Exercise Equipment

Like busy professionals everywhere, horse people often find there just aren't enough hours in the day. What with stalls to be mucked, arenas to be harrowed, fields to be bush-hogged or mowed, fencing to be repaired, hay to be baled, tack repairs to be picked up at the local saddlery, the farrier arriving at 10:00 a.m., and a ton of shavings being delivered at 3:00 p.m., it's a wonder any of us find time to exercise our horses! It's no surprise, then, that we've invented a number of different ways of streamlining, improving, or at least taking some of the guesswork out of the exercise process for our equines. Although the designs and methods have little in common, they can all be lumped together under the term "exercise equipment."

For the purposes of this article, exercise equipment refers not to harnesses, saddles, or bridles, but to machines, constructions, or gadgets that somehow aid the exercise process. It sounds a bit like Nautilus for horses, and in some ways, it's the same idea: to improve the ease, efficiency, and/or the repeatability of a workout. Some pieces of equipment, like hotwalkers and "free-walkers," help you find more hours in the day as they exercise several horses at once. Others, such as treadmills, allow for a customized workout with pre-determined speeds, angles, and duration. Equine swimming pools provide a strenuous aerobic challenge for a horse in a few minutes, while eliminating the repeated concussion on limbs that a similarly stressful workout on land would require. And the simplest of exercise equipment, the round pen, merely provides a handy environment in which to persuade a horse to concentrate on his handler. All of these tools can be a useful addition to your farm program, if they're applied wisely.

The trickiest part of designing exercise equipment for horses is ensuring they're safe. This goes double if the point of the equipment is that horses can be left to exercise unsupervised. The potential for disaster is considerable whenever horses and inanimate objects tangle, so manufacturers have gone to great lengths to prepare for any contingency. Still, horses are endlessly inventive when it comes to getting themselves in trouble, so all of these devices and methods should be used with caution and common sense. Very often, horses need some initial training before they safely can exercise with the aid of equipment, just as they need to be introduced to saddle or harness patiently.

Hot Walkers: Saving Time And Miles

Standard equipment at many racing stables, the hot walking machine is designed to save you the work of walking a hot horse around, and around, and around, in order to cool him out. Most of us have seen these mechanical spiders--they have a central, rotating post (within which is contained a small engine), and a number of overhead metal arms that extend out to a large walking circle (ideally, a fenced one). From these arms dangle short leads, which attach to your horse's halter. As the hot walker slowly rotates, the horse feels a tug on his halter, and is persuaded to walk along with it. Of course, if a horse decides otherwise, it potentially could cause considerable havoc--so most hot walkers have breakaway features and an emergency stop mechanism. It's important not to assume that just because a horse is trained to lead, that he immediately will adapt to a hot walker; most horses require some encouragement at first, and supervision throughout the process.

Although hot walkers primarily are designed for cooling horses out, they also can provide gentle exercise for horses rehabilitating from injury or illness. And depending on the model you buy, they can exercise anywhere from two to 10 horses at a time. Some have a single speed, while others have a variable speed mechanism that can encourage a brisker walk, or even a gentle trot. You can spend as little as $2,000 or as much as $10,000 on a hot walker, depending on its features.

Concerns about possible damage to a horse's neck and back from being "towed" along by a hot walker (a situation that usually arises only when the horse is resistant) have led to the development of a variation on this machine, which is sometimes called a "European hot walker" or a "free walker."

Introduced about a decade ago, free walkers allow horses to be exercised loose, between pairs of gates approximately 30 feet apart, which rotate in a circle. The machine is set in the center of a double set of fences, approximately eight feet apart, and extended arms move the gates around the chute. This design not only allows for more freedom of movement than a hot walker, but also is, by many trainers' estimation, safer--and it provides more options for true exercise, instead of just cooling out.

There are several manufacturers of quality hot walkers and exercise machines. A partial listing appears at the end of this article.

