How Old Should a Horse Be to Start Riding A Guide for First-Time Owners

Photo by Yana B

The Right Time to Ride: A Comprehensive Guide to Understanding Your Horse’s Physical and Mental Maturity

by | Aug 5, 2023 | Equine Behavior, Equine Health

One aspect that often sparks debates is the appropriate age to start riding a horse. It’s a subject that’s as multifaceted as it is contentious, with varying opinions even amongst experienced equine experts. This article takes a unique approach, combining insights from equine physiology, professional experiences, and the latest research to shed light on the matter.

Dispelling Traditional Wisdom

Traditional wisdom often comes with an air of unquestionable authority. However, when it comes to the age at which a horse should start being ridden, these beliefs can be misleading. It is often thought that a horse is ready to ride once it’s physically matured, a milestone usually estimated at around 2 years of age. However, recent scientific studies show that the complete closure of a horse’s growth plates may not occur until 5 or even 6 years of age. Consequently, premature weight-bearing exercises could result in bone and joint damage, leading to a painful and possibly short-lived riding career.
From the racing industry to western riding, traditional practices vary significantly, each with its own implications. For instance, Thoroughbreds are typically broken in to ride at around 18 months old to prepare them for racing as 2-year-olds, a practice that’s been questioned due to the potential harm it might cause to the still-developing horse.

young foal walking through field

Understanding Equine Development

The developmental journey of a horse is intricate and fascinating. A thorough understanding of equine physiology is crucial in deciding the right time to start riding. Horses, like humans, have growth plates – areas of growing tissue near the ends of long bones. Until a horse reaches skeletal maturity, these plates are soft and vulnerable to injury.

Muscular development and conditioning also play a significant role. Muscles need to be strong enough to bear the weight of a rider without causing the horse discomfort or leading to injury. Moreover, the maturation timeline for different parts of a horse’s body varies; for instance, a horse’s spine matures later than its legs.

External factors also significantly influence a horse’s physical development. Genetic factors contribute to the rate at which a horse matures, with some breeds maturing faster than others. Nutrition and diet play a fundamental role in healthy growth, while environmental factors and stress levels can both positively and negatively impact development.

young foal thinking

The Role of Exercise and Training

Exercise and training are vital parts of a horse’s development, but they need to be introduced thoughtfully and progressively. The type, frequency, and intensity of exercise can have significant impacts on a horse’s physical health and overall maturity. While under-exercising can lead to underdeveloped muscles and poor conditioning, over-exercising can cause physical harm and potentially long-term damage, especially in young, developing horses.

Training intensity must therefore be carefully adjusted for different ages. Young horses can benefit from light exercise that aids their growth without causing strain. This exercise might involve free play in a pasture or light groundwork. As horses grow and their bodies mature, the intensity of training can be gradually increased.

Starting to ride a horse too early or waiting too long both have potential pitfalls. Overwork in young horses can lead to physical injury, while delayed riding can result in a lack of conditioning and difficulty adapting to a rider later on. The key is to strike a balance that optimizes the horse’s physical health and future riding career.

exercising your young horse

Photo by Kenneth Allen

When is a Horse Mentally Ready?

Physical readiness is only one side of the equation. A horse’s mental and emotional maturity are equally important, albeit often overlooked. Many behavioural issues seen in horses are often misattributed to stubbornness or disobedience when they could be signs of mental stress or lack of readiness to start training.

Misconceptions around equine behavioural issues can lead to early riding, resulting in anxiety and stress for the horse. By focusing on building a solid foundation through good management and compassionate teaching, we can pave the way for a longer and healthier ridden career.

young horse bucking

Finding the Balance: Combining Physical and Mental Readiness

While there’s no ‘perfect age’ to start riding a horse, it’s essential to monitor each horse’s individual readiness. Every horse is an individual, and as such, will mature and be ready for riding at its own pace. Training programs that are too fast can be detrimental to the horse’s health, while those that are too slow may lead to missed opportunities for optimal training.

Conditioning and preparing the horse both physically and mentally for a long and fulfilling career as a riding partner should be the goal of every responsible horse owner or trainer. It is about understanding the horse’s individual pace, readiness, and needs, and making decisions based on these factors.

young horse first ride

Individual Considerations: Every Horse is Unique

Understanding that each horse is an individual and will have unique needs is vital. Age alone should not dictate when to start riding a horse. Various other factors need to be taken into consideration, including the breed of the horse, its overall health, and its individual temperament. Different horse breeds mature at different rates, and this variation can significantly influence their readiness to be ridden.

For example, Thoroughbreds, who are often bred for racing, tend to mature slightly earlier than Quarter horses and other similar breeds, and hence may be broken to ride starting around 18 months of age. On the other hand, larger breeds like Warmbloods and draft horses mature later than average and may not be ready to start pulling wagons or be ridden until they are 3 to 4 years old.

The role of the vet is also crucial in this process. Regular veterinary checks can help determine the physical readiness of the horse to start training. Understanding the horse’s health and any potential issues can avoid problems down the line and ensure a safe and successful riding career for the horse.


In conclusion, starting to ride a horse should not solely rely on the horse’s age but rather on a comprehensive understanding of its physical and mental maturity. The importance of patience and understanding the horse’s individual pace cannot be overstated. It’s crucial to prioritize the well-being of the horse over traditional practices or personal haste.

By taking a considerate and evidence-based approach to starting riding, owners and trainers can ensure they are acting in the best interests of the horse, setting the stage for a long, happy, and healthy ridden career.


Related: What Do You Need for a Horse? A Supplies Checklist for New Owners

Related: What is a Green Horse? Deciphering Equestrian Terms for Beginners

About The Author

<a href="" target="_self">Austin Davis</a>

Austin Davis

Austin Davis, is a real-life cowboy hailing from the sweeping plains of Texas. He was born and bred in the heart of cowboy country and has spent his entire life immersed in the ranching and rodeo culture. With a firm grasp on everything from cattle drives to the subtleties of horse whispering, Austin brings an unparalleled authenticity to his writing that comes straight from the source.

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