Teenagers — Including Horses — Need Careful Handling

The term “teenager” is not a common term for horses, yet there is an age group that requires a specific level of care and attention. That is the group of horses between the ages of two and five years. These young horses are immature, and developing their physical, mental and emotional features.

Decisions made during these formative years are very influential, affecting the quality and longevity of a horse’s life.

Overwhelming these young horses, whether it be nutritionally, physically, mentally or emotionally, results in a horse that is denied an opportunity to reach its full potential and may even lead to its ruin.

Sensible nutritional programs for young horses acknowledge that optimal rather than rapid growth is preferred. Perhaps the greatest harm is that nutritional programs can produce a horse that visibly looks mature long before they are actually mature. The young horse’s body will often be physically disproportionate, and he may move awkwardly and clumsily. This is all normal and even expected for a maturing horse.

Horses are teething during their first five years. Many young horses experience various levels of discomfort with teeth eruption. Young horses with swollen faces, teething bumps, nasal discharge, flu-like symptoms, cranky attitudes and weight loss may simply be teething.

Shedding of the first set of cheek teeth is of particular interest to horsemen as these teeth form the buttress against which the bit rests. This change in teeth is best co-operated with for bit introduction. During this stage of teething it is important to recognize it for what it is and give the horse three to six months before progressing with training. By this time these first cheek teeth will have moved into position to appropriately support and guide the bit.

Dental care can certainly be an advantage at times for comfort in the youngster’s mouth, but there will be situations when allowing the horse relief from any training agenda is the wisest choice.

PHYSICAL MATURITY

Horses are not skeletally mature until six years. Closure of growth plates occurs in a fairly consistent pattern, beginning from the lower limbs and proceeding upward in the body, with the growth plates in the 32 spinal vertebrae fusing no sooner than the sixth year.

Weighting a horse’s back inappropriately during this phase of growth and development causes weight-bearing stressors to pass parallel to unstable growth plates. The spine governs the overall co-ordination of limbs and the animal’s “way of going.” Developing the full potential of the spine develops the full potential of the whole horse. Therefore “when” a horse is ready to be ridden is equally important to “how” a horse is ridden.

Like people, horses need powerful core muscles to perform at their finest.

Young horses that have the opportunity to walk on uneven terrain command an uncanny sense of balance and surefootedness and develop

robust hoof structures. The terrain itself reinforces balance, strength, and resiliency of structures with each step. Cavaletti exercises, hill work, and simple walk/trotting patterns encourages horses to “use” their bodies well. Regardless of athletic endeavours, these are basic starting points for young horses that can develop the whole horse.

Soft tissue must be given the opportunity to develop its elasticity, strength, resiliency and rebound abilities

when loaded. Overwhelming young horses with physical demands or repetitive movements fatigues muscles, tendons, and ligaments and bruises tender feet. When overwhelmed, adaptive joint development is no longer achieved and instead joint deterioration is the result.

Joint cartilage that is damaged from abnormal forces will later succumb to degenerative joint disease or arthritis. Equine osteoarthritis is the most common cause of lameness in horses. Recent estimates show that approximately 60 per cent of lameness problems in horses are related to osteoarthritis.

Hocks are particularly sensitive to unsuitable stressors as their growth plate closure occurs between the ages of three and 3.5 years. Structural failure occurs when tissues are forced beyond their limits.

Steady moderate exercise is the best way to improve a young horse’s physical, mental and emotional strength. Rest and recovery between sessions are equally important to growth. Out of necessity, time and timing are critical elements to a favourable outcome.

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CAROL SHWETZ

DVM

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Younghorseswithswollenfaces,teething bumps,nasaldischarge,flu-likesymptoms,cranky attitudesandweightlossmaysimplybeteething.

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