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Young Racehorses: Is It Too Early for Training or Racing?

Last updated: April 10, 2024

By: Miles HenryFact Checked

Did you know that many champion racehorses begin their careers as toddlers in horse years? This intriguing fact opens up a world of questions about the early racing of thoroughbreds, a practice steeped in tradition, science, and a fair share of controversy.

The age at which horses begin their racing careers can have profound implications on their health, performance, and overall well-being. As someone deeply entrenched in the world of horse racing, my journey has allowed me to witness firsthand the development and training of young thoroughbreds.

This article draws from my personal experiences and a wealth of industry knowledge, aiming to shed light on why racehorses often start their careers at such a young age and the implications of this tradition. In the following sections, we’ll explore the scientific, ethical, and practical aspects of racing young thoroughbreds, offering insights into a topic that continues to fascinate and challenge the horse racing community.

Picture of three two year old thoroughbreds in training.
Two-year-old Thoroughbreds in Training.

The Science of Training and Age in Race Horses

Is early training a secret ingredient in the making of a champion racehorse? Let’s dive into compelling studies that reveal the surprising benefits of early training for young thoroughbreds.

Physiological Development of Young Racehorses

The journey of a racehorse from a frolicking foal to a champion on the track is as much a marvel of nature as it is of training. At the heart of this transformation is the physiological development that these young equines undergo. But what exactly happens in the bodies of these young racehorses?

From birth to the racetrack, thoroughbreds experience rapid bone and muscle development. Their skeletal structure, initially soft and growing, gradually hardens. This process is crucial for their racing capabilities.

The bones, particularly in the legs, need to develop enough strength to withstand the high-speed pressures of racing. Scientific studies indicate that this bone development reaches its peak around the age of two, which coincidentally aligns with the onset of many racehorses’ careers.

Muscle development, too, plays a pivotal role. Young thoroughbreds develop muscle fibers that are adept at quick, explosive actions – a necessity for the sprinting nature of horse racing. This muscular development is influenced by genetics, diet, and exercise, with each factor playing a crucial role in preparing a horse for the rigors of the track.

The peak performance age for racehorses has been the subject of extensive research. In one study conducted by Toshiyuki Takahashi, delves into the peak performance age of Thoroughbred racehorses, revealing that their running performance typically peaks between 4 and 5 years old. It highlights how racing speed evolves with age, showing a gradual increase until the first half of the age of 4, followed by a period of stability.

This research underscores the importance of considering age and physiological development in training and racing practices for Thoroughbreds.” Takahashi, T. (2015). The effect of age on the racing speed of Thoroughbred racehorses. Journal of Equine Science, 26(2). Retrieved from

Impact of Early Training

Understanding the impact of early training on these young athletes is as fascinating as it is critical. How does training shape the destiny of a racehorse?

Training regimens for young racehorses are meticulously designed to balance the development of strength and endurance without overburdening their still-developing bodies. The early stages of training focus on building stamina and muscle tone, gradually introducing the young horses to the rigors of the racetrack.

Scientific literature, including studies from sources like the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), has shed light on the effects of this early training. These studies reveal that controlled exercise in young thoroughbreds can significantly enhance bone density and muscle composition, preparing them for the physical demands of racing.

However, the key lies in the word ‘controlled’ – overtraining or improper training methods can lead to injuries and long-term health issues. One notable aspect highlighted in these studies is the concept of ‘adaptive response.’ Logan, A. A., & Nielsen, B. D. Training Young Horses: The Science behind the Benefits. Animals (Basel). PMC7916178. Retrieved from

When young horses are exposed to the right amount and type of exercise, their bodies adapt by strengthening bones and muscles, thereby reducing the risk of injuries during their racing careers. This adaptive response is a delicate balance – a dance of nature and nurture that shapes the future of these magnificent creatures.

Picture of young racehorses competing in a race at the New Orleans Fairgrounds race course.
My three-year-old racehorse competing in a race at the New Orleans Fairgrounds race course.

Ethical Considerations and Welfare

The ethics of racing young thoroughbreds is a topic that stirs passionate debate among equine professionals, veterinarians, and animal welfare advocates. At the heart of this debate is a fundamental question: Is it ethically responsible to race horses at such a young age?

Veterinarians and animal welfare experts often express concerns about the physical and psychological stress placed on young horses in the racing industry. They argue that while these animals may be physically capable of handling the rigors of racing, their overall well-being must be considered. This includes the impact of intense training on their mental health, social development, and overall quality of life.

Ethical considerations also extend to the use of medications and treatments in young racehorses. The balance between treating injuries and masking pain for performance raises questions about the welfare of these animals. Experts advocate for a more natural approach to training and racing, emphasizing the need for adequate rest, natural development, and humane treatment.

Longevity and Health Implications

The long-term health effects of early racing on thoroughbreds are a topic of ongoing research and discussion. Does the early start to a racing career compromise the longevity and health of these horses?

Case studies and real-life examples shed light on this aspect. For instance, some retired racehorses have shown signs of chronic joint issues, respiratory problems, and other health conditions that may be attributed to their early racing careers.

However, it’s important to note that these outcomes can vary widely depending on the horse’s individual genetics, the quality of care they receive, and their specific training regimen. On the other hand, there are numerous examples of racehorses that have had long, healthy lives, even after starting their careers at a young age.

