Study: Horse Fitness, Layups, Usage Linked

The job of school horse doesn't come with Monday through Friday, 9 to 5 hours. In fact, days off are often few and far between for these hard-working horses. But does this rigorous schedule have any impact on a horse's likelihood of injury?

Researchers at Utrecht University, in the Netherlands, recently examined the factors that could affect a horse's propensity for injury and future use.

The team evaluated animals' fitness, workload, and reasons for premature training end (when horses could no longer continue the training program for the period of the study, typically due to injury) using two groups of riding school horses: Group A was comprised of horses in a vocational school's riding program, and Group B was comprised of horses working at two local riding schools.

Group A included both horses that had been conditioned prior to a period of intensive work and horses that had only had light recreational work. The team subjected each horse to a standardized exercise test at the beginning and end of a nine-week training period.

The study findings indicated that unconditioned horses tended to have higher heart rates during the standardized exercise test than conditioned horses and were also more likely to suffer injuries earlier in the training period.

"The present study did not significantly show that horses that are less fit are more likely to get injured, only that they were injured earlier in the training period," explained lead author Carolien Munsters, MSc. "This suggests that fitness is somehow related to the occurrence of injuries, and especially the time they occur.

"A practical implication owners may take from this is the fact that horses which were used for the preceding three months for only recreational riding (less than two hours per week), and then start working for one to two hours a day, five days a week, have more early an injury compared to horses already properly trained for this workload," she relayed.

Another study finding was that seven of 11 Group B horses (all of whom were stabled at one of the two schools included in the group) that suffered tendon injuries or minor unspecified lameness resulting in a premature training end were put back into walk/trot work contrary to veterinary advice.

In Munsters' view, these results could point to a disparity in owner education or in a sense of welfare for the horse in the name of keeping up the riding school's business; For example, she found that in both groups small injuries (without a temporary training break) were significantly associated with premature training ends for veterinary reasons later on.

The study, "A prospective study on fitness, workload and reasons for premature training ends and temporary training breaks in two groups of riding horses," will appear in an upcoming issue of Preventative Veterinary Medicine. The abstract is available online.

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