Early exercise in the horse

Abstract: Across all equestrian disciplines, the single largest reason for wastage is musculoskeletal injury. It is, therefore, of importance that management and competition structures are in place to optimize the development of the equine musculoskeletal system to minimize wastage.Data from other species and, in particular, humans have demonstrated the benefit of early exercise and the dire consequences of inactivity. The horse has evolved as a cursorial animal capable of covering up to 10 km/d within 9 days of birth. Yet, modern equine management systems restrict, rather than promote, early exercise. Foals were shown to have a positive response to early preweaning paddock exercise (greater cartilage health), and more recent work has demonstrated that exercise over and above that normally occurring with pasture-reared foals, introduced as early as 3 weeks old, had positive effects on the equine musculoskeletal system. The response of juvenile horses to additional exercise is because of the tissue being responsive to priming. Epidemiological data indicate that the window for tissue modification may still be open when the horse is a yearling and even as a 2 year old.However, the method in which the exercise is applied may be of as much importance as the timing of the stimuli. A recent prospective study of both Thoroughbred and Standardbred horses demonstrated that the horses that entered training as 2 year olds had longer and more successful racing careers than those that entered training later in life. It would appear that even the initial stages of training are enough to provide a positive stimulus, as horses first registered with a trainer at 2 years old had the same advantages as those that raced as 2 year olds.The physiological, clinical, and epidemiological data indicate that, rather than restrict exercise and the use of horses at a young age, we should realign expectations with the capability of the horses’ musculoskeletal system and evolutionary template to maximize orthopedic health.