Natural Horsemanship, part 2: Age Appropriate Training Programs

In my last post, I spoke a little about my time as a racehorse – and about being lucky enough to receive a second chance when that career ended.

After leaving the racetrack, I had the great pleasure of living at Phyllis Dawson’s farm for a while, where I was allowed to be a baby for six months before beginning some light training as a “future jumping prospect.” When Ms. Phyllis decided that I was well-rested and ready to find a permanent home, I moved to Long Island, New York, to live with my “forever humans” – who you will know as “my Mommy and Daddy.”

At the time, I was only 3 and a half years old, which was still far too young to do any serious work under saddle. And, although you may think it’s because I am naturally very small, it actually goes for horses of any size and breed: no 3 and a half year old horse is old enough or physically mature enough to be ridden a lot, no matter what they look like, how big they already are… or how mentally mature they might seem. 

As I explained before, small horses (like me) don’t become physically mature until they’re around 5 and a half or 6 years old – while larger horses, like Warmbloods, continue to mature physically until they are 7 or 8 years old. But the same principles still apply: if you ride a horse too much while they are so young, you will interfere with the development of their bones (especially their spine, since it’s the last part of the skeleton to mature), as well as causing serious conformational problems and damaging ligaments, tendons, and joints.

With this in mind, my Mommy and Daddy developed a training program that was appropriate for my age and maturity level. The training program continued to grow and evolve as I continued to grow, and will undoubtedly do so for the rest of my life!

Age Appropriate Training at 3 and a half

At my first home in New York

In New York, age 3 and a half

Although it’s important not to work too hard under saddle when you’re just a baby, it’s also important to get exercise and start building up your strength and stamina. Having strong muscles (but not muscles that are over-tired) will help to support the growth of strong bones, as well. My humans kept that in mind when they developed a training program for my cute little 3 and a half year old self.

The training program was comprised of the following rules:

  1. No more than 4 days of work per week, total.
  2. No more than 2 consecutive days of workouts before having a day off to rest. (Turnout and hand-walking are acceptable on days off.)
  3. No more than 2 days per week of “under saddle” workouts, and never consecutively.
  4. Under saddle workouts should be light, keeping as much weight off my back as possible.
  5. Day off after being ridden.
  6. Free-lunging (or letting me walk, trot and canter on my own in a large, open space – like an enclosed arena) at least once per week – but more, if possible.
  7. Long-lining (not lunging, as lunging makes us work off-balance) no more than once per week, as small, repetitive circles can also cause damage to the joints.
  8. Light jumping over SMALL jumps (no bigger than 2 feet high) no more than once per month as a reward, and only during a light workout week.
  9. Free-jumping no more than once per month, and no higher than 3 feet.
  10. Day off after jumping, whether free-jumping or under saddle.
  11. Turn out as much as possible in a controlled environment, without too much extra room to run and hurt myself.

During this time, I learned things like moving away from pressure, moving off of the leg (leg yields, turn-on-the-haunches and turn-on-the-forehand), responding to my rider’s seat and hand, picking up the correct leads, stopping with as little pressure on the reins as possible… things like that. Believe it or not, a lot of those things can be taught from the ground! Subsequently, we did a great deal of groundwork, and – of course – we joined up as much as possible.

Age Appropriate Training at 4 and a half

The "jumping hackamore"

In Miami, age 4 and a half

Now, because the difference in age wasn’t that great, the training program didn’t change very much by the time I was 4 years old. However, since my muscle strength and stamina were increasing, Mommy did  make a few small changes to the rules by the time I was 4 and a half years old.

So, all of the rules stayed the same, except for the following changes:

  1. No more than 5 days per week of work, total.
  2. No more than 3 of those days under saddle, and no more than 2 consecutively.
  3. No more than 3 consecutive days of work before a day off. (It was usually 3 days on, one day off, 2 days on, one day off… and so on.)
  4. Jumping no more than twice per month, and no higher than 3 feet.
  5. Lots of exercises over ground poles.

By the time I was 4 years old, I was very good at doing flying lead changes, counter-cantering, collecting and extending at each gate, and I could even hold myself in a proper frame.

Age Appropriate Training at 5 years

At the age of 5, I was well on my way to being full grown – though not yet completely. My muscles were very strong and I never felt over-worked; I had reached my maximum height, and my bones had almost finished growing in density, as well. Pretty much the only thing left to finish growing was my spine, so my workout schedule didn’t change that much.

It consisted of the following rules:

  1. No more than 5 days of work per week, total.
  2. No more than 3 consecutive days of workouts before having a day off to rest. (Usually 3 days on, one day off, 3 days on, one day off, etc.)
  3. No more than 4 days per week of “under saddle” workouts.
  4. Long-lining (not lunging) no more than twice per week.
  5. Jumping no bigger than 3’3 feet high, no more than three times per month.
  6. Day off or long-lining after jumping.
  7. Turn out as much as possible in a controlled environment.

