Can the horsewalker provide a good alternative to turnout for fitness work?

Can the horsewalker provide a good alternative to turnout for fitness work?

New Research from Hartpury University Investigates

At Trackener, through the use of the insights we provide on the horse's activity, we encourage our users to compare different modes of exercise to see how the horse responds and recovers using heart rate and behaviour readings to help them find the best routine to achieve a healthy and happy horse long term. As the horse walker is a frequently adopted form of exercise by our users and turnout can be somewhat limited throughout the year, we wanted to see how turnout and time spent on the walker would compare in terms of heart rate readings and distance travelled. 

Turnout is arguably one of the best forms of exercise for the horse to fulfil their desire to move, perform innate behaviours, interact with others and consume food. However, with reduced access to turnout due to risk of injury, poor grazing land and poor weather, turning out has become less practical and has the potential to result in decreased fitness for the horse (Graham-Thiers and Bowen, 2013). Fitness that in the wild would naturally be obtained by covering large distances of up to 17.9km/day (Hampson et al., 2010a). Although fitness for performance is not the ultimate aim for every horse, every horse, like humans needs a basic level of fitness to support their body and maintain good health, something that could be jeopardised by lack of turnout.

Previous studies have shown that horses with regular turnout have a better level of fitness than horses that have been stabled, resulting in significantly lower heart rates during exercise testing and a better recovery rate, both of which are considered a strong indicator of fitness by Hada et al. (2006), Bitschnau et al. (2010) and Munsters et al. (2014). This would suggest that limited turnout or no turnout at all can have quite an impact on fitness and could in some cases work against the aims of the horse owner where horses are used for performance.

In addition to fitness, the exercise benefits from turnout include an increased bone mineral density, important to withstand breaking forces and lower the risk of skeletal injury, further proving the value of turnout and the necessity for horses to receive this free exercise as part of their routine (Graham-Thiers and Bowen, 2013; Bell et al., 2001; Tóth et al., 2013). Previous research indicates that alternative forms of exercise in the form of structured work (e.g. being ridden or lunged) can also partially supplement the benefits of turnout by reducing the activity of horses in the field after they have been exercised suggesting that it can satisfy their need to move while exposing their legs to weight-bearing activity and improving their cardiovascular system (Jørgensen and Bøe, 2007; Freire et al., 2009). 

Since turnout cannot always be achieved, we wanted to investigate if the horsewalker, as a form of structured exercise, could illicit the same effects in terms of heart rate and distance travelled. This is because horsewalkers are commonly used by horse owners and trainers as part of their stable management, fitness work and rehabilitation because of their ease of use, low impact on the horse and minimal human labour required to exercise the horse while still boosting movement levels (Murphy, 2008; Murray et al., 2010; Walker et al., 2012). The research was conducted by third year MSci Equine Science student Sophie Westall at Hartpury University.

Between October and December 2018, 7 horses of varying age, breed and location were assessed. All horses wore a Trackener Life horse monitoring device to record their voluntary movement while in the stable and were stabled for a minimum of 6 hours a day. To reduce other factors affecting the data, all horses maintained their normal routine throughout the study. The two exercise conditions consisted of 20 minutes on a horse walker or 1 hour of turnout in the field, both of which were selected based on previous research.
The results found that there was no significant difference (P=0.692) between the distances travelled by horses during turnout when compared to the horse walker, however it was found that the horses travelled significantly (P=0.028) further at the start of turnout than other time periods. 

The average turnout HR was significantly (P= 0.043) higher than the average HR on the walker. Heart rate did not correlate to distance travelled and a time budget done during turnout  showed that the horses spent the majority of their time stood still/grazing or with minimal activity (as shown by low activity on the Trackener app) with a small amount of trot and canter displayed. 

As the distance travelled and heart rates recorded after an initial period proved no different between a short period of turnout and time on the horsewalker, these findings suggest that when looking to increase the amount of movement given to a stabled horse on limited turnout, structured exercise such as use of a horse walker has the potential to be used as a comparable alternative to short periods of turnout.

Although a significant difference was found between the horses’ HRs during turnout and exercise on the horse walker with the HR during turnout higher than that of on the walker, this may be due to either the impact of anticipation and excitement of going to the field and being turned out or the unstructured nature of turnout allowing the horse to exhibit faster gaits , thus enabling higher heart rates compared to the restriction of walk on the horsewalker.

There was also no difference in the distance travelled of horses in the fields (638m ± 196m) vs on the horsewalker (636m ± 164m). This could be because the speed of the horsewalker was set to 3km/h to accommodate horses of all sizes, ages and type, which is slightly slower than the normal speed of 4.7-6.5km/h used by previous researchers (Bogisch et al., 2014). Had it been set to a higher speed, the distances travelled may have been significantly higher. Fields also consisted of varying sizes to allow for the horse’s normal routines which we know can impact the distance travelled by horses (Jørgensen and Bøe, 2007) and therefore could account for the variation within the results.

Despite the various factors that could have influenced the results mentioned above, this initial study provides evidence that when attempting to increase the amount of movement of a stabled horse, structured exercise on the horse walker is, using the parameters from this study,  comparable to short periods of turnout and could provide an alternative to turnout, particularly during the winter months when turnout is most limited. However, more studies on a larger scale need to be done into the physiological consequences of regular use of the horse walker to ascertain whether it could replace or supplement limited turnout.

Our product has been designed to help anyone from vets and researchers to leisure horse owners, objectively assess the impact of their exercise and management routine on their horse’s wellbeing so that they can alter elements like time of exercise, type of exercise, turnout routine, feeding and stabling to achieve and maintain a happy and healthy horse. We will never replace each user’s sight or feel but with evidence behind observations and feeling, we can provide more understanding and analysis, particularly during instances when we can’t be with the horse. If you are interested in monitoring your horse(s), visit our website for more information or get in touch to speak to one of the team. Similarly, if you are interested in doing some research with Trackener, please contact us.

If you found this research interesting, leave us a comment with your thoughts and feel free to share with your friends and colleagues. More of our research is available here.


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