Views on using horse walkers to exercise horses are very polarised. But what does the research say? Dr Gillian Tabor, an equine physiotherapist, talks through a pragmatic approach to their use.
Research papers discussed are:
- Freire, R., Buckley, P. and Cooper, J.J., 2009. Effects of different forms of exercise on post inhibitory rebound and unwanted behaviour in stabled horses. Equine Veterinary Journal, 41(5), pp.487-492.
- Walker, T.J., Collins, S.N. and Murray, R.C., 2012. Horse walker use in dressage horses. Comparative Exercise Physiology, 8(1), pp.63-70.
- Murray, R.C., Walters, J.M., Snart, H., Dyson, S.J. and Parkin, T.D., 2010. Identification of risk factors for lameness in dressage horses. The Veterinary Journal, 184(1), pp.27-36.
Here is a transcription of the podcast. (Please note this is an automated transcription, so we apologise for any errors from the original podcast.)
Hello, everybody. This is Gillian Tabor. I’m an equine physiotherapist, and on this podcast I want to talk about the use of horse walkers. So I recently recorded a podcast that you can find on this channel about ideas of how to look after your horse if they’re in the stable for longer durations.
Certainly here in the UK the weather has changed and so turnout might be limited or some ideas were there to help. If your horse is on box rest. But one of the factors that I mentioned was about movement, and I suggested that I considered the use of a horse walker better than the horse being stood in the stable 24 over seven. I don’t want you to think that I would choose that in preference to any other sort of active exercise, or even sort of durations of turnout, if the facilities allow sort of safe and the environment and the weather and everything. But I wanted to expand on that idea of whether a horse walker was better or worse than standing in the stable, because there are some people that are very polarised in their views of using them. You know, they could be very anti and they’d say they’d never put a horse on them. And where there are others that obviously use them frequently.
So it got me thinking, you know, are they the devil or are they a gift from the God? And I wanted to talk through some of the ideas that I had and looked at some of the research recently into them. So I first place was to do a survey of the research and considering their frequent use, I actually only found one study that was specifically all about horse walkers, and that was by Walker et al. In 2012. And that was a survey looking at the use of horse walkers for dressage horses. Uh, the survey was questionnaire based, and it used a subset of participants that had been part of a wider study into looking at risk factors for injuries in dressage horses, that some of you might be familiar with that paper, it was published by the, um, main author being Doctor Rachel Murray, and I think it was 2010. Uh, so Walker took the population of, uh, participants that used horse walkers and surveyed them to find out more about their horse walker use. So in the end, they had 195 horse walker users with, um, slightly more sort of horses being used on them. But they asked factors such as, you know, the design of the walker, how long they use them for, why they use them for, and it’s actually quite interesting.
They found that the common size of horse walker was one that took for horses and then going up in size, reduced in frequency. So 5 or 6 horse, eight horse. And then there was one, uh, respondents that had a ten horse walker. When asked about the actual surface on the floor of the horse walker that the horses were walking on, 42% had rubber matting. Um, and then, uh, there were some that had rubber bricks and then concrete, and I was actually looking at some of the manufacturer’s websites and, uh, seeing what there is available and obviously there, you know, there’s rubber, but there was some, um, sort of grids that you could fill in with a membrane or an artificial surface that, uh, provided a slightly different surface to either concrete or rubber that I thought was quite interesting. So back to the survey. When asked about the reason for using the horse walker, the most frequent use was for cooldown. Uh, then the next use was for rehabilitation and then for warming up.
There were some other people that used them for when turnout was not possible. And that was, you know, the trigger for this podcast. Uh, some use them while mucking out, presumably to sort of take the horse out of the stable. And then, um, a few used it for additional exercise, including during or whilst they’re on a day off. So, um, lots of sort of common sense reasons for using them. Uh, I found it quite interesting that people use them more for cooldown than they did for warming up. Uh, makes me wonder whether they’re doing a sufficient warm up program or whether they no managed to do that, ridden or not. Um, but the median duration of use of the horse walker was 30 minutes.
Now, I don’t know, because obviously I’ve not looked at the data, but was that increased or decreased when it was related to, uh, cooldown? And also was the 30 minutes something that changed if you had a horse on rehab, for instance? So one of the reasons that people don’t like horse walkers is because of the perceived risk of injury. And in this study, there were 64% of people that reported not knowing of any previous injury on a horse walker, which is roughly two thirds. And then the other third that knew of accidents, um, reported that it was due to either slipping, uh, slipping or falling or, uh, quite scarily, facial damage as the horses got their heads sort of in between the partitions and the barriers that were moving around.
I have known of horses that have had injuries on horse walkers. I have treated horses that have had injuries. Um, and usually it is a consequence to the horse behavior. You know, something happens because if they are just walking around the horse walker as they are supposed to do, so from a sort of an acute injury point of view there, you wouldn’t sort of expect that there would be an injury. Um, so if they get themselves caught up, um, or they, um, should jump around or rear or kick their, you know, they can get their limbs caught. Uh, and then the other factor is, of course, if they leap around and they slip and they and they fall.
