There is no single answer to this question; people have widely varying views on the work that should be done with a young horse.
For me, it depends on the individual but I like my four year olds to have solid WTC skills and to be jumping around a simple, small course confidently.
My current four year old was broken as a late 3 year old year ago last fall (Nov. 07) and showed in the baby greens at WEF in the winter and spring (early 08). He got a few months off and did some light flatwork until early summer, then went up to Saratoga and VT, where he again jumped around the baby greens. He got more time off last fall (Sept-Oct 08) and is now showing in the pregreens at WEF, where he has had very good ribbons. He will be 5 at the end of this month and will W/T/C and jump around the 3' for a decent amateur or junior now.
That is as much as I would probably ever do with a youngster, but he is quiet and very laid back (read: easy to get to the ring, doesn't require a lot of prep or any longeing) and we had him thoroughly evaluated by a very good sporthorse vet to make sure the workload did not exceed what was appopriate for his physical development.
There are plenty of people who don't even start their horses until four or later, but personally I have found that installing a work ethic early does my horses a lot of good. We are very careful with them and monitor their work and condition carefully, but I've never had one that didn't do beautifully on this program. My oldest is 20 this year and still quite sound, packing little kids around for my old trainer.
That is not to suggest that waiting is always wrong or that this would work for ALL horses; they are all individuals and should be managed accordingly. But if you want to prepare one to be sold, I think personally the best thing you can do for them is give them a solid foundation in the basics, so that they are safe for the average rider to manage, at least on the flat.
********** We move pretty fast for some rabid garden snails.
That's kind of like asking where a 1st grader should be in reading. It really, REALLY depends on the kid.
You'll no doubt hear lots of personal opinions, and I'd gladly share mine, but it's just one person with one horse--I would really hesitate to extrapolate, even if I'd had TEN different horses this age that I'd brought along.
Some 4yos are gawky, immature and just "not ready", while others are self-possessed, together, athletic and need a job. Some have brains that are ready, but their bodies aren't, or vice versa. You just sort of have to figure out what your goals are, where your particular youngster is maturity-wise, and try to sort out what suits him/her best.
I don't espouse the idea that horses can't be ridden or worked until every last growth plate is closed, and do feel that in general giving a youngster SOME sort of job is good for their socialization and work ethic. But what suits one 3yo might be too much for another 5yo. So the owner/trainer really needs to take the individual critter into consideration beyond what "conventional wisdom" could ever hold.
My 4yr old is standing in the paddock with friends, has never been saddled. He is gangly, immature, and not mentally ready for consistant work. Very friendly, easy to handle, good mind. Probably could go out and put stuff on him with no problems right now. But he really is not ready for work yet.
He plays with friends in the field, races across the ground, jumps, bucks, hops over logs. He stops when tired, listens to his body, not forced to continue when he doesn't want to. He knows better now, when he is tired, ready to quit, than I do if I was working him. Bones and legs get hardened slowly, not overworked. Part of the growing process. His bones get denser with play, tendons and ligaments stretched gently, not strained. Building his body slowly, layer on layer, to be ready for harder work later.
Being large both in bone and height, his body will mature much later. Working him regularly now, increases stress and strain on those young joints. I don't expect him to fully mature in the bones until about age 7yrs, maybe 8yrs like his full brother. That will mean he is adding a lot of bulk to his frame over that time. Hard work to learn training things, if your body keeps changing and growing all the time. He will stay awkward with growing changes.
At this point, we plan to keep horse until he dies. We are waiting to allow maturity, to make him the best animal he can be in his long life. We want him sound, usable, into his 20s, and that means you have to let them grow up before you put them to work.
He will be doing 4-H Halter and Showmanship this summer, to gain hauling and show ground time, experience in strange places. Learns to be obedient, in SPITE of the little squealing pony, bikes with kids on, baby strollers rolling around, kids hollering and galloping on speed horses. Very good for him, learns noise, weird things in different places are no big deal. Standing tied to a trailer for long hours, means take a nap.
Horse will probably be saddled and backed in Fall. Maybe doing a little trail riding at walk and trot with a friend. Do some but not many, circles cantering in the ring before next winter. Ride him down the road in STRAIGHT lines, gaining some mileage under saddle. Showing him the world he will be living and working in. I will be working on his learning to follow the bit, understanding leg aids, mange balance with my weight, have his voice commands for walk, trot, whoa, getting pretty solid. For a baby, that is a lot! He may get some long-line lessons next winter if weather is not too bad. Everything here is outside, WE get cold out there!
At 5 he may do a couple clinics, ridden Western, learning how to turn around without tripping. Slow rollbacks, neck-reining, backing, probably moving into driving training.
Everything depends on how well he answers the questions we ask him. We have to get firm answers and responses from him, to show he really understands the requests.
