It was a few too many years ago that I remember the first group of certified trainers from my “train the trainer” program got together at their graduation party and they collectively gave me a box of Depends diapers. This was their way of teasingly letting me know how they felt about the fact that I answered just about each and every question they ever asked with the answer “it depends”. In fact, this happens so much that it has become somewhat of a trademark for me. Often when I am at a clinic and someone asks a question you will hear a chorus rise up from the group as they chime in with the answer “it depends”.
From coast to coast in Canada, the United States, or whether I am working in Europe, Bermuda, Mexico or the United Kingdom, everywhere I go people have the same issues with their horses, the same highs and lows, and no matter what language they speak all cultures of people inevitably ask the same questions about how to improve their relationship with their horses. And my one answer is almost always the same. It depends.
When someone asks me something like “I’ve heard lots of opinions as to how old a horse should be before you put a first ride on it. I’ve been told everything from 2 years old to 5. What do you think?” And of course my answer is: “It depends”. I say this because some breeds mature both physically and mentally then others. It also depends upon the competency, quality and consistency of the groundwork done to prepare the horse for the first ride. It also depends on your definition of and expectations for a first ride.
If a good trainer does their due diligence with a horse who is mentally and physically ready, willing and able to focus and learn how to learn as a 2 year old – and their definition of a first ride is 10-15 minutes of walking around quietly under saddle with a truly balanced rider who does not weigh too much for the size of the horse – then starting a horse at 2 is not a problem in my books. On the other hand – I don’t think any horse at any age deserves to suffer under a wannabe trainer who merely gets on to “buck them out” and show then who is boss. So, ultimately, the answer to how old a horse should be before it gets its first ride is that it depends on the horse and depends on the rider and depends on the definition of and expectations for a first ride.
Or how about the people who say: “That quarter horse is 5 years old and should now be working in a leveraged bit instead of a snaffle bit”. The truth is that age has little to do with what kind of bit a horse works in. The answer as to what kind of bit a horse should be working in DEPENDS again on how competent and consistent the training has been and what the expectations are for the performance of the horse. The answer here is it depends on whether or nor the horse has truly been trained to evolve out of the snaffle bit and into the leveraged bit.
Or one of my favourites: “I’ve heard some trainers say that you should not lunge a horse in a small circle because it is too hard on their legs”. Well, again, the answer is that it depends. Logic would suggest that if a reiner can spin a horse on its hindquarters very, very fast in the same place, and an upper level dressage horse
can canter pirouette, and a jumper can turn a horse at a gallop with a rollback on his or her hindquarters, and all these “little circles” are being done with a rider mounted on the horse – then the truth of the matter is that the size of the circle that a horse lunges in may or may not be good or bad DEPENDING upon the frame and balance of the horse. In other words – how large a circle is when both riding and doing groundwork is dependent entirely upon the quality of the frame of the body of the horse when on the circle. Or to be blunt, how small the circle can get depends upon how good the trainer/rider is at balancing the frame of the horse.
I could write an entire book of horse questions titled IT DEPENDS. If you phoned a psychologist and asked “what do I need to do to lead a more fulfilling life” you would not likely be given a direct answer. Nor would you get a direct answer if you called a medical doctor and asked what to do for your headache or stomach ache. The answer would be to come into the clinic for some tests and to answer some more diagnostic questions because the answer is “it depends”.
So please beware of any trainer who gives you a direct answer to a question. Almost any question asked by a student to a trainer or riding coach should typically require the trainer or coach to ask more definitive and diagnostic questions of the student. Like with a doctor, a correct prognosis will first require an accurate diagnosis that will more often then not require more questions the provide more information. So I chuckle when people say “I have a quick question” and I often reply with “be prepared for a long answer full of lots more questions”.