I have heard some horror stories of them sort of getting trapped in the horse walker, um, or getting themselves caught up. Um, I’ve been to places where the, the guidelines or the rules of horses going on. Horse walkers, they don’t wear a head collar or they don’t wear a bridle. And then I’ve been to places where they have now. You would want something that had the ability to break under quite a light strain, just in case it got caught up. Um, so, you know, one of these fields. So head collars might be appropriate, although of course they’ve not been tested in that scenario, but you certainly wouldn’t want anything that could get caught up on any of the metalwork. Um, the other, um, comments to do with injuries, which sort of move away from this idea of acute injury, which I will talk a little bit more about later on. But, uh, some of the participants in this study talked about the concerns about the continuous turn on small circles, and maybe having an oval horse walker would be better. But how does that work with speed? Um, because do they change speed on the turn compared with on the straight line? So, you know, that’s something that, um, would be interesting to actually measure.
Another study that does include the use of the horse wear walker was a study on post inhibitory rebound. Now that is the expressive, perhaps explosive movement of a horse once it’s been turned out into a larger area and it’s got the freedom to move. So it’s sort of movement has been inhibited. And then it goes out and on the rebound it um, leaps around, which potentially puts it at danger of injury. So this paper by Freire et al. In 2010 did highlight the fact that when on open ranges, horses walk 15 to 20km, but when they’re stabled, that is really, really restricted. So what they did is that they had a study where they had horses put in, um, various conditions of one hour exercise per day and then compared that to a controlled situation. And then they looked at after four days of doing that, either exercise or control what happened when they turn them out into a large arena.
So the exercise conditions that they had were either turn out in a field on the treadmill ridden exercise or on the horse walker. And the control scenarios for those were tied up next to the horse walker, tied up next to the treadmill, um, or tied up in the field, um, so that they could compare, uh, not the sort of location, but actually the amount of movement that was undertaken. And they did find that the horses, when they were turned out, actually took less steps than the other exercises because they put an activity step counter on the horses, uh, which I thought was quite interesting. And I was wondering whether I could look into how they did that and put one of those on my own horse. I quite like to see how many steps he does in the field. Um, but anyway, the number of steps when the horse was on the horse walker was highest out of those four exercise conditions. That is, um, interesting compared with either the ridden exercise or the treadmill.
It suggests that they covered a further distance. Um, and the after all, for exercise conditions. When the horses were back in the stable, they took a lot less steps than when they were in the control condition. So basically, the horses moved during the exercise and stood still in the stables. Now, whether or not that is a good thing, um, my. The reason it might not be a good thing. I was just sort of flip that the other way around is that if the horse is actually, uh, not getting the exercise it needs outside the stable, and then it is perhaps box walking or unsettled in the stable, then that’s not going to be so good for us, for them, rather, but actually for all those four exercise conditions compared to the control, when the horses were turned out, there was less post inhibitory rebound. So there was less, uh, bucking, leaping, cantering, generally charging around the field and putting itself at risk of injury. Um, there wasn’t a difference between any of those four exercise conditions.
So, um, that doesn’t support using the walker over and above ridden exercise or turnout before turn out into a pen. Um, so that again supports this idea that if you can, then ridden exercise potentially is preferable to putting your horse on the walker. But ridden putting a horse on the walker is preferable for the sort of behavioral response and increasing the distance traveled compared with a control condition of just having the horse turned out. Um, one of the questions that I thought about was, is there less control of movement when turning your horse out compared with being on the walker?
And if we’re thinking about horses that are undergoing rehab, perhaps they’re sort of repair of a ligament or a tendon injury is, uh, early on the early stages of rehab that those sort of tissues are going to be quite fragile. Uh, so would a walker be better than free turnout now from a sort of ecological and ethical point of view? You know that that’s a sort of a gray area. However, um, in terms of rehab and sort of long term health of that horse is controlling the exercise going to be better or not? So the other side of the coin to think about is what is the potential risks of putting the horse on a horse walker. And I’m sure you’re all, um, familiar with the idea that walking in a sort of constant circle is going to put asymmetric loads through that distal limb. And if there’s a particularly slip free surface, then you’re going to get gripping of the hooves of the horse is turning, which can then induce torque up the limb. So force on a turning direction through the joints of the limb. So, you know, is that something to be concerned about?
The other thing is that on the fact that if you’re going clockwise or anti-clockwise, there’s an asymmetry of movement. And we do know that the back muscles work asymmetrically when you’re going on a circle. So, you know, is that advisable. Sort of early stages of rehab for instance post kissing spine surgery. You might not want to do that, but you might actually want to induce that asymmetry of lateral motion perhaps a little bit further along during your stages of rehab, so long as you make sure that you were to go one way, one time, and then one way the other time to make sure that you’re not promoting sort of asymmetric, um, development. So, you know, that’s something to consider. 1s Uh, so I mentioned earlier the, uh, Murray paper on the lameness in the dressage horses.
