Mental Maturity in Horses

Darryl, Darryl, and his other brother, Darryl

I’ve never been good at remembering dates, so sometimes I measure my time with horses by when I learned things. Was it when I was still clipping whiskers for shows because we were all told to. Was it when I kept my horses in stalls for my convenience? Was it before I knew about ulcers? An education in horses comes over time but not always by making mistakes. Sometimes we don’t know what we don’t know. Good horse-keeping requires that we always try to do better. Call it a learning curve.

I started my Grandfather Horse at two and a half years old, as was generally accepted back in the day. In hindsight, I wish I didn’t have hindsight. The current information about growth plates wasn’t available then. I took advice given, as people still do. As time went on, I gave him supplements for osteoarthritis in his teens, inevitable in mature horses. Later in his twenties, his back dropped. Along the way, he taught me a way of communicating that I later learned had a name in the dog world: Calming Signals. No horse changed me more, or maybe I changed for him. But still, even if I’d never ridden him, his joints would have still worn out. Aging is fair that way.

By the time I got my Iberian Sporthorse weanling, Nubè, I knew I’d start him later, instead I was down a rabbit hole about ulcers. There wasn’t much information available and no supplements. Vets recommended buying Ranitidine over the drugstore counter and dosing them a few times a day. Ranitidine is off the market now for causing cancer in the digestive system, including the stomach.

It’s hard to imagine a time I didn’t know more than I wanted about ulcers, so when I had a chance to go to a nutrition seminar given by a veterinarian employed by a famous feed company, I went with a prepared list of questions. When the floor was opened, a Quarter Horse breeder asked about beefing up his futurity crop. How to build muscle mass because they started them as yearlings. Just smart business, the earlier the start, the more money in it for them. No one was ashamed to ask, it was like talking about fertilizer for crops. The veterinarian gave him recommendations. It wasn’t a secret and presumably, the vet knew what she was doing. I left without asking any of my questions. I still refuse to buy feed from that company. When I listen to “employed” experts, I question their ethics. And yes, now I know about the remarkable number of people in all areas of the horse industry who don’t care about horses. It isn’t that I didn’t know they existed; I was shocked that they had no shame.

I continued to bring my young sporthorse along slowly. I taught him to pick me up at the mounting block as a yearling, long before I thought about getting on. I wanted him to think the purpose of a mounting block was to give humans enough height to scratch effectively.

At two-years-old, I had memorized his gaits. Watching his trot, I thought about riding him so lightly that he’d move just the same under saddle. At two-and-a half-years-old, I watched his shoulders float up as he pushed forward to the canter and promised to not interfere with his transitions.

When Nubè was three, I thought about Barbaro, that Kentucky Derby winner. They were the same age, born days apart. I was rubbing the bumps on my gelding’s lower jaw, sore enough for him to show me, when I heard Barbaro had been euthanized. Run and done, before he got his adult teeth.

Finally, the longest four years of my life and my gelding’s fourth birthday fell on the same day. He was perfect; coming up on seventeen hands and lanky. Athletic and beautiful. He did tempi changes at play. He also had the mental maturity of a toddler picking his nose. He spent so much time wrestling and squealing that friends asked me about the Andalusian stall toy I got for my donkeys. I remained the only one who didn’t think fart jokes were riotously funny. And I waited.

By then I’d been training professionally a few years. My first client had been a breeding barn with a passel of weanlings that were my responsibility. Beyond that, I’d started enough young horses that it had dawned on me that most of the problems aren’t their structural maturity as much as their mental maturity. They might shy and shut down, becoming intimidated when we don’t notice. They act out, get frightened and panic. Their balance was more dependable than their thought process, and they’re still awkward on their feet. Bitterly counting each day, I gave Nubè more time.

Young fillies have it worse. All the usual angst but will a full dose of hormones. They require a different patience. And sometimes people contribute to the lack of confidence in a young horse. We kiss them on the nose one minute and whack them for being in our space the next. We bait them with food and yell at them for searching for more. We hyper-sensitize them with tickling and teasing until they make faces, then we laugh at them. We coo and baby talk, we yell and rattle. Am I the only one old enough to remember getting in trouble for teasing animals?

As time dragged on, four years and one month, then two, I reluctantly waited. By that autumn, there was a day that it all felt different. Nubè had a sweet calm, he could focus for more than an instant. His eyes were softer and he seemed to have a new-found confidence. I didn’t train him to behave; he was mentally ready. Barbaro had been dead for just under two years.

You know where I’m going with this. Most of us claim to not watch the Kentucky Derby. Most of us have seen the viral video of the winner, a horse they call Richie, in a post-race altercation with an outrider. I’ve watched comments on all sides. I’ve followed all the cheers for the win and jeers for the aftermath. I’ve listened to the arguments and rants and excuses. I heard the defense of the sport and the rage against it. Humans are extremists with a purple passion for horses.