Much easier to train a horse who tells you "I GOT it, what next? Yep, got that too, next?" Lessons are easy, stay with him even if he is not used for a couple months. Walk thru the exercises he knows, push the buttons for YES answers, build from there. Horses stay happy, learning is all forward progress.
The older youngster is better able to pay attention, doesn't get tired as quick in harder work. They all get sick of drilling. I see so much drilling, is called "training". Same stuff over and over. Boredom sets in, horses get silly, start playing tricks for fun. They are not learning what you want, just various avoidance techniques, bad habits. Forcing them just makes it worse, as they learn new bad tricks to make work time exciting.
My equines need to show me capacity to pay attention for longer times. Can't learn much in 5 minutes, then looking at everything else the rest of the time. I don't want to have to MAKE horse work. Should be mostly fun, with going for walks out of the ring, sightseeing in the neighborhood, as his rewards.
Sorry, I see the many young horses started too young, physically and mentally. I see their owners work them too hard, too often, as they drill horse for perfect movement in the ring. Getting horse perfect means a LOT of miles under those hooves, which can be hard on the young, immature body.
Then you hear about horses who breakdown at young ages, under 10yrs. Horses who need all these magic Vet treatments, magic shoes, magic feeds, expensive saddles, chiro, because they are NQR most of the time. Heck just read all the questions here on Care, for the many owners of NQR horses they can't use.
There is NO LAW that says a 4yr old MUST be out earning his way, winning ribbons. But few folks are like us anymore, willing to let their young horses grow up physically, to do grown horse work. Lots of breakdowns, companion horses, free-give-aways as time goes along, among those early started, young horse, winners. They have the bodies and legs of much older animals, from the work and miles on those young bodies so early.
My filly will be 4 this month. I backed her as a 2 year old and started real training as a three year old. She was off from Sept through January. She walk, trots, canters. Knows leg yield, and does a decent shoulder in. I'm trying to get the concept of haunches in going but having a tough time with that. She trots and canters through ground poles and I'm just starting her over trot rails to a very small crossrail. She has gone on a couple of trail rides off the property. I'm planning on taking her to some small local shows this summer. Probably Intro. or training level dressage and maybe some hunter stuff towards the end of summer.
For me, a 4 year-old should have solid ground manners, no dispute. As far as undersaddle work, it depends on the horse. A more mature horse might be one I'd like to see WTC with hints of collection and confidently jump around a simple, small course (lead changes should be a confirmed event, but do not have to be present 100% of the time when jumping around). For a less mature horse, I'm looking for sane WTC work, a confident jump over a very low vertical or crossrail, and lead changes confirmed over a ground pole. That's not to say I am would turn down a horse with less or more - a lot depends on how/when the horse is broke. It's a hard thing to standardize, but that's typically what I would like to see in a horse that age.
One of my horses will be 5 yrs old next month, I've had him since he was 1.
He has good ground manners and acts sensible. Bathes, clips, cross ties, loads, etc. Knows the basics of lungeing but has probably only been lunged lightly about 7 or 8 times. Same with the round pen. Has been led on a leadline over some crossrails and logs, has a nice jump and is a lovely mover. Does light WTC work under saddle and been to one show to do 2 WTC classes. Before that he was shown in hand. Does fun stuff with his rider like practicing broomstick polo, around the worlds, etc.
This season (he'll be 5), his flat work will get a little more challenging... and he will start jumping some X's in the fall and maybe go to a mini trial for the really low level or something.
Backed at 3, loafed that winter, restarted at almost 4. Walk, trot serpentines, circles, leg yield in and out of circles at walk first then trot. A little LY at walk, a little canter, a lot of hacking out. Started listening to leg and seat, and carrying contact.
Some riders change their horse, they change their saddle, they change their teacher; they never change themselves.
Another big variation, which you can see in the responses, is what discipline (if any yet) the horse is aimed for. A dressage person would NEVER put changes on a horse at 4, but might expect more lateral work than a h/j person.
As an eventer, another thing I might look for is the horse's exposure to the big wide world of the outdoors
I bought my green horse coming 5, and he barely had 2 leads, much less a lead change
But. My inexperienced husband could hack him out over hill and dale, fording streams, popping logs, cantering in a group on a soft rein.
He didn't really steer (neither did my husband, for that matter), but he hopped little ditches, banks, drops -- started by a foxhunter.
He is a draft cross and grew SUBSTANTIALLY between 5 and 6. I expect he's probably still growing now as he heads towards 7. His ability to be strong and balanced under saddle continues to develop and I'm glad we did not push that too early despite his extremely sensible brain and good work ethic.
Confirmed lead changes at FOUR! Wow, will you take my horse for a few weeks? She's going to be NINE and hasn't a hint of a lead change in her anywhere. Even as a foal she never, EVER swapped, seriously, unless she was in a flat-out gallop and I can count on one hand the number of times she's done one with me riding. (yep, full gallop)
It's just NOT a discussion about starting young horses without someone dredging up that piece of work, now about 10 years old I think? Completely misses the point that skeletal maturity and growth-plate closure has very little to do with general maturity (fillies in the wild have foals at 3 and 4 years of age) and physical capacity, and is never taken in the context of more recent work showing that work, even and particularly RIDDEN work, has very definite beneficial effects on the development of bones, muscles, ligaments and joints.