Manufacturers of free walkers recommend their machines for warming up an equine athlete before riding or driving (replacing longeing), for cooling out, for gentle rehabilitation from injury or illness, and for conditioning without the extra burden of a rider's weight. Being able to exercise several horses thoroughly at once is a major boon to extra-busy training centers with plenty of horses and not enough daylight.

Free walkers also have become popular at stables that prepare yearlings for the sales ring, as the walkers can provide controlled exercise, which helps put muscle definition on youngsters too young to ride or drive. Depending on the model you choose, free walkers can accommodate anywhere from four to ten horses. Most of the machines come with a variable speed mechanism that can require anything from a slow walk up to a canter (about three to 19 mph). The best have an emergency stopping feature and a wall-mounted remote control box, and are fully programmable, allowing you to design an entire workout and punch the commands into the machine--for example, five minutes of walking, 10 of trotting, a three-minute canter, and a cool-out. Basic models sell for about $14,000, and more elaborate systems can run upward of $20,000.

Round Pens: All The Rage

The idea for an exercise arena without corners is nothing new; such training areas have been around for thousands of years and are indispensable for starting young horses. But with the recent groundswell of interest in "natural horsemanship" (many of the techniques are based on unmounted work in a round pen), suddenly everyone wants one. Most "round pen practitioners" agree that the best sort of round pen is a permanent installation with solid walls. In such a round pen, with no outside distractions to confuse him, a young horse can focus completely on his handler. But if the permanent type is unavailable, even a portable round pen, made of sections of galvanized steel pipe, can be helpful. There are several companies that market such portable pens, some of which can be transported in the back of a pickup truck or horse trailer. Prices range from a few hundred dollars up to several thousand, depending on the dimensions and materials used.

Look for solid construction, attention to detail, rounded corners with no sharp edges, and a design that won't allow the whole ring to collapse or tip over the first time it is bumped. It's also important that none of its sections provide an opening that could trap a hoof or limb.

Treadmills: Not Just For Health Clubs

Although they only exercise a single horse at a time, treadmills, nonetheless, have some serious advantages in a conditioning program. Not only can they be contained indoors in a relatively small space, allowing for exercise regardless of the weather, but they provide a consistent, cushioned surface--making them an ideal alternative when the only available footing outside is rock-hard, icy, or consists mostly of deep mud. Most have variable speeds and can be adjusted in terms of the incline on which the horse works--so they provide an infinite number of options in terms of designing a conditioning program.

Furthermore, because they allow the exercising horse to run in place, treadmills provide invaluable opportunities for trainers to observe irregularities in gait, and for researchers to examine heart rates, respiratory function, oxygen consumption, levels of blood enzymes, the effect of impact on hooves and joints, and any number of other physiological effects of exercise. As a result, high-tech, high-speed treadmills are standard equipment in many equine research facilities, including the New Bolton Center in Pennsylvania and the Equine Research Centre in Guelph, Ontario. Slightly lower-tech versions can be found in many training barns, particularly those that condition racehorses.

Although horses must be trained to accept working on a treadmill, they usually adapt to its demands surprisingly quickly, becoming proficient and relaxed in a couple of training sessions. For the first few sessions, the horse should be held by a handler rather than tied. Once a horse is comfortable on the equipment, the treadmill can become an effective means of exercise, and an excellent means of precisely monitoring the workout program.

Most treadmills have digital displays that indicate the speed, distance traveled, minutes per mile, and degree of incline at which the horse is working. Some also include heart-rate monitors, which can help you determine how hard your horse is working.

The exercise session can be intensified by increasing the duration, speed, or the artificial uphill slope. Some treadmills are programmable, allowing you to design the entire workout ahead of time (the average treadmill workout lasts about 15 minutes), and even simulating conditions such as interval training and varying degrees of slopes to climb.

As with all exercise equipment, safety features are an important detail. All treadmills should have some sort of emergency shutdown mechanism that kicks in immediately if a horse should stumble or fall while on the equipment. Look for a safety harness and secure guard rails as well.

