the horse an excellent prognosis for a full athletic career if the issue is diagnosed and treated prior to the onset of strenuous work. 

In other cases, there may be issues that can be treated uneventfully in a young horse with minimal risk that may make them a better resale prospect. Unfortunately, there are some issues that may be discovered in young horse screening radiographs that will carry a poor prognosis for a successful athletic career. In this case, it would be important to have this knowledge prior to the start of training and investment of significant resources in the horse’s career. 

Three-Year-Olds and Up 

As a young horse starts in their career, it is important for owners and trainers to be realistic about what the horse is physically and mentally able to handle at each stage
of training. 

While there are many exciting young horse classes available in all disciplines, it is extremely important to realize that it is a very rare and special horse that is able to perform successfully in the age-specific classes on the timeline needed to be successful. Pushing a horse to develop faster with a high plane of nutrition, artificial hormones, and a strenuous work program may deliver short-term results but it may also result in future mental and/or physical effects.

Horses learn by experience and a horse cannot “unlearn” something once it has been taught to them. Human beings can reason and rationalize if they are scared or try to do something that is physically too difficult for them. A horse cannot reason. so if they are overfaced or asked to do something that frightens them, confuses them, or causes physical pain, they are likely to develop an evasion to that task. An evasion can be as mild as a crooked tilt of the poll or as severe as rearing, bucking, or refusing to move forward. Once a horse “learns” an evasion they will never unlearn that evasion, and your job will be more difficult as it will require new training to counter the learned behavior. 

Important points to remember: 

• A young horse needs to slowly develop a base of fitness before more sophisticated work is added (collecting the stride, jumping combinations, competing in many classes a day at a horse show). 

• Horses that train tense or crooked, or are ridden with excessive use of artificial training aids that restrict their natural way of going (draw reins, and other head setting devices) are more likely to develop injuries over the long run. You’re much better off allowing a young horse to find their own balance and slowly learn to bend, collect, and develop suppleness and strength as their bodies are ready. 

• If the basics of the program are not in order—shoeing, nutrition, dentistry, proper fitting tack, comfortable stalls/turnout and a low stress environment—it will be more difficult for the young horse to succeed.

*This story was originally published in the May 2021 issue of The Plaid Horse. Click here to read it now and subscribe for issues delivered straight to your door!