Age Appropriate Training at 5 and a half

Age 5 and a half, jumping like a pro!

Age 5 and a half, jumping like a pro!

When I was just a little more than 5 and a half years old, my Mommy and Daddy got the good news from the vet that my body was fully physically mature. Mommy knew that this meant we could start working out harder and jumping higher – but being as cautious as she is, she still wanted to take things slowly. She always says, “You’re going to be with me for the rest of your life, Icchy. Why would I want to rush anything?”

So, at 5 and a half, my training schedule consisted of these rules, which weren’t all that different from the last set of rules:

  1. No more than 4 consecutive days of workouts before having a day off to rest. (Usually 4 days on, one day off, 3 days on, one day off, etc.)
  2. No more than 5 days per week of “under saddle” workouts.
  3. Long-lining (not lunging) no more than twice per week.
  4. Jumping no more than once per week.
  5. Day off after a hard jumping day; light ride after a light jumping day.
  6. Turn out as much as possible in a controlled environment.

Now, the great thing about being full grown was that I got to try out new things… like going for record high jumps every couple months! I jumped 4’6 for the first time in December of last year, and then I jumped FIVE FEET in February, a month before I celebrated my 6th birthday!

Age Appropriate Training at 6 years

Age 6, rockin' like a rock star!

Age 6, rockin’ like a rock star!

Now that I’m 6 years old, I get to work a lot more and a lot harder. I get to jump twice per week sometimes, as long as one of the jumping days is very light. I get to jump bigger jumps on a more regular basis. But you know what? I still don’t work more than 4 consecutive days in a row before having a day off, except on very rare occasions.

Now, you might wonder why that is, right? I mean, if I’m 6 years old, finished growing, and have big, strong muscles – why can’t I just work 6 days in a row every week? Well, I’ll tell you. It’s because my Mommy and Daddy don’t want me to get something called Osteoarthritis, also known as degenerative joint disease.

You see, Osteoarthritis can happen to a horse of any age, no matter how old or young. If my workouts become too repetitive, or I’m not given enough time off to let my joints repair themselves… I’ll basically fall apart!

Here, allow me to explain in better detail…


Now, I know I’ve talked before about degenerative joint disease, which is unfortunately pretty common among equine athletes of all ages… but I really want to talk about it again, because it is so common – and so easy to prevent!

Osteoarthritis (OA) is basically a term used to describe a series of changes inside of the joints, and it is also known as Degenerative Joint Disease (DJD), which can easily lead to Bone Spurs… or worse.

Basically, DJD is a breakdown of the cartilage inside joints. The cartilage is the stuff the sits in the middle of the joint, allowing the bones to move freely without scraping against each other. It also helps to evenly spread out the force that is exerted on the joint.

The breaking-down of this cartilage can be caused by too much hard work, training on hard surfaces (or even on surfaces that are too soft), trauma to the joint, infection in the joint, poor hoof care, or poor nutrition – all things that can be prevented! (However, it can also be caused by some things that cannot be prevented, like being born with poor conformation or certain deformities.)

Anyway, when a horse (or even a human!) works out too hard without resting their muscles and joints, the cartilage inside the joint becomes inflamed, and doesn’t get proper nourishment or lubrication.

When the cartilage doesn’t get proper nourishment or lubrication – and it cannot effectively repair itself (like with rest and lots of walking) – it begins to thin.

If the cartilage continues to thin, it will eventually dry up and disappear completely.

If the cartilage disappears, the joint will no longer have any lubrication, and then you will basically have bone scraping against bone.

When that happens, it becomes very easy for Bone Spurs to develop.

Now, Bone Spurs can be a couple different things. First, they can be the sharp, bony projections inside the margin of the joint, which you can see in x-rays – and those ones are referred to by vets as “osteophytes.” As I said above, those develop when the cartilage of the joint wears out or thins. Bone Spurs can also be “enthesiophytes,” which is just another fancy term for the bony projections when they’re at the attachment of a tendon or ligament. Either way, Bone Spurs are bony projections, and they’re a symptom of damage… which is caused by any number of the things I listed before.

It’s actually a lot more complicated than all that, but I think you get the general idea. If you’re worked too hard at any age, and you’re not given enough time off, your joints are going to break down until you’re not able to work anymore.

And that’s all, folks!

Okay, there’s actually a lot more I want to talk about… like stone bruises and abscesses and the reason my Mommy long-lines me, instead of lunging me… But I’ll leave all of that for another day. This was a lot of information for you to take in again, I know; I hope that it has given you much more to think about! And I hope you’ll be able to communicate these things to your humans, so that you can have a happy life and an effective workout schedule!

So, on that note… I guess I’ll catch y’all later!

Categories: A Day in the Life of Icchy Star, Memories and Nostalgia | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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3 thoughts on “Natural Horsemanship, part 2: Age Appropriate Training Programs

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