Racing pundits have remarked that a horse which is trained on a treadmill becomes very good at running on a treadmill (and not on a track). It's true that a treadmill, with its consistent, cushioned surface and controlled conditions, doesn't entirely prepare a racehorse's bones and joints for the repeated concussion of a "real" exercise surface such as a racetrack. But work on a treadmill can go a long way toward building initial cardiovascular fitness, and might be a useful adjunct to (rather than a substitute for) galloping workouts on a track.

Treadmills aren't cheap. They range from about $15,000 for basic models up to $60,000 or more for research-ready models with all the bells and whistles.

Swimming To Fitness

Although they don't really count as machines, swimming pools for horses definitely come under the category of exercise equipment. And they have a number of advantages over other methods of exercising. For one thing, largely because horses aren't terribly buoyant, they have to work hard in the water--and that provides an excellent aerobic workout in the space of a few minutes. Second, exercising in a pool of water eliminates concussive forces on the limbs entirely, so swimming is a wonderful choice for a horse rehabilitating from an injury, or for an older horse whose trainer is looking to minimize the pounding on well-worn joints and bones.

"I used to swim my three-day event horse, Gethen, all the time," says New York eventing competitor Joan Fleser. "I found it a great way to do cardiovascular and respiratory conditioning when I didn't want to put a lot of stress on the horse's legs. He had pulled a suspensory at one point. After he had been laid up for six months, I took another six months to bring him back slowly. Part of that slow re-conditioning was the swimming, at the Saratoga Harness Track. It was pretty reasonably priced, and there were a couple of fellows there to help raise and lower the bridge (to the center island on which the handler stands) and to assist you in getting your horse in the water if he didn't want to go."

Thoroughbred trainer and eventing competitor Lori Rice, PhD, agrees on the therapeutic value of swimming.

"My father-in-law just started managing a big farm in Ocala, Florida, and they have a huge swimming pool for the horses that was put in by the previous owners. They mostly use it for older horses who might have some problems and would not do well if pounded a lot. (Swimming) maintains aerobic fitness without the concussion--but of course, you need some concussion to keep the legs strong. They believe that no matter how fit a horse seems from swimming, he won't be racing fit until he does some conditioning gallops."

Rice adds, "You know, even the most skittish Thoroughbreds seem to love to swim! Sometimes they need a little shove to get them in, but once they get in the water, they like it as long as you don't overdo it. It is very strenuous, even for a fit racehorse, and you have to build up the swimming time gradually, beginning with just a couple of minutes. When they get out, they are feeling so good that they usually want to buck and play immediately!"

Although swimming pools are particularly popular for conditioning racehorses and three-day event horses, they're by no means the only beneficiaries. Steeplechasers, combined driving ponies, and convalescents of all sorts can get a great workout from swimming--although some are more relaxed about the process than others! For those horses which seem determined to sink, some facilities place an inflatable inner-tube around their necks. Experienced handlers also are required in case a horse should panic.

The layouts of equine swimming pools vary, but the general idea is to be able to lead the horse around in a large loop from the water's edge. A non-slip ramp in and out of the water allows the horse to enter without having to jump, and some sort of "drawbridge" often is employed to allow handlers to cross from outside of the pool to the inside. One (rarely mentioned) problem with equine swimming pools is that their more relaxed clients might leave manure floaters in the water. Heavy doses of chlorine keep the environment as clean as possible, but it's probably worth hosing your horse off with clean water after his swim, just to keep things hygienic (and to keep the chlorine from irritating his skin).

The designs of equine swimming pools vary so much that it's difficult to give a ballpark figure for the cost of installing one. Although some private facilities do have pools, traveling to a swim facility at or near a racetrack is the better option for many horse owners. However, some facilities even use a lake for swimming horses.

