Study: Young Racehorses Might Benefit from Treadmill Work

We all know that hitting the treadmill once in a while can be beneficial for human health, but recent study results indicate it could be good practice for young racehorses, as well.

Scientists at the University of California, Davis (UC Davis), collaborated with researchers from the Japan Racing Association to determine whether treadmill training enables racehorses to build up their aerobic capacity while avoiding injury. Aerobic exercise is the type that can be sustained for longer periods of time without building up metabolic waste like lactic acid that makes animals tire.

Twelve yearling Thoroughbreds partook in one of three different training regimens for eight months. One group (C) worked under saddle in the conventional way as a control group. Another group (L) spent one day a week performing high-intensity exercise on an equine treadmill in addition to their routine work under saddle. The third group (S) received similar weekly treadmill workouts, but for just two months. The horses weren't ridden on days they worked on the treadmill.

The researchers examined the horses frequently throughout the study period. They found that none of the horses exhibited any signs of lameness during the study. Additionally, all the horses' aerobic capacity increased over the eight-month period; however, the group that spent one day per week on the treadmill throughout the entire study period saw significantly more improvement as compared to the control group.

Scientists also measured heart rate (which decreased for all groups after training) and hematocrit (packed cell volume, or the percentage of red blood cells in a specified volume of whole blood) and hemoglobin (a special protein that carries oxygen in the blood) concentration, which increased for the horses in the L group compared to the others. An increase in these substances means there are more oxygen-transporters in the blood, which facilitates athletic activity.

Because injuries are a concern for trainers of young racehorses, they welcome most any method designed to prevent unnecessary skeletal stress. Study author James Jones, PhD, DVM, a professor of surgical and radiological sciences at the UC Davis, said the treadmill machines are very expensive, which could explain why they aren’t currently a routine part of most horses’ training regimen.

But, “If a horse wins a high profile Grade 1 race that has used this type of training program, my guess is that it would catch on right away,” Jones said.

He cautioned, however, that the study focused on one element of performance—aerobic capacity—with a relatively small sample size, making it difficult to say whether the occasional treadmill session will actually build a sounder, faster racehorse.

So, could treadmills be the next fashionable training tool?

“That's really for trainers to say," Jones said. "We were just trying to determine if it makes a measurable difference, and it does. Whether that translates into better racing performance is a separate question, but certainly that question is raised by these findings.”

The study, "Physiological responses of young thoroughbred horses to intermittent high-intensity treadmill training," was published in August in Acta Veterinaria Scandinavica

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