If you’ve ever met a Thoroughbred, you know they love to run, like Labradors love to play ball. It’s in their bones. I don’t think other breeds are much different. I raced my horse, King, at the local schoolyard when I was a kid. He loved to run so much that we faced the wrong way at the start line and he still pulled ahead. It was thrilling and terrifying, partly because once he got going, no amount of pulling stopped him. Now I know that he ran into that bit out of pain. I know about growth plates and autonomic nervous systems. I understand the fear and flight response, I can explain in scientific terms why domination training is wrong.

Richie is a toddler throwing a temper tantrum. It’s ordinary in immature horses. I won’t make up a story about his training, I’ll just acknowledge that in that moment, his nervous system ruled him. Yes, he was hysterical and dangerous but also a toddler.

On the high side, Richie didn’t drop dead and his owners are skipping The Preakness. It’s something. Between this and Baffert and Santa Anita, the racing industry is facing a reckoning. Those of us who know the shame of falling short with our horses will hold the line. Change is slow but also inevitable.

In a perfect world, we wouldn’t send our young girls off to defend the country doing gymnastics and we’d let horses who love to run grow up first. We would let go our romantic fantasies. Instead, we would bear our responsibility as an honor. In a perfect world, we would value maturity.

Anna Blake, Relaxed & Forward, now scheduling 2022 clinics and barn visits. Information here.

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35 thoughts on “Mental Maturity in Horses”

  1. Thank you for saying what needs to be said and said again many times. I’ve often suggested to folk having trouble with their young horses to slow down and let baby grow up. You wouldn’t let a school age child run the country…… I no longer ride or have any real association with horses, but I remember the days. Enjoy your column very much.

  2. I’m so glad you mentioned “women’s” gymnastics, which is certainly a misnomer, as most age out of the sport before they become adults. Every time I start to write an argument against racing young horses, I start to say, “You wouldn’t do this with human children, would you?” and then realize that we do indeed do it with human children, mostly female, in gymnastics. In general terms, one horse year equals three human years, which means the serious training and competition is going on well before six years of age in humans, two in horses. This is wrong, and is totally about the needs of an insecure human ego (which the little girls soon develop as well).

    • I agree Susan. Not sure if you followed the Nassar case, but many of those now-women found their voice. It’s late and hard-won, but if we don’t acknowledge their/our strides forward, it would feel hopeless. Thanks for commenting.

  3. My filly is now 6. The Arabian industry starts them very early especially for the halter ring. I waited to back my geldings until they were 4 and 5 and could hold onto a thought for more than 5 seconds. I was told this was babying them but they are great partners. In the midst of working with miss Lucy I got hurt and so we’ve done ground work much longer and I notice that she has much more interest in the exercises and is much less reactive when we have issues. As we begin serious saddle training she is a willing participant.

    • Thanks for commenting, Mary. We’d have mature but never started horses come into rescue and it was amazing how easily the training went… and mares have more questions than geldings. Good listening.

    • I’ve been re-starting an Arab mare that had a bad experience during her time with another trainer. I’ve had her with me for a year and a half, she’s now 6- and just learning how to not be ruled by her nervous system. I haven’t gotten back on her yet- not because I’m afraid, but because she is- and we’re taking it slow. Physically she’s ready- mentally, just barely. And when I do? It’ll literally be one or two steps in flexion, and I’m off again. I’m on her timeline- with this mare I get one shot, and I’m not gonna blow it.

  4. Will the general consensus ever confirm these principles and act accordingly…or will greed win out per usual. It has been many years since I have watched a horse race either on the TV or at a track. It has been many years since I learned when and how a horse should start its training. I understand that Arabians (ideally I suppose) are started first by driving and then ridden around the age of 5. As is stated in a 60’s song, “when will we ever learn, when will we ever learn.”

    • Slow but inevitable… Thanks Katherine, and now that song is an earworm for me. We must both be gray mares to know it.

  5. The barn where I bought & boarded my horse (for 4 years) there was a jumping trainer who used the indoor for lessons. She raised her young horses at home, but brought them to the barn to start under saddle – AFTER they were four! I’m sure she did a lot of groundwork at home before that. I remember one time I happened to be watching when she brought a colt (or filly?) over the first time – both her daughters were really nice riders, but the younger one was exceptional. When she got a leg up, you could actually see her land on the saddle like a feather!! And I mean that literally. I’ve never seen anyone else like that. And her mom never forced any of her young horses to be “jumpers” – if they didnt “take” to that discipline, she would find what they “wanted”. I didnt realize how unusual that was until years (and more learning took place) later.
    We dont know what we dont know – boy oh boy is that true! In everything – BUT with horses or any animals thats especially true. Far too many so-called professionals are under the impression they know it all. And you know, and most of us here know that just is NOT true – not ever!

    • So great to hear of someone who did it right, such a great start for her horses, her daughters, and you! Thanks, Maggie

  6. And now I’m wondering if I’m the only one who played “Hi, Bob!” back in the day…..cheers to maturity!
    The photo is wonderful, and the article is even better. Thanks, Anna, for adding clarity to the post-race muddle out there.

  7. A Barbaro tangent:

    I happened to have a random internet connection with an exercise rider who worked at the same barn where Barbaro trained. He knew Barbaro’s connections, and shared their perspective of the time between Barbaro’s injury and euthanasia.

