Are High-Speed Treadmills Safe for Horses?

People often hop on a treadmill without giving safety a second thought, but putting a horse on a treadmill is a different story. While treadmills aren't uncommon in veterinary hospitals and are gaining popularity in nonclinical settings for exercise or conditioning purposes, some owners, trainers, and veterinarians often question the safety of these implements. A team of researchers from the University of Adelaide in Australia recently evaluated the safety of high-speed treadmills and found that, overall, few injuries occur to horses during treadmill exercise.

"During the past 20 years treadmill exercise testing has played an important role in both the study of equine exercise physiology and the investigation of poor athletic performance," explained Samantha Franklin, BVSc, PhD, MRCVS, senior lecturer in physiology at the School of Animal and Veterinary Sciences, and lead researcher on the study. "However, it has been suggested that some trainers and veterinarians may be reluctant to refer horses for treadmill exercise testing because of fears that horses may be at increased risk of musculoskeletal injury during treadmill exercise."

Franklin explained that treadmill exercise testing enables veterinarians to diagnose abnormalities that are not evident at rest: "In general, the benefits far outweigh the risks since an accurate diagnosis is essential before appropriate treatment recommendations can be made."

To determine the prevalence and types of injuries suffered in conjunction with high-speed treadmill exercise, Franklin and her team examined 2,305 records from 2,258 horses that underwent high-speed treadmill exercise testing at nine locations in the United Kingdom, France, and Belgium.

The team found that in general, treadmill exercise testing was well tolerated and safe with an overall injury rate of 5.4%. Most injuries were minor (4.7%) with only 13 horses (0.6%) sustaining serious injuries including:

  • Five cases of severe exercise-induced myopathy (muscle problems);
  • Four limb fractures (of which one was catastrophic);
  • Two tendon injuries;
  • One undiagnosed severe lameness; and
  • One with marked exacerbation of a previously diagnosed lameness.

"The risk of serious injury does not appear to be higher than that incurred during strenuous exercise encountered during competition," said Franklin."This study confirms that the majority of horses undergo treadmill exercise without incident. The majority of injuries that did occur were minor in nature and the incidence of major injuries was similar to that reported during competition elsewhere."

The treadmills used by veterinarians are different from treadmills often used in a nonclinical setting. There is no data concerning injuries during home treadmill use, but Franklin suggested these tips to avoid treadmill-related injuries:

  • Make sure the horse is adequately supervised. This is especially important when horses are being introduced to the treadmill for the first time, because they might not be very coordinated.
  • Use a safety harness during high-speed exercise.
  • Ensure the horse is wearing boots to prevent minor limb injuries.
  • Ensure there are no loose shoes before exercising. In the study, several injuries were incurred when shoes came off during exercise.

The study, "Investigation of the incidence and type of injuries associated with high-speed treadmill exercise testing," was published in November in the Equine Veterinary Journal. The abstract is available online.

Disclaimer: Seek the advice of a qualified veterinarian before proceeding with any diagnosis, treatment, or therapy.

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