By Stacy Pearsall
If you’re a first time European Brabant youngster owner, it’s important to know how their bones develop before, and while, you train your horse.
The horse has evolved to escape predation via flight from an early age. Foals are born at approximately 10% of the mature weight and have a musculoskeletal system that is advanced enough to permit standing and suckling within the first hour of birth. At birth, a foal is approximately 60% of the mature height. By 24 months of age, the foal will have almost doubled in height. Like us, they will have growing pains with bouts of lethargy.
Light horse breeds will reach 84% of their mature height at six months of age. At 12 months that horse will have reached 94% of its adult height or around 15 hands, and at 22 months it has almost finished growing in height, reaching 97% of its full height at approximately 15.2 hands. Unlike light breeds, draft horses reach full height anywhere from 5 to 7 years old. Yup, there’s a BIG difference.
As for when to start training, there is much debate on when to start riding or hitching a draft horse based on the issue of skeletal maturity and the timing of bone plate closure.
Radiographic studies on the acquisition of bone mineral in horses from one day of age to 27 years have shown that maximum bone mineral content (BMC) is not achieved until the horse is six years old. The skeletal maturity of a horse determines what they can safely perform, so we as responsible owners should schedule a vet visit for some bone X-rays to be doubly sure of our horse's physical abilities and/or limitations and to ascertain their stage of development.
Until then, here’s a simple training guide to follow that is in-line with the theory of draft horse bone development.
Start imprinting at birth. Work your foal, weanling, yearling or two year old on ground manners. IE: haltering, head lowering, feet lifting, trailer loading. Avoid lunging or tight circles that can may cause irreversible damage to their joints.
From 1 to 3 years old, you can introduce them to harness and long-lining. Ground driving will make their first hitch or saddling that much easier. Pony them on trail ride or next to an established team so they can see and hear the sites and sounds of work activity.
From ages 3 to 4, you can introduce your horse to light cart and/or saddle work.
Getting a set of X-rays around 4 is recommended to see if your horse is physically ready for heavier weight bearing, longer saddle rides or heavier pulling loads. While they are outwardly big and may appear ready, their bones may not be. By pushing them too soon, you can cause lower-limb ailments and injuries, including fractures, pulled ligaments, and strained tendons.
Multimedia Educational Content About Horses
Erica K. Gee
Chris W. Rogers
Keren E. Dittmer
Dr. Wesley Sutter, DVM
Kentucky Equine Research Staff