Recently, a reader (Jamie) made a comment regarding levels of maturity in ASBs. This happened at an interesting time; I had just had my latest discussion on the topic with a friend who is an expert on saddlebreds and their various lines. For me, this is a very interesting topic for a number of reasons. As an owner of a traditional saddlebred who is predisposed genetically to be slow maturing, and who truly emphasizes this tendency as an individual, I have personal experience with “slow maturation”. Also, as a self-professed ambassador for the breed for sporthorse people, I have discipline-influenced opinions on what would be an appropriate rate of maturation. Additionally, as an observer of the saddlebred industry I regularly note the overwhelming preference for fast maturing horses. Finally, as a general horse person I have discussions with friends on this trend across all horse breeds, its effect on the equine industry, and exactly how one would define it as a phenomena. So, as I stated before, this is a favorite topic of mine to kick around, and one I’m happy to encourage as an open discussion platform – at any time!
Lately, Elvis has just been looking weird to me. I’ve been assuming it was an illusion created in part by his clip job, and in part by his lack of work and loss of muscle. However, recently I realized that he reminded me of a sprouting two-year old, in both quantitative and qualitative ways. He’s just gawky looking: not thin but certainly not holding weight like he has in the past, and he is overall pretty immature in appearance. He looked more mature last summer than he does right now. He’s also really expressing social immaturity. His confidence is there in a general sense, but he really strikes one as a horse with a very young attitude. The recent move has really highlighted this change. My new barn owner has even marveled at his tendency to be behind the curve. Noting these changes have left me feeling as though I may have missed that he’s going trough another one of those big transitional phases.
In her comment to me, Jamie mentioned that her horse is also maturing at a much slower pace than his peers, enough so that his teeth are reportedly 1.5 years behind where they should be in development (per her dentist). I think this is so interesting! I do believe that much of this slower rate of maturation is rooted in a horse’s blood lines and, if my research and understanding is correct, the foundation lines all carry this trait. In fact, even my non-saddlebred barn owner knows of this fact! She has had very limited experience with saddlebreds, being instead a professional in the field of hunters and jumpers. However, she has come in contact with a group of saddlebreds used for jumping, and was able to absorb some information through this experience. She’s told me more than once not to worry about Elvis, that “saddlebreds are known for slow maturation”. Maybe she’s just being polite, but I think she’s speaking from an experience with older style saddlebreds, and she helped me to adopt more of a macro level perspective. These horses, as well as other breeds who have lines still heavy with foundation influence, will always be slower to mature physically and mentally. It’s my opinion that this is greatly due to the different use of horses when breeds were being established: they were an integral part of work and transportation, and needed to be counted upon for long years of steady service. Today, they are nothing more than a luxury item; their use in recreational competition has changed the template upon which they are bred in order to maximize competitive value. Hence, faster rates of maturation which develop an edge and work to maximize profits.
One of my good friends tends to disagree with me on the concept of maturation, stating that she believes that there is no such thing as a “slow” rate of maturation. Instead, she believes, these terms are used in more of a marketing sense and have no bearing on what is really an individual-specific occurrence. I absolutely agree that an individual horse may or may not fall within a general trend, and I also believe that this is an abused term that is used in sneaky marketing. However, I do see enough of a difference to note that there are generally horses who mature faster or slower than others. I’d propose though that today’s “slow maturing horse” is actually yesterday’s “normal horse”. They stick out like oddities today, because they are surrounded by horses who have been selectively bred for around a century to gradually be taller, faster, and stronger by their second or third year. This is a far cry from the traditional belief that horses should be started in their fourth or fifth year, since they aren’t supposed to stop growing mentally and physically until six or seven. Today, I see a major push to manipulate rates of maturation through genetics, nutrition, and hormone intervention throughout the equine industry. I absolutely believe that this sort of manipulation, especially when paired with early and intense (and inhumane) training is a recipe for disaster. Rushed horses result in poor training and mental or social development at best, at worst physical and mental break-downs at the prime of their lives. Being objectified as luxury items, they are stripped of value and typically disposed of. Personally, I’ve witnessed this trend through the racing industry however I’m now learning about how it affects saddlebreds.
So, to bring this back full circle to Elvis, Jamie’s comments, and answer her questions.. I much prefer horses who mature physically and mentally closer to a normal rate. I don’t really believe in getting rich through horses, as I firmly believe that nine times out of ten you have to objectify them to earn any cash. So, I’m OK with giving them the individualized attention they need, especially since doing so often results in great dividends for me. I won’t specifically look for a horse who appears to be physically ready to go at four, or who is in difficult physical and/or mental training before four (for me, four is the earliest I can imagine doing much of anything with a horse). I also tend to see 16.2 as the ideal height. In my observation, most horses who are finishing taller than this are being bred to specifically do so and, generally speaking I don’t believe that sport horses of extreme height hold up as long (on a personal note, I’d prefer to sacrifice huge height in order to retain quickness). Certainly, young and physically mature horses can just “happen”, and I’d like to state for clarity that I view them differently. However, in writing this blog entry I’m sharing my thoughts on general observations and how they influence my general decision-making procedure. In my experience, there is too much risk associated with selecting horses bred to mature as fast as possible if you actually have the option to start with a youngster that is more than a rescue re-training project. Elvis will likely be the first horse I’ve ever owned who will progress as closely to the rate of maturation noted as “normal” in texts. Sadly, this positive trait sets him as an outcast within his breed today, and would also be considered a negative quality if he were a race horse, being pointed towards some breed futurity or the like. Currently, he is a coming five-year old who looks like he’s maybe three. Last I checked, he was 15.3, and that was after a big growth spurt at the end of the summer/early fall. I think it’s fair to say that he’s been one of the most slow-growing horses his breeder has produced (which is saying something, since she prefers slow-growing horses). He’s also arguably one of the most traditionally sport-type she’s bred, for what it’s worth. I have a sneaking suspicion that his slow and steady pace will have him looking very different each year, and I hope that once six or seven, he’ll really come into his own. Mostly though, I look forward to many years of life with an athletic and capable horse.
So, what are your thoughts on rates of maturation in general? Within the breed? In regards to your own horse? Do you note trends within the breed influenced by breeding and management, or do you believe it’s a more random occurrence. Do you think fast growth is important for more reasons than competition? I’d really like to know others’ thoughts on this topic.
**Jamie, I’ll go ahead and answer the rest of your questions here. I tried to fit it all into this post, but clearly I stuck heavily to your theme of maturation, instead of the ratio between a rider’s height and a horse’s height. I do prefer 16.2 as a max height and, as I stated above this is mostly due to their ability to generally withstand lots of physical stress in jumping and maintain quickness. It’s really a personal thing for me, but I do know that while not hard-and-fast it is a common guideline shared among jumpers and eventers. As far as Elvis goes, sometimes I think I’m too tall for him, but somehow it works – probably because I’m slightly longer in my torso than my legs and Elvis has such a nice and balanced neck. I’m hoping that as he fills out, he’ll take up more of my leg. Mostly, I tend to worry more about my weight ratio with horses when I ride them. I’ve ridden some pretty short horses, but they were well-built and didn’t seem to notice me up there. Sure, I probably looked silly… but I have a thing for ponies 😉 . With you at 5″11, unless your horse is as narrow as a rail and with a shallow heart-girth, I bet you are just fine for your horse. Elvis and I barely “acceptable” according to most hunters, and at the edge of the spectrum for most jumpers. Eventers wouldn’t care, and dressage people may or may not think that we match. So, it’s really all relative and boils down to how subjective you or your sport is.
Oh, and thanks for inspiring this post!