The domino effect of backing horses too early or “There’s always a bigger horse”

Travelling into hyperspace.

All too often in recent years, I am being called out to see horses who are suffering the effects of being pushed too far, too fast at an early age. It may seem to some of my readers that I am speaking of the racing industry. I assure you that these horses are anything but racehorses. I am referring to all horses from ponies to dressage horses, from general hacks to showjumpers. 

As the pace of life changes for the human race, so too has the expectation risen for our horses. No longer do our horses have time to mature, to grow, and to develop into the strong horses that they were intended to be. Horses nowadays must fulfill the expectations of owners and trainers in an environment of virtual instant gratification. Traditional in-hand work and appreciation of horses has been sacrificed for the saddle to be fitted to immature animals whose musculature is not fully formed and whose growth plates have yet to close.

Judge me by my size, do you?

Considering that the growth plates of the shoulder and pelvis of the horse do not close until approximately 4 years of age, and that the growth plates in the vertebrae do not close until 6 years of age, is it any wonder that horses showjumping and performing extreme collection as early as 4 are on the scrap heap before they even reach their teenage years? 

The disposal rate of horses only increases, unfortunately, the bigger the horse is. There is always a tendency in owners and trainers alike to see a large horse and perceive it as mature. It is assumed that these horses are capable of ridden work, of jumping fences and of galloping across fields carrying their riders to stardom and fame. In reality, these are the horses who stand to lose so much, to suffer injury and to have their careers end before they have begun. 

According to Dr. Deb Bennett, the 32 vertebrae do not finally fuse until at least 5 and 1/2 years old, with this statistic applying to a small-size mare. Dr. Deb further states that taller horses with longer necks take longer with males requiring six months longer than females. And the last of the vertebrae to close are at the base of the neck. Is it therefore any wonder that in recent years we are looking at an increase in diagnoses such as ‘kissing spines’ and neurological deficits?

Always in motion is the future.

If we consider, as an example, the level of collection asked of dressage horses which, of necessity, entails the use of the musculature around the base of the neck – considering the delay in fusion of this vertebra – what would be the outcome of pushing young horses before the fusion occurs? Would we not perhaps be wise to wait patiently and ask of the horse such work as his growth plates and musculature allow?

That intermittent trip, that loss of proprieception, is in many cases not the ‘laziness’ ascribed to some poor horses whose owners do not seek enlightenment. I personally struggle with the notion that a flight animal can ever be ‘lazy’. It makes far more sense to consider that these may be signs of neurological deficit due to early backing and overworking of a young horse.

Many claim that their horses are well despite early backing and overwork and yet never consider the indirect consequences which can be profound. When large growth plates have not properly fused before work, for example the sacroiliac, it is highly probable that other joints not intended for certain types of movement, will take up the slack such as the hocks. How many performance horses require injections to the hocks before the beginning of the competition season? Ask yourselves, do I want this for my horse?

The disturbance in The Force.

The compound effect of early work is not limited to joints either. An effect is also seen in the soft tissue. Muscles put under strain due to pain in joints or the inability to support the structure due to immaturity, creates horses that are stiff, often one-sided and many times with an inelastic gait. And of course, once the muscles are under strain, so too are the tendons, the result being tendon injuries.

So now we have created a horse with muscular insufficiency and soreness. The knock-on effect of this is then incorrect loading of the limbs. This manifests not only with one-sidedness but imbalance in hoof growth, possibly with flared hooves, heel contraction, under-run heels etc. to name but a few.

Just recently I have seen a rise in hoof related issues which many seek to correct with ‘corrective’ shoeing. But what good is this if we are not correcting the cause of the problem? This is a ‘band-aid’ response treating a symptom, not the cause.

And we have not even begun to discuss the internal health of the horse. Why do we have such a high incidence of gastric ulceration? Aside from many of the causes proposed such as housing, feeding and drug related ulceration, the primary factor that is glaringly obvious is that of stress. Most vets concur that stress is a major factor when considering ulcers. A young horse backed early and pushed beyond its physical and mental limits is a horse under stress. And most of these horses are often housed ineffectually with limited turnout and limited access to the nutrients they require.

If we seek strong bones and effective musculature, this extends to nutrition. In today’s age of convenience, that often means either a lack of correct nutrients for development or excessive incorrect nutrition leading to obesity with excess weight stressing young joints.

I am not saying that all ailments in a horses life stem from early backing and work, far from it. But the domino effect of backing too early and overworking is there and plain for all to see, should they wish to look. 

This may be a time now to reflect. Consider our young horses longevity and long-term health and to produce healthy strong horses for future generations. We are all guardians of equines, with a duty to protect these beautiful animals who serve us unconditionally. In the words of the great Yoda “Patience you must have my young padawan.”