From Tuesdays with Tony at Springhill Equine Veterinary Clinic
Ah Horse People. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from lounging on the bench at the clinic, it’s that horse people hold on to a myth as if it was a rule written into the very fabric of the universe. I’ve covered many a myth, tale, legend, and even a few quackeries in my time writing this blog. Today I’m going to cover a biggie: exercise and the young horse. If you’ve ever been to a horse event of any sort or visited the internet then you know there are feelings out there about exercise and the young horse. Let’s talk about those feelings.
The Closure of Growth Plates
Seems obvious to me. A baby. Well, with horses it’s not quite so obvious, and then add in breed differences and it gets all crazy. In general, science calls a horse “young” if there’s still growing to do. For most horses, this occurs by around 24-26 months. Yep, even you guys over there in the Arabian crowd. In fact, in a 2011 study of horse growth plates, the arabians closed the earliest! There is a study on Icelandic horses showing their growth plates closing a little later at closer to 32-36 months. For the purposes of an exercise discussion, unless your horse is an Icelandic horse, things are good at around 2 years of age as far as bones go. You will see many, many, many memes on the internet regarding time of closure of growth plates in horses. I have no idea where the information for these memes came from. Mine came from peer-reviewed journal articles and textbooks on equine anatomy. I’m a resourceful cat like that.
But Tendons and Things
As a smart cat, I know there’s more than just bones in a body. There’s tendons, ligaments, muscles, and all kinds of things. What about these things in the young horse? In the wild, baby horses must be born, learn to walk, and be ready to travel miles on day one. The soft tissues come out ready to go. That’s how you survive as a prey species. Now, if you’re a topline predator like yours truly, you can come out cute as a button with your eyes sealed shut, and an inability to move more than 6” on your own. You’ve got time to figure these things out. Horses, not so much.
But the Brain
This one you can have! Of all the reasons out there for not training young horses, mental immaturity is the only valid one. It is true that some horses can’t mentally handle a job until they’ve had some time to mature. I’m about to talk about all the other reasons humans put forth. None of those are valid. This one is. If your horse isn’t handling the stress of training, back off to low level work (you’re about to find out why some work is good) that doesn’t ask as many tough questions, but don’t stop work altogether.
Racehorses Fall Apart Because They Are Started Too Young (Myth)
Just plain nope. Not true. Really false. Not discounting the racehorses falling apart thing, just the age part. That’s a whole different blog topic, and we’re not getting into that today. What I will talk about today is the plethora of research looking at young thoroughbreds and exercise. There have been several studies looking specifically at 18-month-old thoroughbreds. One group of these horses is left out in pasture to do as they please. One group is exercised 30% more than the group in pasture. Guess who didn’t suffer any injuries? Yep, the one exercised.
Next let’s talk about studies looking at bone quality and tendon and ligament strength. Horses who were exercised at young age (18-24 months) had better bone, tendon, and ligament quality than horses who only received at-will pasture exercise. The notion of exercising them young causing breakdowns just isn’t backed up by science.
Exercise the Right Way
Do you finally believe the cat that simply being young isn’t a reason not to exercise? Good, because I’m right. Now let’s talk about what that exercise looks like. And here’s where this wise cat thinks the myth of young horse exercise started.
You can’t hop on a 2 year old and head off to race 1 ½ miles, or jump 1.60m, or slide 35 feet. Just like anything starting any exercise, you have to gradually increase the load until the muscles, tendons, ligaments, and bones can support what you are asking for. Doing this at a young age has some supreme advantages. Young tissues are primed for change. Ask any orthopedic surgeon about fractures in young animals, and they will tell you as long as you keep the bones in the same room, they will heal. That’s because young bones are in a high turnover phase. So are young tendons and ligaments.
By applying workloads to young horses you are setting the system up to succeed later in life. You’re telling all those structures where forces are going to be coming from now, so they can build good foundations. Again, this doesn’t mean hop on Day 1 and work for three hours. It does mean that 15-20 minutes of work gives all the growing structures great feedback about how they’re doing and what changes they need to make. In fact, there are papers on racehorses showing horses who enter training or racing as two-year-olds race longer than those who start as three-year-olds. That’s because the system got a chance to prep for the real work of long races earlier.
Think about what horses were designed to do in the wild. Now, I realize your horse isn’t wild. Heck, they get mad when breakfast is 10 minutes late. However, understanding evolution can help us figure out a reasonable plan for baby horses. Got a youngster and not sure what to do for work? Give my Docs a call. They will help evaluate your horse’s fitness level, and tailor a plan for good work to create good growth.