As spring moves into summer, the primary focus of activity on many breeding farms is preparation of yearlings for sale. There isn't much scientific research on exercising horses at that young age, yet many farms are using forced exercise to make these youngsters look like little athletes rather than the gangly teenagers they are. While it is good that the industry is going away from the "fat is fit" look, the potential problems of overstressing immature joints, muscles, tendons, and ligaments are very real.
The sales of these young horses are especially important to the Thoroughbred and Standardbred industries. On Thoroughbred farms in central Kentucky, the two-month period leading up to the July and September yearling sales is busy as those involved get down to the final stages of "fitting" their charges for public auction. In order to draw high dollar values, a sales yearling must be the picture of health and athleticism. Notwithstanding the obvious importance of pedigree, the intensive preparation of the yearling during this final stage can add considerable value. Buyers expect a sales yearling to be free of blemishes, perfectly conformed, and pleasing to the eye. Right or not for the athletic adult horse, appearance is everything at this age.
While it is clear that these preparations during the six- to eight-week period leading up to the sales is crucial in terms of the finished product, horse owners should realize that there are limits to what can be achieved in such a short time. In reality, the successful preparation of a sales yearling begins at breeding time--a fashionable pedigree, proper health care and nutrition of the mare during pregnancy and lactation, and overall management of the youngster during the first year of life will lay the foundations for development of a top-notch yearling. The sales prospect must have commercial appeal and be well grown, sound of conformation, and free from problems that might limit future athletic performance.
Another important facet is the selection of the most appropriate sale. A late foal or a slower-developing yearling might not be mature enough to "compete" for top dollars at the summer sales. Thus, some individuals might be better served by the additional time for preparation and growth that fall sales offer.
There was a time when the adage "big is beautiful" rang true at yearling sales. During the mid- to late-1970s and the 1980s, the fashionable yearling was big and fat. According to Steve Caddel, technical expert with Farmers Feed Mill in Lexington, Ky., the last decade has witnessed a transformation in the style of yearlings presented in the sale ring.
"In the 60s and early 70s, sales prep mostly involved knocking the rough edges off the yearlings," says Caddel. "Then during the 80s, the emphasis was on big, fleshy horses. Now, the buyer wants a leaner yearling that almost looks race ready."
Today, the bottom line is that over-conditioning (obesity) is undesirable in the growing horse. It places undue strain on the musculoskeletal system and might limit racing ability. Trainers also report that fat yearlings progress more slowly during early training, a factor that might delay the start of their racing careers.
Ways To Tune The Body
Although yearlings have paddock turnout during the sales prep period, this form of free exercise seldom produces the conditioning and body toning desired by the sales industry. Therefore, some form of controlled conditioning is necessary to achieve a leaner look on a sale yearling; however, an exercise program should not be started with a youngster until that horse has had a veterinary evaluation. Some physical or conformational problems could be exacerbated by forced exercise and the stresses associated with that exercise.
Traditionally, breeders and consignors have relied on hand walking to tone yearlings. For naturally lean and fit-looking yearlings, walking might be adequate exercise. However, the majority of yearlings tend to fatten easily, and more vigorous exercise might be necessary to keep body condition under control and tone muscles to produce a leaner, fitter-looking youngster. Some form of jogging exercise will help to produce the desired muscle definition.
A major concern when starting a conditioning program for a sales candidate is the risk for the exercise to cause lameness problems now or in the future. By and large, these problems can be avoided by not overdoing the intensity and duration of work asked of the horse. Start out slow, with no more than five minutes of jogging per day in the first week, and build gradually over the next two to three weeks. As a general rule, a single bout of jogging should not exceed 15 to 20 minutes. If a yearling needs more conditioning, either increase the number of exercise days per week or give the horse two sessions per day, one in the morning and one in the evening (e.g. two jogging bouts, each 15 minutes in duration).
One way to minimize the risk of lameness problems and allow plenty of time for the development of a lean, muscled look is to start formal conditioning early in the year. The precocious, stout weanling can be started in late winter (February)--particularly for a July sales yearling, this early start helps you avoid some of the lameness problems that can arise when the conditioning program is crammed into the six to eight weeks leading up to the sales.
Several conditioning methods have been used to prepare yearlings for sale. Each has advantages and disadvantages, the latter most often related to the set-up costs. As mentioned earlier, hand walking is the most common method, but is time- and labor-intensive.
"Ponying" is one method used for more intense yearling conditioning. For this exercise, yearlings must be trained to lead beside another horse. An experienced rider and "pony" are required to exercise yearlings in this manner. An alternative is to lead the yearling behind a garden-style tractor or an all-terrain vehicle with a platform mounted on the back. One person is required to operate the vehicle while a second person holds the horse. If the horse resists, the handler quickly can step off the vehicle and maintain control of the youngster.
As with all methods of physical conditioning, ponying must be started very slowly. First, train the horse to move forward, then progress to a fast walk followed by a slow jog. Initially, the workout should include 10-15 minutes of walking and about five minutes of trotting. Over two weeks, the amount of jogging can be increased to 15-20 minutes per day.
Another popular method for conditioning involves the use of round pens. A typical round pen is 50 to 60 feet in diameter and has a firm but yielding footing--wood fiber is a popular base in round pens. Over time, the wood fiber packs down, providing an even and stable base. It also helps to slightly bank the perimeter of the round pen. This banking can help reduce the amount of torque on a horse's legs as he jogs in a circle, potentially reducing the risk of injury. Initially, the horse is worked loose in the pen, allowing it to become comfortable with the surroundings and the handler. As exercise intensity increases, a longe line is added to provide more control. As with ponying, the intensity of exercise should be increased gradually, and total time at the jog/trot should not exceed 15-20 minutes per session.
