Treadmill exercise and your horse
There are various types of horse treadmills including standard treadmills often found in rehab centers, hydro-treadmills (pictured here), and smaller machines that are more affordable for equine caretakers. Photo courtesy of Hudson Aquatic Systems, LLC.

Equine treadmills are increasingly found in therapy centers, research centers, and even some training facilities. Learn how the rehabilitating or conditioning horse could succeed with treadmill exercise.

When creating a horse’s conditioning or rehabilitation program, the real challenge is balancing improvement and injury. In other words, the goal is to regain the horse’s strength and athleticism without overworking his body and causing more damage. The key to this balancing act is consistent and controlled exercise. Particularly when compared to riding work, treadmill exercise offers both a regulated environment and a significantly reduced load.

What horses can benefit, and how?

I spoke to Dr. Alberto Rullan from the Equine Performance Innovative Center in Ocala, Florida to learn more about the use of treadmill exercise in their program. Since its founding in 2017, the center has been offering a wide range of treatment options for horses, including their very popular Ferro Aquatics AquaPacer, or water treadmill.

Enclosed on all sides with transparent windows, the aqua treadmill offers a low-impact yet high-resistance workout suitable for a rehabilitation or conditioning program. As for the clients, Dr. Rullan describes them as “an even mix of rehabilitation after an injury, and conditioning to prepare for competitions” — but all are high-level competitors from a wide variety of disciplines, including barrel racing, dressage, and endurance. For those focused on rehabilitation, the most common injuries successfully treated at the Center are bowed tendons, degenerative joint disease, laminitis, and degenerative suspensory ligament desmitis.        

Benefits of treadmill exercise

Some of the benefits of incorporating a treadmill into a horse’s exercise routine include the following:

  • It gives the ability to control the incline, speed, and overall intensity of the workout.
  • “Cross-training”, or supplementing a training regimen with this type of exercise, increases a horse’s stamina and endurance.
  • Treadmill exercise allows for the isolation and conditioning of specific muscle groups.
  • It offers the ability to monitor more closely and make gait adjustments faster because the horse is stationary.
  • It promotes correct posture and a balanced gait when exercising.
  • Treadmill exercise doesn’t rely on the weather’s cooperation and is available year-round.
  • It allows for a smooth and cushioned training surface, with shock absorption.

While it’s not an overnight cure, the benefits of treadmill exercise make themselves apparent within a matter of weeks. Dr. Rullan confirms that after ten sessions of about 20 minutes of exercise, he notices considerable improvement in his equine clients. That said, each horse’s progress is specific to both his level of physical fitness and his diagnosis. “Another factor that will influence timeframes is if the horse has already been exercised on a treadmill,” he adds. “It is important to remember that horses performing this exercise for the first time might require between two and three sessions of adaptation.”

While it’s not an overnight cure, the benefits of treadmill exercise make themselves apparent within a matter of weeks.

Safety concerns

Like most new technologies, the use of equine treadmills is sometimes met with skepticism from equestrians. Many horse owners and trainers are reluctant to try it since, at first glance, the machine can seem dangerous. In the owner’s mind, the last thing her recovering equine athlete needs is to further injure himself while exercising on the treadmill.

In 2010, a group of Australian researchers set out to analyze and report the potential injuries treadmill exercise could cause a horse. Their study found that of the 2,258 horses who participated in high-speed treadmill exercise, only 5.4% sustained injury, and most were minor injuries. In general, the team concluded that when compared to typical overground exercise, horses that participated in treadmill exercise were not at increased risk of injury.

Fortunately, facilities with equine treadmills have taken steps to ensure the horses’ safety while exercising on the treadmill. At his center, Dr. Rullan’s safety protocol includes padded walls around the treadmill, a padded safety rope at the front and back of the horse, and an emergency stop option. “Every time we run the machine there are two operators,” he explains. “One in the front holding the horse and the other in the back.” It seems their safety protocols must be working, because they’ve never had an injury happen on their equine treadmill.

From skeptic to success story

Just like their humans, many horses are suspicious of the equine treadmill at first and need time to acclimate. Patience is key, Dr. Rullan emphasizes, and he usually begins by walking the horse around and then through the water treadmill several times. After this, he slowly introduces the sounds of the machine to the horse by turning it on and tapping the surrounding walls of the aqua treadmill chamber. Over time, Dr. Rullan and his team are able to acclimate their equine clients to treadmill exercise. “They seem to appreciate each second we spend with them, knowing they are on the road to recovery,” he says.

Addressing the skeptics of equine treadmill exercise, Dr. Rullan asserts that there’s never a negative outcome when it comes to treadmill therapy. As the field of equine conditioning and rehabilitation continues to grow, the popularity of equine treadmills steadily increases alongside it. With the benefits far outweighing any possible risks, equine treadmills are a safe option for controlled exercise. Whether your horse is recovering from an injury or building strength, talk to your veterinarian about treadmill exercise as a treatment option.

The author wishes to thank Dr. Alberto Rullan from the Equine Performance Innovative Center for allowing her to interview him, and his assistant, Bentley, for helping to coordinate.