Backing Young Horses

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Backing young horses

I am writing today about a subject that is very close to my heart, the backing of young horses…

All horses mature at a different rate, and when I say “mature” this can be physically and mentally.
I know some horses, like my 4 year old, who are mentally ready for work, but physically she will still be developing, yet there is pressure to “crack on” with her. Most horse’s spinal column doesn’t finish fusing until they are about 5.5 to 6 years old, some as late as 8 or 9 years old, yet we are backing them at 3 and 4 years old??? How many people think about the horse’s long term wellbeing when they back a horse at 3 years old, there are very few breeds that are ready to work at this age.

Then of course we wonder why we have so many injuries and behavioural issues?

For sport horses, the big and beautiful Warmbloods, Thoroughbreds and Cross Breeds are favoured, and a big 17.2h Warmblood is unlikely to have fully fused growth plates until the age of 7 or 8. So if we are riding this horse from 3 or 4, imagine what damage we are doing to his spine… yet we carry on, because we want to hit the age classes next summer. It is a little bit different for the professionals of the equine industry, as they are wanting to make the horse as profitable as possible, and buyers are unwilling to pay more than £3000 for a well-bred, backed 3yo.

So I pose this question to you… would you not rather pay £6000 and have a horse who was allowed to roam pasture until 4 years old, then begin a course of in-hand work to develop balance and good, healthy posture, maybe be “sat on” at 5 and then backed around 6 (depending on the build and breed). But as a result you would have a horse who shouldn’t be prone to kissing spine, suspensory issues, hock problems and arthritis at a young age due to overworking young joints. You could have a horse who was healthy in body and mind, and would hopefully continue into old age…

I had a tough week last week, I lost my 15yo Thoroughbred, but it really made me think about the life he had… Whilst he was very much loved and well looked after, he was a very broken horse.

He was born in February 2002 and he racing by September 2004…. 2.5 years old! This was at least 2.5 years before his spine was properly formed.

As a result, Earl suffered with kissing spine, sacroiliac problems, a heart murmer and arthritis, these are just the problems we know about.

On the other hand, I have a mare who is 28, and can still be ridden lightly, but she was backed around 5-6 and started working life much more slowly, performing in her first event at 7 years old, and she hasn’t had a lame day or known problem.

There are clearly exceptions to the rule, but this really opens your eyes to the world of sport and performance horses and if I can encourage, even one person, to do a bit more groundwork with their young horse and back them a bit later, I will have made one horse’s life a little better.

How do I back a young horse?

I am going to use my young mare as an example, she turned 4 in June, I have been handling her since she was a foal, so that she is used to human contact and understands the interaction required of her, but no work so far.

I will start to introduce in-hand work of the winter including in-hand walking, a few lateral steps, backing up, stepping over small ground poles and gentle walk circles to help supple her.

I will be looking to sit on her next summer (2019) bareback, I back everything bareback, so reduce stress and tension. I will plan to do a few walk circles on each rein, and that will be enough. I will use a cavesson rather than a bit, so she learns to understand her body and balance without me pulling on her mouth.

I will then return to groundwork for the winter of 2019 and continue the same exercises but start to challenge her a little more.

It will be the following spring, when she is 6 years old, that I will be looking to really back her. I will start to ask her to carry the rider, as I will have been working on her strength, balance and posture over the winter with the in-hand work, so she should be strong enough to carry me by this point. I will start bareback with a cavesson again, but will slowly start to introduce a saddle and a bridle over the course of the summer.

So many people are in such a rush to produce their young horse’s that they are forgetting about the horse’s wellbeing and longevity. Horse’s that are started to early are far more prone to injury.

So I encourage anyone looking to buy a horse, to check out their history, when were they backed, how much have they done. If they are 7-8 years old and still “green” that’s fine, that is how they should be…

And if you own a young horse and are wanting to back them, start with groundwork and wait until they are mature enough to ride. Don’t send them for 6 weeks backing livery, take your time, find a good freelance rider who will work with you at home, develop your bond with the horse and let someone compassionate and experienced come and help you through the journey.

We are breeding and developing horse’s to be more athletic and elegant, taking them away from their natural form…. It’s time we started realising that!

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