I recently came across a paper that proclaims there’s no such thing as a slow-maturing breed of equine. Okay, then why since early in my Fell Pony career have I heard that Fells are slow to mature? In fact, I have a March 2003 document from The Fell Pony Society that states, “The Fell Pony matures late….”(1)
Deb Bennett is the author of “Timing and Rate of Skeletal Maturation in Horses,” published in 2008. Bennett’s point in making the statement about no slow-maturing breeds is that all breeds take the same amount of time to mature. (2) She makes her case about maturity based on when vertebral closure occurs rather than maturity of the legs, which is often cited by others. “The lateness of vertebral ‘closure’ is most significant for two reasons. One: in no limb are there 32 growth plates [as there are in the spine]! Two: the growth plates in the limbs are (more or less) oriented perpendicular to the stress of the load passing through them, while those of the vertebral chain are oriented parallel to weight placed upon the horse’s back. [Therefore] you can sprain a horse’s back (i.e. displace the vertebral physes…) a lot more easily than you can displace those located in the limbs.” (3)
Here is Bennett’s bottom line:
[If] you are one of those who equates “starting” with “riding”, then I guess you better not start your horse until he’s four. That would be the old, traditional, worldwide view: introduce the horse to equipment (all kinds of equipment and situations, with the handler on the ground) when he’s two, add crawling on and off of him at three, saddle him to begin riding him and teaching him to guide at four, start teaching him maneuvers or the basics of whatever job he’s going to do – cavalletti or stops or racing or something beyond trailing cattle – at five, and he’s on the payroll at six. The old Spanish way of bitting reflected this also, because the horse’s teeth aren’t mature (the tushes haven’t fully come in, nor all of the permanent cheek teeth either) until he’s six. This is what I’d do if it were my own horse.(4)
I appreciate this observation from Bennett as well: “[There] are some breeds of horse – the Quarter Horse is the premier among these – which have been bred in such a manner as to look mature long before they actually are mature.” (5) I think draft horse breeds are also worked early because size is equated with maturity (they are also often worked early as well because they need to get on the payroll and start earning their keep.)
I appreciate that Fell Pony stewards and The Fell Pony Society are so adamant about Fells maturing late. Since our breed is smaller than many equines, letting ponies mature before doing hard work ensures they will be physically able to do that work and potentially able to do it for many years. I think of this approach as giving ponies their maximum ability to surprise people with their strength, stamina, and endurance, perhaps countering peoples’ preconceived notions that ponies aren’t meant for serious work.
I admit to finding it alarming that some horses are started hard at two years of age (racehorses come to mind). I haven’t spent time around two-year-old racehorses, but I have spent a lot of time around two-year-old ponies, and not only are they not physically mature, they’re not mentally mature either at that age.
Bennett has helped me understand that all breeds, not just those whose stewards call them slow-maturing, would benefit from ‘less is more before age four.’
- “Fell Pony Temperament and Maturity”, The Fell Pony Society, March 2003, p. 2
- Bennett, as excerpted at http://thesoulofahorse.com/blog/no-horse-is-physically-skeletally-mature-before-5-5-to-6-years-old/
- Same as #3.
- Same as #3.