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What issues are caused by training young horses ‘too hard’?

Horses are not machines; they take time to be broken in, trained properly, and then prepared for the racetrack. Often, trainers rush the horse through training to get them to the racetrack sooner. There are several reasons for this, and although most trainers do things properly, we have known it for certain individuals to cut corners. In doing so, horses can develop serious physical and mental issues, potentially shortening their racing life and also preventing them from fulfilling their complete potential. I wanted to learn more about the potential issues that could stem from training young horses too hard, and also to find out how it should be done correctly.

At 2, a racehorse is at a key point in its mental and physical development whereby it can absorb a lot of information and can be moulded for a career in racing. At this stage, a horse has developed the height, the length of stride to run, the energy to work, and the mental capacity for race training. This not only gets them used to frequent transportation but also allows them to develop further physically, by optimising the condition of ligaments, tendons, muscles, and the nervous system.

Developmental modelling, as used in racehorses, removes the need for surgical intervention and instead moulds the horse through an activity, stimulating the desired physical changes. Galloping and other methods are used to achieve this. It is important, however, to monitor all aspects to ensure they are all keeping pace with each other and that the horse isn't being overworked. In doing so, issues such as lameness, sore shins, and a kissing spine can be avoided. More on this later!

For now, though, let's look at why many insist on racing horses at such a young age and the mistakes that they seem to make.

Diagram showing the complete make-up of a horse (for future reference)

First off, I’d just like to give recognition to Jo Davis racing. I see Jo post a lot on social media attempting to educate people on the dangers of over-training young horses, and I know she does a lot with re-homing these animals, too. In reading her posts on the topic, not only did I learn a lot, but it inspired me to write this article. Horse racing needs more people like her!

Everyone knows there is money in horse racing, particularly in 2- and 3-year-old races. The chance at winning some decent prize money is often too much to resist, leading to young horses being pushed to the track before they are ready. Many of these horses are found to be ‘weak’ or ‘backwards’ (meaning the horse does not respond to the jockey and go forwards). Unfortunately, such issues are rarely found until the horse has run multiple races and ended up with a smaller trainer after not fulfilling expectations. The rush to win money often, unfortunately, becomes the priority as the trainer wants to recuperate some of the money spent on training the horse. The decline in prize money in recent years is another overwhelming factor in poor training decisions being made.

Horse welfare is something we’ve seen a lot about in recent months and is always the number one priority. For a few, however, their immoral decisions wind up with horses being ‘thrown out’ because they aren’t good enough. This is where people like Jo step in, to fix the issues that result from others' incompetence and give the horses the best life possible. There is the likelihood that some issues the horses develop could be hereditary (genetic predisposition is a thing, and breeding from horses that don’t have this would help), but 90% of the time is caused by training young horses too hard.

Young horses being trained and eased in on the gallops at Lambourn

To avoid such issues in the future, people need educating properly on what problems they can create from cutting corners. Using the correct procedures for training a young horse, as well as the correct saddles and riding methods to strengthen them up correctly, are all vital pieces of information that people should know. Engaging the top line, strengthening the lumbar, and preventing them from being crooked are all vital aspects to consider, alongside being able to canter using all legs equally and in a straight line.

Let's look more in-depth at what these issues are and what they entail.

Kissing Spine

Kissing Spine is a back pain that could be caused by using poorly fitting saddles or by a rider who is not sitting on the horse correctly. The sections of bone in a horse's spine which point upwards from the main vertebrae end up pressing against or rubbing on each other during movement. In a normal spinal column, the vertebrae line up like a row of ducks with thin bony projections (spinous processes) extending upwards from them, equally spaced. With kissing spine, these often end up crowding each other (kissing), or in severe cases may even overlap, which severely limits performance.

A study from 2011 found that 68% of 310 horses had kissing spine syndrome. A large percentage of these were thoroughbreds. They are more prone to the issue as their spinous processes are closer together.

Kissing Spine can be diagnosed through an x-ray; however, a horse may exhibit certain symptoms linking to it. These include:

· Being difficult to mount

· A change in temperament

· A feeling of stiffness when being worked

· A reluctance to go forward and struggling to transition between paces

· A loss of muscle around the topline

· The horse may repeatedly buck, rear, run away or kick out

An X-Ray showing the vertebrae touching/overlapping

The issue can, however, be rectified by surgery and twice-yearly injections. The surgery involves the ligaments between the spinous processes being cut through a small incision. This technique is now most popular because it is minimally invasive and the recovery time is shorter at 6-8 weeks. If the issue is serious, small amounts of bone may need removing. The twice-yearly injections must be coupled with ongoing physiotherapy and training to strengthen and maintain the core muscles in the horse's back, which help to support the spinal column.

Sore Shins:

Sore Shins are a common problem in young horses and are most often caused by over-exercising. At a young age, the new bone is still forming, meaning it is soft, whilst ideally the bone needs to harden to support the weight of the horse, which takes time. Continuous amounts of exercise or unnecessary pressure on them can cause injuries such as sore shins. This is where the bones, most often the cannon bone, develop tiny microscopic fractures. This has the potential to become permanent if they rush the horse back in to exercise before fully recovering.

A study conducted in 2014 in Australia found that the problem of sore shins affected 42% of both 2- and 3-year-old racehorses, and was a recurring issue for 40% of those throughout their lives. During the 2-year-old racing season, this issue accounted for the greatest number of modified training days and designated rest periods.

