When in Doubt, Turn Out

If our goal is to produce horses that are athletically talented and sufficiently resilient to withstand maximal competitive efforts, there is no substitute for a natural upbringing with full-time turnout on varied terrain.
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By Hilary M. Clayton, BVMS, PhD, Dipl. ACVSMR, MRCVS

Horses are products of their genetics and the environment we provide for their growth and development. One of the most important choices we make when managing horses during the first few years of their life is whether they are stabled or turned out, and for how long. Different types of exercise are necessary to stimulate adaptation of the different locomotor musculoskeletal tissues (bone, articular cartilage, muscle, ligament, and tendon), and these tissues are most responsive at different ages. Therefore, young horses need a sufficient amount of appropriate types of exercise at the right times in their lives to fulfill their athletic potential and reduce their risk of injury.

Researchers have shown that 24-hour-a-day turnout during the early months of a foal’s life is the gold standard for developing a strong, resilient locomotor system. Management approaches in which foals are kept in stalls even for part of the day are less effective in stimulating optimal locomotor tissue strength. This is especially true for the superficial digital flexor tendon (which runs from the back of the knee all the way down to the back of the pastern in each limb and acts as a “sling” to support the fetlock to help it bear the animal’s weight) and the suspensory ligament (which runs down the back of each cannon bone). Both structures are frequently injured in equine athletes. These soft tissues reach their maximal strength by the time the horse is 2 years of age, ­after which they are no longer able to adapt to the stimulus of conditioning.

Another benefit of turnout relates to a horse’s development of surefootedness. Turnout stimulates the proprioceptors (sensory mechanisms that tell the horse where his feet and body parts are) in the hooves, joints, muscles, and tendons that provide information about the body’s position and movements. The neuromuscular system responds to the proprioceptive information by causing appropriate body and limb movements. Ideally, during their first two years, horses should be exposed to different types of footing and terrain to enhance their proprioceptive awareness and hone their reflex responses so they can adapt to uneven ground without ­tripping or stumbling

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Hilary M. Clayton, BVMS, PhD, Dipl. ACVSMR, FRCVS, is a veterinarian, researcher and horsewoman. For more than 40 years she has performed innovative research in the areas of locomotor biomechanics, lameness, rehabilitation, conditioning programs for equine athletes, and the interaction between rider, tack, and horse. She has published seven books and more than 200 scientific articles on these topics. Clayton served as the Mary Anne McPhail Dressage Chair in Equine Sports Medicine at Michigan State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine from 1997 until she retired from academia in 2014. She continues to perform collaborative research with colleagues in universities around the world. Clayton is a charter diplomate and past president of the American College of Veterinary Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation. She is an Honorary Fellow of the International Society for Equitation Science and has been inducted into the International Equine Veterinarians Hall of Fame, the Midwest Dressage Association Hall of Fame, and the Saskatoon Sports Hall of Fame. She is a lifelong rider and has competed in many equestrian sports, most recently focusing on dressage in which she trains through the Grand Prix level and has earned U.S. Dressage Federation bronze, silver, and gold medals.

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