Of course, in our unending quest for timesaving, more efficient means of exercising our horses, many more exercise options are likely to surface in the near future. Ingenious inventors already have come up with all sorts of variations on the equipment we've talked about here--such as an underwater treadmill, which adds "drag" on the limbs to the equation. Whatever equipment you decide to use in your program, however, remember that it will not completely replace traditional training programs. To some extent, the only way to train muscles, tendons, bones, and joints to perform a specific task at peak efficiency is by doing that task. Barrel racers must turn around barrels, jumpers must jump fences, and combined driving ponies must work in harness. But the judicious use of exercise equipment can be a great addition to the program.

Performance Enhancement for the 21st Century?

There's always the potential for the weird and wonderful when it comes to dreaming up new ways to improve a horse's performance quotient, and inventor Michael Wehrell has certainly come up with a system designed to raise eyebrows in traditional circles. He calls his patented design the Equi-Track Conditioning System, and suggests that it is the first exercise equipment which could provide significant improvement to the performance of Thoroughbred racehorses in over 50 years.

The idea behind Equi-Track is not that different from those employed by human track athletes: if you provide resistance to forward motion, muscles have to consistently work harder to propel the athlete where he's going. Train consistently with resistance, and muscles gain a new level of strength. Then, in competition, with the resistance removed, dramatic improvements in speed should result. Human runners have trained with everything from ankle weights to parachutes attached to their waists. For the Thoroughbred, Wehrell proposes an overhead monorail which would run the length of a training track. From the gliding monorail a tether would extend, and this would attach to the cantle of a specially designed exercise saddle, which would add only seven pounds to the horse's normal equipment. With a rider on board, the horse would walk, trot, or gallop on the track as he normally would, except that the tether would provide a consistent measure of resistance to his forward motion. A sophisticated on-board computer in the monorail automatically would adjust to the horse's lateral motion across the track as well as his changes in speed, and keep the tension, either when he is traveling straight or through turns. A breastplate would keep the exercise saddle from being dragged backwards by the tension.

Although there are some obvious safety issues to be ironed out, Wehrell actively is seeking investors for his design through his web site at http://members.aol.com/geneticz/pegwait.html.   If you'd like to learn more, contact Wehrell at (770) 451-9602 or e-mail to wehrell@aol.com

Exercise Equipment

Following is a partial list of companies that supply various types of exercise equipment.

5761 Ridgeview Avenue
Mira Loma, CA 91752
800/962-8050, 909/685-7337
fax 909/685-0341

1025 Center Dr.
Bismarck, MO 63624
573/546-6600, 573/846-6700

Rt. 1, Box 107-A
Wayne, OK 73095
fax 405/527-2806

P.O. Box 847
Moultrie, GA 31768
800/828-6324, 912/985-9188

9591 Sulphur Rd.
Sulphur, KY 40070
fax 502/743-5661

1686 Immel Road
Chewelah, WA 99109

P.O. Box 2131
Belton, TX 76513

P.O. Box 307
Ash Grove, MO 65604

11275 Butternut Rd.
Chardon, OH 44204
800/899-8188, 216/564-7177

1870 Mosure Lane
Paradise, CA 95969
fax 530/877-2956

2165 Hwy 48 South
Dickson, TN 37055
fax 615/441-3225

P.O. Box 1320
Ada, OK 74820

351 Harp Innis Pike
Lexington, KY 40511
fax 606/293-1833

Route 11, Box 355
Florence, AL 35630
800/682-1748, 205/766-2343

802 Hillman Rd.
Yakima, WA 98909
800/419-1392, 509/966-2090
fax 509/966-4767

If your company does not appear on this list, please e-mail the following: editorial@TheHorse.com.

About the Author

Karen Briggs

Karen Briggs is the author of six books, including the recently updated Understanding Equine Nutrition as well as Understanding The Pony, both published by Eclipse Press. She's written a few thousand articles on subjects ranging from guttural pouch infections to how to compost your manure. She is also a Canadian certified riding coach, an equine nutritionist, and works in media relations for the harness racing industry. She lives with her band of off-the-track Thoroughbreds on a farm near Guelph, Ontario, and dabbles in eventing.

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