Research shows that appropriate amounts of exercise during the first three years of a horse’s life can benefit the musculoskeletal system
Before your young horse begins full-scale training, he can benefit greatly from preparatory physical conditioning. Yes, it’s true that he’s still growing, that sensitive structures such as his joints and tendons are still developing, and that, generally speaking, he’s immature. But veterinary researchers agree: A fair amount of exercise will do him a significant amount of good, not only now but for his entire life. So, it’s important to get your youngster out of the stall and into shape.
Muscles, Tendons, and Bones
The first three years of a horse’s life—particularly the first two—are a time of great change and development in his locomotor system, particularly the muscles, tendons, and bones (including joints). These structures are the ones you keep in mind most as your prospect matures.
Preparing for their Future
Results of numerous studies on equine exercise over the past decade show a common trend: Appropriate levels of exercise in young horses have no negative effects on their musculoskeletal system. Exercise might even be beneficial for their futures, as it seems to build slightly stronger bone and more resistant tendon tissue.“Different tissues ‘respond’ at different times,” says Smith. “Tendons tend to be responsive early on in life, joints and bones a little bit later. Certainly we know that bones are especially responsive when (horses) start training as yearlings and 2-year-olds.”
Getting a Head Start
Physical conditioning on the ground, without training under saddle, can and probably should begin at birth, notes Johanna Lepeule, MS, PhD, research fellow in the department of environmental health at Harvard University, in Boston, Massachusetts. Lepeule studied bone growth and osteochondrosis in young foals while working on her veterinary epidemiology doctorate in France. Osteochondrosis in horses is a disease that occurs when young bone tissue does not mature correctly.
The Right Program
Conditioning young horses requires careful planning. When building a program keep in mind the difference between conditioning and training. Clayton explains that conditioning is physiologic preparation, whereas training is teaching technical skills. You’ll want to work on training too, but that’s a separate issue. First focus on your initial goals of improving physical fitness.
“In the early stages, conditioning is fairly generic (for all disciplines),” Clayton says. “Work on building aerobic fitness and strengthening the tissues. Build up the aerobic component of work in the early stages while allowing time for the musculoskeletal tissues to respond.”
Once your horse is ready to go under saddle, trainers should focus on “slow, easy work” that will allow the horse to get used to having a rider’s weight on his back and to round his back under that weight (by strengthening the thoracic and pectoral muscles),” says Clayton.
Kedzierski recently determined that 3-year-olds learning to work under saddle displayed lower physiological stress levels (in particular, lower heart rates) when handlers trained and conditioned them using “natural” methods (working with horses individually in a round pen, starting them with ground work, schooling them to avoid pressure, and helping them get used to unfamiliar objects) versus conventional methods (walking horses on an automated walker, longeing, etc.). “This was especially true for colts,” he adds.
How Much is Enough?
Starting your horse in the right conditioning program also requires good sense, keeping in mind the horse’s ability to adjust to additional exercise. Similar to a human athlete that must build to higher intensity training incrementally, a horse’s work should begin gradually and build up slowly in phases, says Clayton. “Problems occur when the conditioning process proceeds too rapidly in young horses,” she notes. “The trainer needs to allow adequate time for tissue adaptation and strengthening.”
A Word of Caution
Although young horses are capable of quite a bit of exercise, some kinds of activities are better held off until later. “In young horses, avoid high speeds or high-intensity work, especially on hard surfaces,” Clayton says. “They also shouldn’t be jumping large fences or going downhill at speeds faster than a walk. This kind of work is tough on the bones and joints because it involves high concussion.” She also recommends holding off on any work that involves rapid turns or spins until the horse is fully developed. Different breeds mature at different rates, so consult your veterinarian for advice on timing your horse’s training.
Despite all our best intentions and efforts, accidents can still happen. So it’s a good idea to be aware of warning signs that you’ve gone too far or that the horse has suffered a mishap. Watch for soft tissue swelling, lameness, a reluctance to work, or a sour attitude, Clayton says.
If we use good sense in managing our youngsters, we can help protect their musculoskeletal systems over the long term with proper exercise. And that can help keep athletes healthier and prevent layups during their athletic careers. “The single most important reason for horses to lose days of training or competition is locomotor injuries,” says Clayton. While we can’t prevent all injuries, we can plan ahead. If we do it right, we can give our young horses every chance of having the strong bones, resistant tendons, energetic muscles, and star attitude of the world’s greatest equine athletes.
(Before and after pre training)