And when they looked at the duration of horse walker use, there was a relationship between that and the horses with an increased risk of lameness. Now, if you jumped on that data, if you didn’t understand that actually correlation or association does not equal causation, you might say, oh, those horses are lame because they’re going on the horse walker. But actually, it could have been the horses were lame and therefore they were going on the horse walker for more because it could have been because of, uh, rehabilitation. So, um, that needs to be explored more. Um, we don’t know yet whether the horse walker causes lameness, despite knowing that it does cause asymmetric distal limb loading? Or actually, is it as a result of lameness that it’s being used more? One of the things that we need to, um, think about is actually, you know, if you are walking on a circle and you are loading those joints in an asymmetric pattern, so long as it’s on a, uh, a low intensity and the duration is managed sort of along the principles of progressive overload, maybe walking on the horse walker is going to stimulate adaptation into the distal limb tissues, which could be protective of injury because quite obviously we ride our horses around turn. So we need them to be able to have the capacity to tolerate a turn. So could low load, um, sort of actually help with that early on in the rehab.
Now, I don’t know about that, but it’s just a consideration and something to think about in that association. We know that high intensity training does change bone strength. You know, bone mineral density. Um, and actually another paper by um, Murray from um, a little while ago looked at comparison between bone density and a cortical thickness on high intensity work compared with the horse walker, and found that the horse walker didn’t stimulate so much adaptation. So, um. Yeah, that that’s something. It’s an interesting concept, isn’t it? Can we increase the loading progressively to stimulate adaptation, to then tolerate what we want them to do in a more sort of active and loaded, um, sort of expression of exercise later on? Uh, as I say, I don’t know the answer to that. That’s just, um, sort of a consideration. So where does that lead me? Um. In conclusion. Um, well, if the risk of slipping and tripping and falling is high, you need to monitor your horse’s behavior on a horse walker. Um, one of the suggestions on the free, er, paper was that they should go on the horse walker with a companion. So they’re not on there alone. Um, if they obviously have behavior that is putting them at risk of damaging themselves on a horse walker.
Um, one particular horse that I know of, um, can, has never settled on a horse walker. Um, and, uh, yeah, every time it’s gone on there, it’s had to be pulled off it because of the risk of injury. Well, that is obviously a safety factor, but if your horse can tolerate it and, um, it’s still going to be at risk of injury, but is it any more risk of injury compared with turnout or perhaps being ridden or jumped for instance. So you need to monitor the behavior. Um, the horses should be observed on their, uh, a lot of places. They put the horse walker horses on the horse walker and walk away. Uh, which might be fine, if you know that the chances are they’re going to be nice and safe. But if you don’t, then they need to have somebody monitoring them. Uh, at, uh, Heartbreak University, where I work, they have constant, um, observation of horses on the horse walker. They don’t just leave them on there. Uh, and so that they can interact with the horses, um, and, uh, the words maybe not interact, but, I mean, they can stop the horse walker and prevent, um, injuries as much as they possibly can do. Um.
If you are at a yard with a horse walker, obviously you can’t change the size of it. But if you are looking at a yard and you’ve got a choice, then a larger horse walker is going to have a lower torque when turning on a small circle. So, um, potentially the larger horse walker is the better for distal limb loading. Um, but you know, they are expensive and I imagine the smaller ones are cheaper to build than the large big ones that are on an oval. Some of the ones that I saw on the internet were beautiful. They had sort of, um, they were big enough to go round the outside of a lunging pen and, um, you know, that that’s going to sort of replicate more of a sort of natural movement compared with a small tern that is only sort of 12m diameter. Um, and then the other thing is to think about when you put your horse on there, make sure that you start with a very short duration of time and monitor their response to it within the next sort of 24, 48 hours, uh, and then progressively build up the time. Um, the idea that you would just start off with half an hour is wrong. You need to literally just start off with a few circles and build up. So I know one of my thoughts overall, and this is obviously my personal opinion, is that I still think that going on a horse walker, if the horse is safe and there’s no behavioral concerns, is actually overall more beneficial than having a horse standing in the stable for 24 over seven. Obviously, my preference would be to have the horse turned out, but I am pragmatic.
We are here in the UK undergoing, you know, wet weather and then I see whether there’s very little grass out there. So, you know, let’s sort of be fair to the horses that actually some movement is better than no movement. The benefits of being on the horse walker are that they are a level surface. They usually are firm surface. The horses walked without a rider on board, so we take away any potential limitations due to saddle fit or, um, rider problems. And then also I do understand that they are very convenient from a time use point of view. You know, you could put your horse on the walker whilst you’re mucking out. Um, compared with actually taking them out for 20 minutes for a walk in hand? Again, in an ideal world, if we had, um, all the time for every horse, perhaps, you know, staff or our own time, we could take them out for lead hacks. I’m sure that’s going to be more environmentally sort of enriching for them. Um, but again, I’m repeating myself. I do think a horse walker is better than being stood in a box for 24 seven. So that’s my opinion. I’d be interested to know whether you agree or disagree, you know, please do get in touch. You can do that via the, um, uh, group’s Facebook and via email and, um. Yeah, just say thank you very much for listening. And if you want the references, I can provide those to the papers as well as well in the show notes. So, um, that’s me saying goodbye for now. Thank you very much.