    Apparently, the Jacksons spared no expense on medical care, out of love and responsibility toward their horse – who – if he had survived, would most likely never have been sound for breeding. The insane amount of media interest in their story made the situation even more complicated and difficult. They had a number of “siblings” of Barbaro, who were thoughtfully raced, retired/rehomed. IMHO – both Michael Matz and the Jacksons seem to be some of the more ethical folks in the thoroughbred breeding and racing scene. Probably in the minority – but we rarely hear about the good guys. It’s nice to know there are a few out there…

    Fun fact: Barbaro’s sire Dynafomer was infamous for his “bad” behavior – biting in particular – and was known by the nickname Dynafinger.

    • I agree, Christian. The Jacksons were good guys, if there are any. They spared no expense and Barbaro’s largest contribution might be to veterinary medicine. They learned so much, the press made it all stickier, and he died at 3. Sigh. When I hear of aggressive horses on the track, I hear ulcers. And who isn’t awestruck seeing a TB running.

  8. Anna Sewell made a point in Black Beauty to say that a horse is not ready to bear a rider until they are four if I recall my childhood reading correctly.

  9. Before I forget, the Darryl Trio look to be quite the “pair” LOL!
    As for the Derby experience, honestly, horses aside, humans really are a party hardy species. It amazes me how they are able to stretch a mile-and-a-quarter run into hours and hours of spectacle…with the horses taking a back seat to Longines, Trifectas, mint juleps, and such.
    I must admit, however, it was more than satisfying to watch the come-from-behind win that this horse pulled off, even as the moderators took FOREVER to notice. I think it was for that reason that I immediately thought of those Ukrainian soldiers who told the Russian warship to go – you know what – when they demanded that the Ukrainians surrender. I heard that he won’t be at the Preakness, but don’t know why. Hopefully, that decision was for Rich Strike’s benefit.
    Meanwhile, my trio of thoroughbreds (two off-the-track) have only to race with each other, mostly to get back to the barn when it’s hay-eatin’ time.

  10. This essay is so good. Thank you !!! . I have been reading all week, and pulled into responding to some of the rants on social media about Rich Strike’s win and post-race behavior. It’s like a see-saw, with hot feelings all around so I appreciate your cool headed words. None of us are 100% innocent of abuse. If not now, then in the past, before we knew better.

    Just this morning I was reading a facebook ad for a Spotted Saddle horse, and he was looking pretty good to me until it was mentioned how extensive his training had been on the trail and more, years of training, and he is barely 4. So he must have been started around 2 by their descriptions. Since I do know about growth plates, and from you EMOTIONAL maturity as well, I had to rule him out. Too much, too soon I imagine.

    Thanks again for great essay.

    • I loved Kate’s comment about cognitive dissonance. I did pull myself back from mentioning human maturity, hoping it was obvious… but our passion. Our passion! And finally, doing the math when looking for horses is no fun at all. But you’re right. Thanks Sarah.

  11. Lots to say, but my first thought was what a shame it is that most of our ‘domesticated’ horses have ulcers. That in itself speaks volumes. And yes, I was taught that one doesn’t tease animals or old people. And in terms of loving them one moment and reprimanded them the next for things which we have taught them? Totally our fault. I see it every day. And most importantly, as you rightly point out, people aren’t schooled in how horses show pain so they slap them when the horse is saying, “please, help me.”. Maybe you should tour the country with that message. I’d support you as I am sure would many others. Perhaps it could become a national campaign. And speaking of which, good for France as the FEI is looking at more horse-friendly venues. It’s a very good start. xx

    • I talk a lot about pain in Calming Signal clinics but you kind of have to want to see it. And most people just don’t want to. Easier to say the horse is stubborn or disrespectful. Both qualities that humans have, I notice…. Thankd Kathy.

  12. Sorry, France alone or perhaps in conjunction with. No matter how it’s coming down, it’s progress. I know I will not live to see the ban of the running of horses under 4 yo on the race track, but one can only hope…

    • I agree, maybe not in our lives, but people are turning. I see so much great change in the horse world, I’m optimistic.

      • Good to hear. I am sure that the horses, today and those to come, thank people like you who help make it happen. Just wish we all had a bigger, louder, voice. Saw that the owner of the Kent. Derby winner will not race him in the Preakness, citing not good for the horse. Another step in the right direction.

  13. Thanks Anna, what a great blog! Broke my heart to see how Richie was handled after he crossed the finish line. Why couldn’t they let him take a cool-down lap so the adrenaline could run it’s course? Because then the pomp & circumstance would have had to wait. Oh yeah, humans have a hard time with waiting. Saw RS being walked around the shed-row the next morning. Oh yeah, all horses take morning walks and have a bath with a lip-chain & 4 inches of their tongues hanging out the side of their mouths. Humans just won’t hear what they don’t want to hear. I’m so sorry for the horses.

    • Everyone might do better if we don’t mistake racing for a horse event. We have cock fights and don’t mistake those for laying eggs. We need to see it for what it is. Endurance riding had a time when they killed horses and they changed, but as long as we wear fancy hats and bet, you’re right. They won’t hear. Thanks Sueann


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