In conjunction with Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital, “Ask Your Veterinarian” is a regular feature in the PR Special newsletter distributed online and at Thoroughbred sales. Veterinarians at Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital answer your questions about sales and healthcare of Thoroughbred auction yearlings, weanlings, 2-year-olds and breeding stock. Email us at [email protected] you have a question for a veterinarian.
Question: What's better when preparing a yearling for sale — walking or swimming?
Dr. Kathleen Paasch: Until about 20 years ago, most yearlings were prepped for sale by hand walking. The advantage of this method is that the horse is moving naturally in a relatively straight line (i.e., no tight circles) at a slow, low-concussive speed over natural footing. The disadvantages to hand-walking are, of course, that it's labor intensive and the fitness level of the horse is limited by the fitness level of the groom and the number of hours in the day. As market pressure to produce fitter and more muscled sale yearlings has increased, both the mechanical walker and swimming have become popular ways to prep yearlings for sale. Both have pros and cons.
Mechanical walkers are now common-place on commercial breeding farms. With an ever-shrinking labor pool available to farms, a major benefit is that several horses can be exercised at one time. Additionally, the speed at which they exercise can be controlled so that programs can be tailored to groups of horses. However, it can be easy to over-use mechanical walkers and repetitive trotting circles can stress tendons and ligaments especially in young horses. Strains can turn in to real problems if the footing on the walker is not diligently maintained. Footing that is too soft, too deep or uneven should be avoided. When yearlings were prepped by hand walking, the incidence of soft tissue lameness (e.g., proximal suspensory desmitis) was very low but with the advent of mechanical walkers we now see many more cases.
Access to equine swimming pools has also expanded recently. Most horses take to swimming readily and because the horse has to work harder to swim it is an effective method for weight loss and developing muscle. Despite the fact that a horse does not need to swim for a lengthy period to reap the benefits, It remains pretty labor intensive in that horses must be trailered to pools. One should be cautious about relying solely on swimming to prep yearlings as it will build muscle but not bone density. Swimming does not offer the concussive loading and unloading of bone that a yearlings need to develop into racehorses.
There is no perfect exercise method. Perhaps the best way to utilize walkers and swimming is as a supplemental exercise or a form of cross-training. Ideally, yearlings would spend the better part of the day/night turned out so that they could move, change speed and direction at will, compete with each other and develop into the athletes we want them to be. That said, market pressures demand a certain look and level of fitness that cannot be ignored by those who bring yearlings to sale. The key is to be aware of the possible drawbacks to these methods and not to rely on them solely.
Dr. Kathleen Paasch is a shareholder in Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital. She received her DVM from Washington State University and completed Rood and Riddle's internship program the following year. Dr. Paasch specializes in lameness, diagnostic imaging, and acupuncture.
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