These cases often involve careful management, with trainers and owners prioritizing the horse’s health and well-being over short-term gains. While early racing presents certain risks, with responsible management and ethical practices, it’s possible to mitigate these risks and ensure the welfare of these magnificent animals.

Picture of a black race horse
Young two year old thoroughbred racehorse in training.

Diverse Perspectives in the Equestrian Community

The equestrian community, trainers, owners, jockeys, and enthusiasts offer a kaleidoscope of opinions on the early racing of thoroughbreds. What do these varied voices have to say?

Trainers often emphasize the importance of early training in developing a racehorse’s physical and mental readiness for competition. They argue that with the right approach, young horses can be trained without compromising their health or welfare.

Owners, on the other hand, may have differing views based on their experiences and objectives, ranging from prioritizing the horse’s long-term well-being to focusing on competitive success and financial returns. I always err on the side of caution; I do not want to push my horses too quickly and injure them.

Jockeys provide a unique perspective, being the ones who closely interact with these young athletes on the track. Many express a deep understanding of the horses’ capabilities and limitations, advocating for training programs that are aligned with each horse’s individual needs.

Balancing Views and Addressing Controversies

In the midst of these varied opinions, some significant controversies and debates persist. How does the community navigate these differing viewpoints?

One major area of contention is the appropriate age to start training and racing thoroughbreds. While some argue for the benefits of early training, others advocate for delaying training until the horses are more physically mature, citing concerns about long-term health and injury risks.

Another debate centers around the methods and intensity of training. The balance between pushing for peak performance and ensuring the horse’s safety and well-being is a delicate one, often leading to heated discussions among industry professionals.

Ethical considerations, particularly regarding the treatment of horses in the racing industry, also spark controversy. Issues such as the use of performance-enhancing drugs, the handling of injuries, and the retirement and rehoming of racehorses are hot topics that elicit strong opinions.

The equestrian community is challenged to find a middle ground that respects the dignity and welfare of the racehorse while acknowledging the competitive nature and traditions of the sport. The next sections will explore the practical aspects of training young racehorses and the industry practices that shape their early careers.

Picture of our two year old running
Here is my now three-year-old racehorse training at two. He has won two races this year.

Training Regimens and Industry Practices

The training of young racehorses is an art form, blending tradition with modern techniques to prepare these equine athletes for the demands of the track. But what are these methods, and how do they impact the horses?

Training typically begins with basic groundwork, focusing on building trust and teaching fundamental commands. As the young horse matures, this progresses to more specialized exercises designed to enhance strength, speed, and agility. Common methods include lunging, trotting, and cantering exercises, often combined with interval training to build stamina.

The effectiveness and safety of these techniques are paramount. Trainers must carefully monitor the horse’s physical and mental response to training, adjusting the regimen as needed. Overtraining or improper methods can lead to injuries or long-term health issues, while a well-planned training program can set the foundation for a successful racing career.

Below is a YouTube video showing the early steps of training a horse.

Case Study: Justify

  • Justify’s Unique Journey: Justify, a Thoroughbred racehorse, captured significant attention by winning the Grade I Kentucky Derby and subsequently the North American Triple Crown (Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes) in 2018.
  • Training and Racing Timeline: Interestingly, Justify never raced as a two-year-old, which is uncommon for a Kentucky Derby winner. This fact sparked debates about the ideal age for starting race training.
  • Impact on Industry Beliefs: Justify’s success challenged traditional beliefs in the racing industry, particularly regarding the onset of training and racing in young horses.

This case study can provide valuable insights into the training process and career path of a successful racehorse that did not follow the conventional early training route. Logan, A. A., & Nielsen, B. D. Training Young Horses: The Science behind the Benefits. Animals (Basel). PMC7916178. Retrieved from

Picture of horse racing starting gates.
Horse racing starting gates.


At what age do young racehorses begin training?

Young racehorses, known as yearlings, start learning basics between one and two years old. They are typically accustomed to being led, groomed, and bathed by the time they turn one.

What does training a yearling racehorse involve?

Training a yearling racehorse involves teaching them to accept a bridle and headstall, girth pressure, saddle, and rider’s weight. Yearlings purchased from fall auctions often have some of these skills.

Does age matter in horse racing?

Yes, age is critical in horse racing. Older horses (four and five-year-olds) typically outmatch younger horses, and there are weight allowances in races to account for this age difference.

What is the oldest age a horse can race?

There’s no definitive maximum age for racehorses. While most are under six, some exceptional individuals race successfully into their double digits, like the 13-year-old Time to Bid and 15-year-old Hermosilla.

Why do all racehorses have the same birthday?

In the Northern Hemisphere, all thoroughbred racehorses officially celebrate their birthday on January 1st. This standardization simplifies organizing races by age group, making it easier to compare performances.

ashton winning picture edited
Our three-year-old is in the winner’s circle.


In exploring the multifaceted world of horse racing, particularly the early training and racing of thoroughbreds, we’ve traversed a landscape rich in science, ethics, and diverse perspectives. From the physiological development of horses to the ethical debates that surround their training and care, each aspect offers a deeper understanding of the complexities inherent in the sport.

Reflecting on the journey through the equestrian community’s varied viewpoints, it becomes clear that informed and ethical practices are not just ideals but necessities. As someone deeply embedded in the world of horse racing, I’ve witnessed the profound impact that responsible training and care can have on these equine athletes.

It reinforces the belief that while the pursuit of excellence in racing is important, it should never come at the cost of the horse’s well-being.

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