Mechanical exercisers (a type of "hot walker") are perhaps the most popular tool for sales prepping. These automatic systems differ from traditional hot walkers in that for the yearling is not connected to a lead line and pulled by a moving arm. Rather, the round exerciser "wheel" is divided into six mobile pens by mesh gates that are suspended from horizontal steel beams, which form the spokes in the wheel. The wheel is within a fence, which creates an outer barrier. The horse is allowed to work loose within the area between two gates. As the wheel turns, the gate immediately behind the horse encourages it to move and keep pace with the system. Compared to the other conditioning methods discussed so far, the mechanical exerciser is a major time saver since six yearlings can be exercised at one time. The speed of the exerciser is adjustable, allowing horses to work at speeds ranging from a comfortable walk to a fast trot or canter. They are reversible, allowing horses to be exercised in both directions.
Treadmills provide yet another option for conditioning the sales yearling. Horses quickly become accustomed to walking, trotting, and cantering on a treadmill. A big advantage of treadmills is the very even and consistent surface that they provide, which is a big plus when trying to minimize lameness problems. Also, because the horse is stationary relative to an observer while moving on the treadmill, this form of exercise allows the trainer to evaluate the horse's style of movement. Since treadmills can be inclined, they provide an opportunity for simulated hill work, an excellent means for developing the back and hindquarters. Incline walking should be introduced very slowly and never exceed 10-15 minutes per session three times per week. Overdoing the hill work can precipitate lameness problems.
A major disadvantage of treadmills is their expense, although the cost will depend on the type of treadmill. High-speed treadmills cost in excess of $60,000-$70,000, but some lower-speed models cost less than $20,000. The latter are suitable for conditioning yearlings.
Some experienced horse owners have commented that occasionally a yearling will develop a short, choppy gait when conditioned on a treadmill. This problem can be avoided if the treadmill conditioning is used in conjunction with other forms of exercise, such as hand walking or jogging on a longe line.
During the period of formal sales preparation, some horse owners will apply "sweats" to the neck and shoulder region. Says Caddel, "A full neck and shoulder sweat promotes a clean neck and shoulder with a well-defined set of withers. As horses gain weight during sales prepping, it also helps to reduce fat deposition around the girth." As with any treatment, this can be overdone.
Feeding The Muscle
Of course, amidst all this talk of exercise conditioning, we must not overlook the importance of nutrition in preparing the sales yearling. Between weaning and sales time, the general goal is to deliver the nutrients essential for growth and development, but not provide so much energy that the youngster becomes fat. A full discussion on feeding the growing horse is beyond the scope of this article (see "Feeding Yearlings" in the May 1998 issue of The Horse, online at http://www.thehorse.com/ViewArticle.aspx?ID=479). However, a few general comments will be made regarding the sales prep period.
During the 60- to 90-day period leading up to the sales, yearlings will be turned out at night and brought inside during the day to minimize sun exposure (and bleaching of the hair coat) and attain the level of handling and grooming required to produce a glossy coat and a well-behaved horse.
The feeding program is typically stepped up during this period--often three instead of two grain/concentrate meals are fed per day. Most sales yearlings will receive somewhere between eight and 12 pounds of concentrate per day. When concentrate feeding is in-creased, it should be done gradually over a one- to two-week period.
To a large extent, the amount fed will depend on the horse, individual preference regarding body condition at the time of the sale, the amount of exercise, and the availability of pasture. Farms with a low stocking density and plenty of pasture might feed a little less concentrate to avoid over-conditioning. Individualization of the feeding program is key. For example, since fillies can gain weight faster than colts, they might need less concentrate. On the other hand, late foals might need to be fed more to achieve the right look. Pasture turnout might need to be limited in those gaining weight very quickly--alternatively, a little more exercise can help burn off any excess weight.
Many horse owners will add fat to the diet during sales prep. As little as two to four ounces of vegetable oil per day can result in a noticeable improvement in coat condition within a few weeks. (For a discussion of oil in the diet, see "Feeding The Coat" on page 109.) Along with intensive grooming, this beneficial effect of vegetable oil produces a gleaming coat at sales time. Fat is also high in calories, so adding vegetable oil is a convenient and safe way to increase energy intake. Again, the level of feeding will depend on the individual--a suggested maximum is four ounces of oil per grain/concentrate meal.
Rice bran or rice oil are also popular at sales prep time. Rice bran is about 20% fat, so this product (or rice oil) will produce the desired changes in coat and hair appearance. As well, these products contain gamma-oryzanol, a substance that might improve muscle development. Although there is no data in horses, some studies in rats have demonstrated an anabolic (muscle building) effect of gamma-oryzanol. The general feeding rate for rice bran is one to two pounds per day.
As a final thought, remember that in addition to general conditioning and sheen, the buyer will be attracted to a well-behaved yearling. Therefore, an equally important part of the sales prep process is schooling the horse to stand and walk for prospective buyers. According to Caddel, it is important to do at least some of this schooling (10-15 minutes) during the heat of a summer day. "The hair coat will not burn during this short time period, and this conditioning seems to make these youngsters more heat tolerant at sale time when they are often required to parade in the hot sun."
Some of the factors affecting a yearling's sale price are beyond your control (siblings' performance records, etc.), but attention to proper feeding and conditioning will substantially improve yearlings' health and worth to prospective buyers.
Hall, T. Fitting For Public Auction. The Horse, May 1998, 37-42. http://www.thehorse.com/ViewArticle.aspx?ID=2953.
Briggs, K. Feeding Yearlings. The Horse, May 1998, 75-81. http://www.thehorse.com/ViewArticle.aspx?ID=479.
About the Author
Ray Geor, BVSc, PhD, Dipl. ACVIM, is professor and chairperson of Large Animal Clinical Sciences at the College of Veterinary Medicine at Michigan State University