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Does time off hurt a horse's training?

From: Erin

Dear Jessica, I am always so happy to see your emails in my inbox! Thanks so much for sharing all you have learned and discovered with others instead of letting us muddle through on our own! I am wondering if I might get your opinion on my mare. I bought Hope as a five year old, unbroken broodmare at the end of 2002. I started her myself and she is showing all the signs of an amazing future. Her paces and conformation are wonderful (and trust me on that, because I'm REALLY fussy), but that's not as important as her personality. She's the best horse to ride AND to be around. She's everything I ever wanted in a horse and more!

Unfortunately, life threw a curveball as life often does, and for the last six months Hope has been turned out without one bit of work. This doesn't look like changing anytime soon. I know that SHE is perfectly happy. She's in a big field with shady trees, with her gelding friend, wearing no blanket, doing no work and eating grass all day. It's a perfect life for a horse! I, on the other hand, am very concerned about all that talent going to waste. Selling her is really a last resort for me, I've been waiting all my life for this horse and I don't want to send my best friend away. I guess what I want to know is, do you think Hope can still have a successful show career if she doesn't start serious work until she is eight or nine?

She was going walk-trot-canter when I was riding her, and doing ground poles and very tiny jumps. I would love to take her to some dressage and jumper shows one day. I'm worried because she wasn't saddle broke until she was five and a half, then she was only in light work for a year before I had to turn her out. Part of me says not to worry about how many prizes my best friend can win, but the other part knows that she really could go places if she got the chance. Is it bad to start a horse under saddle, work them lightly, then put them out in the field? Should I just enjoy my wonderful mare and not worry about trying to compete with her? If (or should I say, when) I am able to ride her again, do you think she'll take a long time to remember her training? As far as I know, horses can keep on learning throughout their adult life but that doesn't stop me worrying about MY horse!

If you can offer any insight into the effects of interrupted training, they would be most appreciated!

Sincerely, Erin and Hope who wants you to say she should stay in the field forever!

Hi Erin! Thank you for the kind words; they're much appreciated. ;-)

"Time off" is generally a good thing, provided that it's productive time off, building the horse's health and well-being and physical coordination, and provided that when the rider finally puts the horse back into work, she doesn't feel compelled to pick up exactly where she left off. ;-)

It sounds to me as though you've found the ideal horse for you - and (granted due to circumstances more than planning) she's been lucky enough to be started slowly and worked lightly and given the best possible sort of time off. Starting a horse at 5 or 6 and then turning it back out for half a year or a year isn't quite the norm, but... in many ways, it's BETTER than the norm.

MANY horses are started far too early, worked far too hard, given insufficient time off, and burn out - mentally, emotionally, and physically - far too soon. Many horses are ridden by humans who use force and gadgetry to torque the horses' bodies into an "outline" - without regard for the SOME horses are more fortunate - they're allowed to become more mature before beginning work, and then they are worked gradually and systematically AND GIVEN TIME OFF at regular intervals. When "time off" means "time locked in a stall", it's deleterious - bad for the horse's body and mind and spirit. But when "time off" means "time in a field, time to move freely and enjoy the company of others and time to relax and just be a horse", it's very good for the horse in every way. No, you won't be able to take an extremely fit, competition-ready horse, turn it out for six months, and then fetch it out of the field on a Friday and take it to a competition the following day! But the horse won't have forgotten anything it's learned, although it may take a few weeks or months to build its strength and reflexes back to its previous level of fitness and ability.

At the Spanish Riding School, horses don't begin work until they are at least 4 years old, they are brought along slowly and carefully by methods that educate the horses instead of forcing them, and that employ physical exercises (not gadgets) to build strong muscles, bones, and support structures. The horses are given time to understand, time to achieve, time to build habits, and their bodies are given the time they need to develop - as opposed to the hurry-up, gadget-ridden, instant-gratification methods that are so often employed elsewhere, and that neither develop the horses' minds nor allow their bodies the time needed to remodel in response to the physical work.

In the States, there are still some ranches where horses are raised running free on thousands of acres. The horses are given necessary veterinary attention and occasional "gentling" sessions, then are brought in as four- or five-year-olds, introduced to tack and rider, and turned out again, to be brought in again as eight- or nine-year-olds. That is when they are judged to be mature and completely developed, and that is when their real work will begin.

In both of the above cases, it's taken for granted that the horses will be educated carefully over time, and that they will be useful working animals into their middle or late twenties at least. Compare this with the plight of the horse that is brought up in a stall or tiny pen, introduced to tack and rider at age 2, and far too often, retired lame or "hopelessly difficult" before it even reaches age seven or eight and achieves full physical maturity...

Life has a way of throwing those curveballs - we just have to find ways to deal with them. You seem to have found a good wya to deal with yours - turn your horse out in a situation that keeps her happy and healthy, and work with her (sensibly) whenever you can. You can do very well, I think, if you'll just remember that training is about a process of skills acquisition, NOT about a set timetable. Stop feeling guilty for not being "on schedule". There IS no schedule.

I think that you should enjoy your wonderful mare, work with her, build your partnership and your skills (I hope you have access to a really good instructor, because that is SO important), and have FUN. If you would like to compete, then you should plan ahead, work with your instructor to set long-term and short-term goals, work towards them, compete, and have fun competing. In my experience, horses can continue to learn as long as they have a pulse, and as long as anyone is willing to teach them. What you call "interrupted training" is what many other people would see as "the luxury of working slowly and doing things right". Horses are brilliant at latent learning - they continue to process their lessons during their time off. If you do the same thing, and are systematic, patient, and observant when you work with your mare, I expect you'll do very well indeed, and still be actively enjoying one another's company twenty years from now.


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