Nope, they shouldn't be galloped at 19 months. But nope, they shouldn't be left to sit in the pasture until they're 7, either. Somewhere in the middle lies the "correct age", and it's up to the thoughtful owner/trainer to figure that out for each individual animal.
Show me a human that has been athletic and active since he/she was a pre-adolescent, and I'll show you someone who will ALWAYS find it much, MUCH easier to get and stay fit, even 50 years later, than someone who was idle until they were "skeletally mature". I daresay the same is true of horses. Not advocating the harsh, gymnast lifestyle for little kids, and not advocating racing 2yo horses, but carrying a rider and noodling around at WTC or hacking in the woods is not tantamount to ruining their young bodies.
Everyone is different. I am NOT a trainer or the owner, just the rider.
Maresie is 4, Morgan. She drives well and rides green. She has good w/t and voice commands, but no idea about contact or bending quite yet. She trail rides out alone or in a group quietly and has good ground manners.
IMO she is not balanced enough in her trot work to try for a confidence building canter yet. Serpentines next, and no rush. Slow and steady keeps her interested in the learning process, but not stressed.
Do not take anything to heart. Do not hanker after signs of progress. Founder of theRiders with Fibromyalgia clique.
Ah, yes ... and right on cue after my post, Deltawave posts.
Delta ... are you saying that you are more qualified to state differently than Dr. Deb Bennett? And therefore refute what she states?
3 and 4 year old wild/feral fillies may be having babies at that age but they are touting around 150 - 250# riders on their backs. Plus the fact that they've had 3 or 4 years of teaching from the herd for mental maturity - something that is mostly lacking in domestics.
Somehow I don't think the maturity rates of Equine has changed much over the course of the last 10 years since this article has been around ... but, then again, I could be wrong.
Ahem, back on topic... Each horse is different. I had one a few years back that, at four, was schooling all the lateral work (SI, HI, HP), 10meter circles, counter canter and I had just started changes when she sold. She was easy breezy. I have another one that will be four in May, *supposedly* (she was at a different farm) at 3 she was longed lightly in tack and backed where someone was led and walked around on her a tiny bit. She was then bred, is in foal now, and will not be restarted until foal is weaned, she'll be 4 1/2 then. That makes me a tad nervous, but I keep telling myself that I have the rest of her life to "do stuff". For now, she's in a paddock learning how to be "by herself" (grew up in BIG pasture with friends, was a bit herd bound, but not now), she gets handled everyday, stands in crossties for grooming, gets handwalked around the property, put in the round pen maybe once a week and then ponied around every couple of weeks by the pony horse. That's it for now.
Lots of various ideas. In a perfect world, we like to start them lightly in the fall of their 2 year old year, train and trail ride for their 3 year old year and then I like to start them jumping lightly in their 4 year old year. In reality, vary rarely happens. Like Miss Demanda (my black & white girl). Ron started her when she was 4, I rode her for 2 months and then she had 2 and a half months off and then had 2 weeks before her first show. And she won (Cochrane).
A lot depends on their minds. Mandy (like a lot of our others) is very laid back and just wants to please. Blue was also the same as well as several others of ours. Confirmed WTC, jumping small easy courses, trail riding and doing various natural obstacles, trailering to new locales, etc.
Where is your girl now training wise? I took a look at her facebook pics. She is cute.
Nope, not refuting, not any more qualified than you are, simply pointing out that the article is quite old now, and that more recent work that SPECIFICALLY addresses the issue of working young horses in a moderate fashion has shown measurable benefits. So no, horses are the same, but our knowledge base has grown.
There is quite a large disconnect between X-ray evidence of closed growth plates and being able to tolerate physical work. In humans total skeletal maturity doesn't happen until about 22 years. Many athletes are already peaking by then in terms of ability, they certainly aren't just starting to work hard.
If their brain is up to it, a 4 YO should be riding out and about and learning about the world. I started our now 4 YO SSH/TWH as a 2 YO, just piddling around, walking, lots of ponying and going everywhere with us...she's 4 now, going on reasonable trail rides, getting ridden 3-4 days a week, usually 45 minutes or so, walking and going out on trails, up/down hills, some road work, some gaiting, and some cantering. She's a big kid, 16.2 and not finished yet, but clean legged, never a moment off of puffiness, etc. Just a good baby.
Lots of long easy miles on dirt roads.
I don't mind lightly starting 2 YOs and putting some real life experience on 3 YOs. IF their minds are up for it. I just started and sent home a 3 YO with the suggestion he needs another year before he does a lot more. Depends on the critter.