It is interesting to me that trends in equine welfare and health care tend to be reflected across industries, breed lines and disciplines. On several other posts I have remarked on changes in the equine industry that have been called into practice by convergent concerns over health and wellness issues affecting all of us who seek the safest competitive environment for our equine athletes.
Recently, the "hot topic" up for discussion seems to be the starting of very young horses. In many equestrian sports (racing, reining, and cutting come to mind), horses are trained under saddle and then shown in intense competition during their two and three year old years - a strategy that some argue can lead to increased injuries and breakdowns, and shorter careers due to an earlier onset of soundness problems. There is so much money to be had, however, in both stock horse futurity competition and in two-year-old and three-year-old racing (who, after all, could imagine a Kentucky Derby field without its requisite three-year old superstars?), that the practice persists. In the last couple of months it has finally gotten some press from prominent trainers and is sparking continued debate.
I, myself, have often lamented that (especially) racehorses and western sports horses are started before their minds and bodies are fully physically developed. The verdict has yet to be in, but a recent presentation by veterinarian Larry Bramlage at the Jockey Club Round Table conference in Saratoga Springs argued that training racehorses at young ages is in fact a proactive way to ensure that their muscular and skeletal systems develop the strength needed to withstand the physical challenges of racing. He cites data conducted in a Jockey Club study that showed that horses started as two-year-olds race on average many more times over the course of their lives than those who get a later start. As Bramlage explains, "This data shows that horses that began racing as two-year-olds are much more successful, have much longer careers, and, by extrapolation, show less predisposition to injury than horses that did not begin racing until their three-year-old year."
In a related editorial in Volume 23, No. 3 of the Grayson-Jockey Publication, Research Today, Edward Bowen sites anecdotal evidence from racing's history to argue that racing healthy two-year-olds does not result in ill effects. He notes that many prestigious races over the years, including the Breeder's Cup Juvenile, have tested horses as two-year-olds without causing long term harm. That most of the Breeder's Cup two-year-old winners do not have the mettle to best competitors at the Kentucky Derby the following spring (Street Sense being an exception) is an issue explained away by the assertion that the racing two-year-olds matured faster than their counterparts, but can then be beaten when their three-year-old classmates catch up in strength and fitness. As Bowen asserts, "the Breeder's Cup Juvenile specifically, or racing 1 1/16 [miles] in general, can hardly be accused of compromising our best young prospects."
But there is dissension in the thoroughbred ranks. A letter published in the October 11, 2008 issue of the Blood Horse, from equine veterinarian Dr. Mark Rothstein, argues that the Bramlage study is flawed, because it does not compare two-year-olds that are ready to race and do, with two-year-olds that are ready to race, but don't. It only compares two-year-olds that start racing at two, with three-year-olds that start racing at three, and etc. He argues that the two stages of racing development are simply "not equivalent," and that if a horse is not ready to race at two years old, there is often a physical or behavioral reason for holding the horse back. They cannot thus be compared in terms of lifetime fitness and stamina with those who were ready to race, and did race at two years old.
In the September 27, 2008 issue of the Blood Horse, Ocala equine vet Dr. Sam Ferguson offers another critical view of the practice. As he explains, the trend in thoroughbred racing over the last 30 years has been toward fewer lifetime starts per horse, but larger numbers of starts per two-year-old. He does not call Dr. Bramlage's study into question, but does suggest anecdotally that two-year-olds who are sound and fit enough to race are "the minority," and "tend to have a high number of bucked shins, ankle chips, etc." He returns to his point about lifetime starts and argues, "I like to see horses race as 2-year-olds. As Bramlage suggests, their active, young physiology supports development at this time, but it still appears the soundness of the breed is in jeopardy, whether from genetics, corrective surgeries, or exogenous medications (e.g. steroids) administered."
So what do the Western people have to say? As I mentioned it was compelling that the questions called forth by Bramlage's publication had far reaching implications across industries. As noted in the article "Too Young" by Bob Avila, in the October issue of Horse & Rider, the American Paint Horse Association has recently orchestrated a Fall Championship Show in November of this year, to offer world-level competition for young horses five months after the June APHA World Show, thereby giving young Paints several additional months of maturity before they compete. The Fall Championship show will "host World Championship title classes for weanling and yearling halter, yearling longe line, and 2-year-old performance horses, plus the 3-year-old Challenge classes in Western pleasure, hunter under saddle, and reining." Similarly, at its annual convention this year, the National Cutting Horse Association proposed to change the NCHA futurity age of competition from 3 years old to 4 years old.
And what does Mr. Avila himself have to say about the debate? He does argue that in a perfect world, giving 2-year-old and younger animals time to mature before competition is a plus in terms of their safety and psychological health. It prevents over stressing their developing bodies and burning them out mentally. However the issue that could arise in today's money-hungry world of competition is that training will not start any later on these horses, trainers will just see this window as a way to get additional months of settling on their mounts. The five months will be used, therefore, not as down time to foster maturity and development, but as a longer training period. This could, potentially, lead to stressing the animals even further. Avila suggests simply being smart in one's training practices, and letting the animal guide the training. If a baby needs more time to be a baby, let him be so. If he's fit, and sound and raring to go, put the hours on him and give him a head start. Starting them early could in fact actually improve future potential soundness because it allows training to progress slowly and methodically, with less immediate stress to the animal. Bob does offer the caveat that if training starts before 2 years of age, it should focus on training for more days, but less hours per day. As Bob explains, "the key to my horses' longevity is that I start them easy."
Always the consummately thoughtful and compassionate horseman, Bob likens this process to building a house. He says, "Have you ever watched a cement foundation being poured? The builders take special care - they don't want it to dry too quickly, because that makes the cement brittle. The slower it dries, the stronger it is. Without a strong foundation, the rest of the structure will fail. Early training is the foundation of a good horse. Without a good, strong one you won't have a horse that lasts. And it takes a long time to build a good, strong foundation, which is why I start my futurity horses young. It ultimately lessens the stress on them."
Thanks Bob. That's horse sense we can take to the bank.