Q. Does frequent longeing (or even just longeing in general) have any negative effects on a horse’s joints?
A. While anecdotal evidence exists to support a relationship between circular exercise and joint disease, there is a dearth of controlled studies examining such and, thus, recommendations to the industry can only be made hesitantly.
At Michigan State University we will soon be starting a project designed to quantify how much damage is done depending on the size of the circle and the speed at which an animal is exercised. Why is this a concern? When horses are exercised on a turn, the size of the load-bearing surface gets reduced substantially, with a corresponding increase in load on the load-bearing part of the joint surface.
Simply put, the force that normally gets distributed equally over the entire joint surface in straight line exercise is concentrated on a much smaller area when exercising in a circle. If done infrequently or at slow speeds, this isn’t likely to cause much damage. Unfortunately, many people longe as a regular part of their training program, and often the speed at which these horses are exercised is likely great enough to cause damage. Additionally, when a horse starts going faster, it’s common for the person longeing the horse to make the circle smaller. And the smaller the circle and the faster the horse is traveling, the greater damage that is likely to be done.
One way I try to help my students understand the potential damage being done is to have them determine the size of circle on which they would typically longe a horse, and then try to run that circle at the same speed they’d longe the horse. If you travel around that circle at a slow walk, you likely will not feel discomfort. However, as you increase your speed, you’ll likely begin to feel discomfort in your knees and ankles—and that’s probably at a speed much slower than one longes their horse. If you kept that exercise up for the length of time you would normally longe your horse, and if you did it on a daily basis, it’s quite probable you would experience joint damage fairly soon. And given how much more a horse weighs than does a human, the damage would be multiplied.
Joint injuries, including osteoarthritis, are common in horses. Trainers and owners often look for supplements and injections to miraculously heal these problems. There are few treatments beyond rest that have good scientific evidence of being able to heal joints; thus, a better solution is to try and prevent the problem to begin with. Start by recognizing that circular exercise might be partially (or entirely) to blame, and limit longeing to only when it is absolutely necessary for training or competition.