Foal Exercise Influences Final Muscoloskeletal System

Keeping a foal in a stall around-the-clock might keep his coat shiny and his body free of nicks and bumps from roughhousing with peers in the pasture, but in the long run, that could cause him serious problems as an active adult. P. René van Weeren, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ECVS, of Utrecht University in the Netherlands, and his colleagues have determined that pasture turnout for a foal in its first year has the most beneficial effect on the four major parts of the musculoskeletal system--cartilage, tendons and ligaments, muscle, and bone. He also determined that even tissues deemed difficult to repair, such as tendons and articular cartilage, are sensitive to remodeling in this age group.

"Rest is very bad for foals. Watch this, because if not, you may end up with a healthy (looking) foal, but one of inferior quality," warned van Weeren.

He looked at Dutch Warmblood foals in groups that were kept on complete stall rest, given stall rest but excercised daily, and kept completely on pasture exercise. Some were analyzed at five months, and the remaining continued on to 11 months of study.

He and his colleagues found that there is dynamic and rapid development and remodeling of the musculoskeletal system during the period from birth to five months. These changes still occur during the period from five to 11 months, but much more slowly, and some parts such as articular cartilage collagen already have completed forming.

Withholding of exercise led to a retardation of development in the foals. Foals on complete pasture exercise had the highest glycosamioglycan (GAG) content in articular cartilage and tendons (GAGs form the structural pattern and contribute elacticity). Foals which were kept in a box stall, then forced to exercise, had a higher bone density. Tissue quality of the exercised horses was found to be inadequate at 11 months, so heavy exercise in addition to stall rest is detrimental. "Too much exercise might be deleterious," said van Weeren, "but if we balance the exercise program at a young age, we might be in the window of improving tissue quality."

Foals kept on pasture had tissues that were far superior to the other test groups.

In a surprising twist, horses which were kept in a box stall for five months, then turned out, were able to "make up lost ground" with respect to GAG content in articular cartilage and tendon and bone mineral density. But their inactivity had a long-term effect on the biochemical makeup of collagen in the articular cartilage. The composition of that tissue relates to the biomechanical behavior of the limb, which means that the exercise management of foals could directly determine their resistance to injury.--

About the Author

Stephanie L. Church, Editor-in-Chief

Stephanie L. Church, Editor-in-Chief, received a B.A. in Journalism and Equestrian Studies from Averett College in Danville, Virginia. A Pony Club and 4-H graduate, her background is in eventing, and she is schooling her recently retired Thoroughbred racehorse, Happy, toward a career in that discipline. She also enjoys traveling, photography, cycling, and cooking in her free time.

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