Age may be all relative when it comes to sport and performance horses like the ones you'll see at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in the next few weeks. Warmbloods in driving and dressage don't even mature until they're five. Lots of Thoroughbreds are starting second careers as eventers and jumpers and dressage horses at that age too. Arabians need some maturity to pull off that endurance stuff. And Quarter horses in reining...Oh right, Quarter horse reiners. They're pretty much done by the time they're five. Some recent news made me stop and think about this odd difference between the FEI disciplines.
The four-star three-day event at Burghley in England galloped by this weekend. Its undulating cross-country course and glamorous country-house setting combine to make it one of the most prestigious and yet difficult tests of a horse's ability in the world and the event attracts the greatest riders and the greatest horses.
When they finished the dressage, Great Britain's Ruth Edge was in the lead on Two Thyme. Right behind her was the event's eventual winner, New Zealand's Caroline Powell on Lenamore.
What I'd like to point out is that both Two Thyme and Lenamore are 17 years old. And they are happy to be leaping and bounding their way through the world's trickiest obstacles.
Two Thyme is no stranger to the four-star field. He won Luhmuhlen in Germany in 2007, qualified to make the British Olympic eventing team in 2008, and was last year's Open Champion of Britain. Lenamore is one of the oldest horses to ever win Burghley. But you'd never know it to watch him fly around cross-country.
At 19, the young Swedish first-timer Christoffer Forsberg was just a year older than his Burghley horse, Grafman. He was the youngest rider in the field on what may have been the oldest horse but he produced what the judges thought was one of the most consistently rhythmic dressage performances of the day on Friday. And he went clear on cross-country.
And that's just eventing. Dressage has its senior stars, too, like the gray perennial Orlov Trotter Balabur who shows up at the Olympics.
But most performance events for Quarter horses are geared to young horses and many have age restrictions that would exclude a sound older horse. So the latest news from the National Reining Horse Association may not put them in a maturity class with Burghley, but it's definitely a hoof in the right direction.
On Friday, the NRHA unveiled the NRBC Classic Challenge Program, which will be offered for the first time at the 2011 National Reining Breeders Classic show. It was designed for horses that have aged out of the existing Derby programs in the reining industry.
"The Classic Challenge Program will begin with a horse's 7-year-old year," said NRBC President Tom McCutcheon in the announcement. "It will give horses an extension of their show careers and a chance for FEI horses to have another big-money event to compete in."
It will also encourage proper training and maintenance for long show careers at all levels while also rewarding owners for supporting international competition, added McCutcheon, who is a member of Team USA for the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games.
The Classic Challenge will have several divisions, including Open and Non-Pro, but horses must be entered into the program with a $300 fee that makes them enrolled in the program for life.
Racehorses and Quarter horses are often criticized because their primary careers are over by the time they are four or five. Under this new plan, a "classic" track reiner's career might be designed differently, so he peaks at five instead of at three, and maintains his peak; he can keep on going and perhaps even try to quality for more than one international event selection trial. If more money was added and more classes held at more reining shows, we might start seeing some changes in the way horses are trained in their early years.
As they say, "Become the change you'd like to see in the world." It sounds like Tom McCutcheon is thinking that way.
The 2011 NRBC will be held April 18-24 at the Great Southwest Equestrian Center in Katy, Texas. More information will be available at www.nrbc.com