by Laura Crum
Lately I’ve been thinking about a very real peril of horseback riding that doesn’t get talked about much. In fact, it seems to be ignored by many people. And yet it is virtually 100% true in my experience. Its pretty simple. Young horses (by which I mean horses less than eight years old) will “misbehave” from time to time. No matter how good they are overall, they will have some significantly difficult moments. Disregarding this truth gets a LOT of people hurt. So today I want to write about this topic.
I am going to be the first to admit that I get seduced into this temptation just like everyone else. Despite the fact that I know my horse training days are behind me, I still allowed my friend/boarder to talk me into accepting his three year old colt as a mutual project. And even though we sent this colt to a damn good horse trainer for a year, and Smoky was/is a very gentle young horse who behaved perfectly 99% of the time, he did manage to spook and drop my friend Wally on the ground, seriously injuring Wally’s shoulder, and eventually threw such a huge fit tied to the trailer one day (we never knew why), that the colt ended up upside down underneath the trailer with his foot caught in the safety chains and injured himself so severely he was never 100% sound again. This story has a happy ending because I found Smoky a good home, but it illustrates the point I want to make. Folks, Smoky was/is a really gentle horse by nature. He was/is well trained. Now eight years old, he is being used to teach little kids to ride (he’s sound enough for walk/trot—not hard work). That’s how easy going and gentle and well trained he is. But still…at four, five, and six, despite what a nice horse he was, he had those moments—and as you can see, they resulted in some serious damage. And this is mostly how it goes.
Over and over, in my real life and in horse blog land, I watch as a reasonably experienced horse person decides to buy a new horse. Said person wants a well broke, drama free mount. Over and over I watch her/him select something four or five years old, thinking that the horse will have many more useful, sound years than an older horse. Who can fault that thinking? Over and over I watch as the carefully chosen, well broke, good natured young horse acts just like a broke older horse—sometimes for a long time. But inevitably it happens….eventually there is a day when the young horse acts up. Horse spooks or bucks or bolts—person is dumped and hurt, or just scared, and things are never quite the same again. Person has lost confidence in horse and perhaps horse has lost confidence in person. Sometimes confidence is regained, sometimes not. But overall, it’s a predictable story that could easily be avoided.
Mind you, I’m not saying there is anything wrong with choosing a young horse. I spent twenty years choosing, buying and training young horses. I had a great time. I was not at all worried or upset when my young horses acted up. Once in awhile they dumped me, and though I didn’t like that much, I accepted it as part of the deal. As my horses got older, they got solid. It was all good.
Now? Now I don’t want to get dumped. I’m aware that I’d come off easier, I’m aware that I’d hit the ground harder and break more readily. I don’t really have time to get hurt right now. I’m sure some would tell me that if I don’t want to get hurt I shouldn’t ride. And that any horse can dump you. I’ve heard that one before. And yes, in a manner of speaking its true. But no, my broke trail horse is not likely to dump me. I’m probably more likely to get in a wreck driving my truck, to tell the truth.
Despite the “any horse can dump you” wisdom, the fact is that if you’re an experienced rider riding a solid horse you know well on easy trail rides, you are not very likely to get dumped. In hundreds and hundreds of rides over many years, I have not once hit the ground from one of my broke horses. (Knocking on wood.). Yes, it can happen. No, it ain’t likely. Were I to buy myself a four year old my odds of hitting the ground would go up about a hundred times. Even if he was the nicest four year old on the planet.
The point of this post is not to run down young horses or anyone who has chosen to ride a young horse. Far from it. I admire and applaud you if that is your choice. The point is to make it very clear that there is a huge difference between a well broke horse of eight years old or older and a well broke horse of less than eight. Many, many very sweet four year olds go through a big “waking up” stage around five or six. Its not a bad thing—many a lazy young horse shows his potential to be a real “star” at some event or other right around this time. But so many people who chose a “gentle” three or four year old are very unhappy when this horse becomes a very much livelier five and six year old. Unfortunately, this change is pretty much the norm.
So today I just want to put this truth out there in plain language. If you want a no-drama horse, choose one that is eight or older. If you choose a younger horse, be sure that you are Ok with some “dramatic” moments. Because you are very likely to have them.
Not all older horses are drama free. There are many reasons why a particular older horse can be a lousy choice. Not all older horses have been competently trained. Some older horses have been abused—pushed too hard in the show ring…etc. Some older horses have been hurt or have physical problems such that they never going to be sound or truly usable as a riding horse again. Some older horses are just not of the right personality type to make a solid horse—this can be genetic—it doesn’t always come from poor training. So just being older is no guarantee that a horse is a solid riding horse.
BUT…if we are talking about two well broke, sound horses, of a good disposition, and one is ten and the other is four, your odds of a peaceful, drama free riding life go way up if you choose the older horse.
Again, I think choosing a younger horse is just fine if you are up for the occasional bit of drama. In my twenties I bought three year old Gunner, who was/is a sensitive, reactive, spooky horse. I was happy riding him; I knew he spooked; I could deal with it. One day, gathering cattle in the wind, I kicked four year old Gunner up to the high lope to turn the group of cows, who had taken off in a direction I didn’t want them to go. To my complete surprise, Gunner put his head down and started bucking. Now Gunner didn’t buck—he just never did. So this caught me completely unprepared. I lurched forward over his neck and almost came off, saving myself by a grab at the mane. Gunner wasn’t bucking very hard (more crowhopping than bucking) and my angry “whoa” caused his head to come up. I pulled myself back in the saddle, kicked him up to the lope again and off we went.
This is what I mean about young horses. Gunner didn’t mean to buck me off—he just felt good and it was windy, so he acted up a bit. But I damn sure came very close to hitting the ground, because he caught me by surprise. And now, in my fifties instead of my twenties, I would come off much easier and be much more likely to break something. This is why I don’t ride young horses any more (though I still have and love Gunner—and he’s still a big spook at 32 years old). The horse I ride now, Sunny, who is a very calm-minded critter in his teens, would not bother with such an energetic burst of bucking under any circumstances, wind or no wind. And this is why I ride him.
Anyway, the point of this post is not to discourage anyone from choosing or riding a young horse. Its just to put out a basic truth for all horse people to consider. If you want drama free, an older horse is a better choice. Young horses are growing and changing and coming into their own, and like young people, it is natural for them to test the limits at times. I have known several horses that grew a couple of inches and filled out to the tune of a couple of hundred pounds between five and eight. The amount of energy and the upwelling of “life” that goes with that growth can be surprising and unsettling if you’re not prepared for it. Again, its not a bad thing, but it is a thing to keep in mind.
Hopefully this post will spare someone somewhere some drama/injury he or she wishes to avoid. And I welcome all of your insights on this subject.
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