Some symptoms that a horse suffering from sore shins may exhibit are:

· Swelling around the shin

· The shin is hot to touch

· The horse winces when touched

· A shortened stride

· The forelegs are stiff

· Lameness

The general treatment for sore shins involves detecting the issue as early as possible, resting the horse in its box, doing cold compressions using ice packs 2-3 times a day on the affected area, and then using anti-inflammatory non-steroidal drugs (if needed) until it clears up. Naturally, the training schedule will be adapted in line with box rest. Shockwave therapy, amongst others, is available, however is seen as immoral.

Brian Singleton, former director of the Animal Health Trust, said: “The growth plates are still open in the leg bones of a two-year-old horse. They are only just closing in a three-year-old. Inevitably, these structures can be damaged by the stresses of training and racing. I strongly feel that two-year-old horses are just too young." This is an opinion shared by many in the modern-day.

Diagram showing the stages of equine skeletal development, paying particular attention to the legs


Lameness is more commonly used to describe a horse that has an issue of some form, usually muscular. During training and racing, the bones, joints, tendons, and ligaments are all placed under considerable stress. This increases the likelihood that a horse will develop an injury at some point. The term used for this is 'wastage', which describes the losses the horse suffers. These losses include financial loss, loss of training days, loss of racing opportunities, and a loss of fitness.

Several studies have found that musculoskeletal injury is the most common cause of wastage in young racehorses. A study of 314 thoroughbreds, conducted in Newmarket, England, found that the single most important reason for wastage in these young horses, with over 50% experiencing the issue, was lameness. A further study, conducted back in the '80s by Barbara Byard, monitored 40 different flat and national hunt racing stables to investigate why horses missed training/races. Of 625 2-year-old horses that entered training, 31% of those never made it to the racetrack, and the average number of runs by a horse that reached the track was 2. The biggest cause of this amongst the young horses was indeed lameness.

Many vets argue racing young horses causes most of these injuries because they are not physically mature enough to withstand the pressure placed on them. Although it has been recognised that many factors can contribute to this, pushing these animals too hard too soon predisposes horses to career-limiting injuries. The racing industry, however, backs racing 2- and 3-year-old horses as it is ‘economically essential’.

Some subtle symptoms of lameness include:

· A hind leg that doesn’t reach as far forward as the other

· Shorter strides/reluctance to move

· A change in movement/demeanour

· Tiptoeing of the front hoofs

· A raise of the head and neck when a specific leg hits the ground

· Raising of the pelvis on the lame side when trotting

Diagram showing how a lame horse might move, and also a horse recovering with a lame foreleg in their box

The treatment for lameness in a horse usually depends on the cause. Hand walking the horse helps to reduce pressure on the affected leg, giving it sufficient time to heal alongside a break from training and intense exercise. They may also give certain doses of drugs to reduce inflammation and reduce pain, whilst more serious forms of lameness (deformities, cancers, etc) may require surgery.

Genetic variation and maturity:

Whilst considering the issues that may be caused by training a young horse too hard, it’s also important to consider genetics and maturity. All horses differ in maturity, so there isn’t just one way to do things. Some horses are more excitable, whilst others are more reserved. Excitable horses could bolt at any moment, whereas reserved horses often take time to learn to balance and move with a rider aboard. Concentration levels may also differ. As with humans, some prefer to move around with a partner (in this case an older horse) whilst others prefer to go solo. Some horses thrive on a strict regime whereas others get bored easily, so keeping a horse interested is key. Identifying these characteristics within a horse is important because the training regime can be adapted around them. Ensuring a horse is balanced, is as calm as possible walking to and from the track, and has a positive reaction to the bit are key features that trainers try to instil as early as possible.

Young horses also differ psychologically because of factors such as genetics. Certain behaviours such as pacing around and pawing at stall walls and floors are likely to be exhibited by any foals that the horse produces and would require attention prior to training. The offspring may also inherit any health issues such as osteochondritis (a joint condition where the bone under the cartilage dies because of a lack of blood flow). Physical maturity is also highly individualistic. Naturally, some horses are bigger than others, with bigger muscles and a stronger, more prominent stature. This does not mean that said horse is more capable, and it is easy to burn a horse out by going 'too hard'. It is important to ensure that the bones and tendons are keeping pace with the muscles. Putting a horse through strenuous training because it has bigger muscles could cause behavioural issues further down the line. This can prevent a horse from cooperating with training/racing, and as a result, prevents them from reaching their full potential.

Holy Roller (18.1 HH, left) and Seabiscuit (15.2 HH, right) showcasing the difference in size of racehorses

As mentioned earlier, a lot of young horses never make it to a racetrack, and this is one of the main reasons. Putting too much pressure on a horse at an early age can cause them to burn out both physically and mentally.

The horse racing industry maintains that racing young horses is necessary as it is economically essential, whilst many argue that racing horses aged just 2 and 3 are too young. A study by Leo Jeffcott in 1982 into training young horses changed his opinion completely. He previously shared the same opinion as many, that racing at just 2-years-old is too young, but because of his findings now maintains that starting training earlier than 18 months in fact conditions the horse to withstand more vigorous exercise. Many trainers first teach a horse to walk, then trot, then canter for several months before galloping. As the saying goes, don’t run before you can walk. Jeffcott believes; however, that horses should be galloped early, but only in short bursts. He says: “Too intensive exercise will, of course, be detrimental, but steady work with brief bouts of faster work will provide the trigger to strengthen bones by modelling so that they can withstand the rigours of racing.”

An interesting opinion… Do you agree with him? Or has he completely missed the mark? Let me know where you stand down below!

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