Wednesday, December 17, 2008
Show Ring Longevity
This is a subject near and dear to my heart. It is the core of my inability to make peace with the sport of cowhorse. Reining and cutting are just as troubling, for that matter any sport that involves horses.
Nagsonmom asked-Is reining bad for horse long term function? How often does a reining horse rein for 6 years or so and then remain sound for trail riding for the next 10? I love the fun, but don't want to invest time and money in something that is ultimately bad for the horses involved.
The fact remains that all equestrian related sports push horses too hard, too fast and too young. Economics play a large part of this. A horse is not mature until they are six years old. So who wants to wait four or five years to start a horse? A two year old is definitely not mature enough to carry a rider, in my mind, at all.
Since Nagonmom asked about reining, that's the event I'm going to pick on. But I could as easily go after cowhorses, pleasure horses, all-arounders, any of the events I'm familiar with.
An article written by The Australian and New Zealand Federation of Animal Science (ANZFAS) warned, the decision to break a horse as a two-year-old may well be a decision to break the horse down. Well-muscled, well-grown yearlings are skeletally immature, resulting in a horse where the flesh (muscle) is willing but the skeleton (immature bones, ligaments and connective tissue). Many horses are not skeletally mature until 4.5 years of age...Horses with closed epiphisial lines, are ready to be started.
The ANZFAS went on to say, horses with open epiphysial lines should be spelled, otherwise the stresses of training could cause epiphysitis, shin soreness, splints, fractures, poor development and chronic lameness.
It is a problem that occurs at the growth plates of young horses that can make them sore and lame, and it is part of the developmental orthopedic disease (DOD) complex.
Eventually, the growth plate closes as the long bones reach their maximum length. Generally speaking, the growth plates at the lower extremities, such as the cannon bone, will close first, while those at the knee and hock—radius and tibia, respectively—will close later in the young horse’s development.
For the most part, the long bones don't reach their maximum length until the horse is 4-6 years old.
Now add in the fact that young quarter horse show prospects are bred to show a solid muscle bound look of maturity and are stuffed full of rich feed from weaning on. This all adds to the myth that quarter horses mature early enough to take the stress of starting them on January 1st of their two-year-old year. This makes the average start date for a show prospect anywhere from 18 to 20 months.
The reality is these babies are packing around a lot of muscle and weight on a frail and immature skeletal system. Where in this picture does it make sense for us to throw on a 40 pound saddle and crawl on top of them?
The other problem is mental stability. A two-year-old horse has a brain like a sponge. He is willing to accept a rider as his leader without much thought.
A two-year-old will try his little heart out. He will work past all common sense, because he is not old enough to know how to save himself from our stupidity. He trusts his rider to tell him what to do.
The end result is a horse that will fall apart mentally from being bombarded with stimulus he can't absorb. Show ring drop outs are often crazy with fear, or so dull they have no response left.
Repetitious exercise is extremely tough on a horse's legs.
Standard warm-up on a reiner is 20 to 30 circles every day. A spin is as strenuous as two laps around a big arena at speed. Think about how much spinning we do, just in a daily routine. Slide stops are incredibly tough on legs. I've said it before and I'll say it again, it is not normal to inject your horse's hocks at three years, four years, five, oh hell, EVER.
If I have to inject my horse's hocks I'm not going to feel safe scrambling up a mountain side.
Trainer Richard Shrake said it best, "There's only so many slide stops in a horse. Be careful how you use them."
When we start horses as two-year-olds they tend to live in stalls. Their exercise consists of short burst of activity combined with long periods of standing in one spot. I can guarantee a horse kept this way for six or seven years will not be sound later in life. They need to be out. They need to wander around.
That being said, here's where I am. I still want to show in cowhorse events. I have come to realize I can't be competitive as an open trainer. Part of this is an unwillingness to ride my young horse as hard as is required to win.
What I can do is raise my personal horses as I feel they should be raised. My coming two-year-old is out on pasture in a pretty wild part of Colorado. He has free choice hay. He has 80 acres of windy pasture, hills, gullies and trees to roar around on.
This fall I plan on putting 30 to 60 days on him. It will include very basic walk, trot, canter and some cow 101. He won't be required to collect in any way. Then he'll be turned out until the following spring.
That's when I'll begin his training. I'm planning on cutting on him for a season and then starting his reined work as a four-year-old. He may show in a derby or two his four-year-old year. I'll actually think about getting serious his five-year-old year.
My guess is we will share a long, sound, sane and happy life together.
My yellow mare was started as a two-year-old. I started her lightly. I never rode her more than fifteen minutes at a time. I didn't show her until late her three-year-old year. She is OK. But I have been extremely careful. I keep a balance between shows, trails and just screwing around with her buds. Every show I have pushed her at I try to balance with two small day shows where I just "lope through."
At six she is sound and mostly sane. Because I haven't pushed her (compared to how I was taught to train) she is the best horse I have ever ridden. Because I haven't pushed her she has earned the least of all my cowhorses. I think she'll end up being the best competitor I've ever had.
I still wish I had waited another year to start her.
So, Nagonmom, the questions I would ask myself are,
1.Is my horse sound?
2.Can I take him out riding now?
3. Why aren't I trail riding and reining both?
4. Is my horse calm and happy?
5. Is my horse living somewhere other than a box stall?
6. What can I do to keep a balance?
I plan on being competitive and keeping my horses sound and happy. I bet you can too.