The six-year research, into non-elite performance horses, found that those turned out for 12 or more hours a day had a 25% lower instance of soft-tissue injuries.
Fitness level is known to correlate with injury risk, and spikes in acute workload have been shown to increase the occurrence of injury. Chronic workloads can help condition the tissues to cope with stress.
Previous studies have focused on the impact of these different types of workload – such as the acute to chronic workload ratio in elite horse – but this new research is thought to be the first to consider the effect of general activity levels.
Lead researcher Jesslyn Bryk-Lucy, resident vet at Centenary University Equestrian Center in New Jersey, told H&H she had been inspired to undertake the work by her observations in practice.
“Looking at both the horses we have at Centenary and horses belonging to my own clients, I noticed that the horses that were out more and had a more natural lifestyle, I didn’t see as much,” she said.
Data suggests that soft-tissue injuries to any tendon or ligament account for 13 to 18% of horses who need rest and time off, and are also responsible for 33% of career-ending injuries in sport horses of all disciplines.
The retrospective study looked at 146 horses aged between four and 30, with a median age of 17, based at the university. A comparison was made between the incidence of soft-tissue injury in two groups of horses, one that consistently received more than 12 consecutive hours of turnout in a 24-hour period, and the other turned out for less than 12 hours in the same time period.
The 12-hour window was chosen based on findings from a previous study on the impact of turnout on fitness, which identified it as the point at which physiological changes occur, and because it fitted into the equestrian centre’s management routine.
Of the 89 horses turned out for less than 12 hours, 45 (50.6%) experienced a soft tissue injury as compared with 14 (24.6%) of the 57 horses turned out for 12 hours or more.
The study’s findings, which have not yet been peer-reviewed, were presented at the 2021 Equine Science Society Virtual Symposium in July.
Dr Bryk-Lucy said that she hoped to be able to conduct further research to yield more specific data.
“We’re thinking about using GPS tracking or a pedometer to establish how much movement takes place, and also look at the difference between horse movement in a large versus a small paddock,” she said.
“We’re also considering case studies of horses that haven’t recovered from soft tissue injuries after box rest but have after a period of turnout.”
British Equine Veterinary Association (BEVA) president elect Huw Griffiths told H&H the study provides very interesting new evidence that extended turnout reduced the risk of soft tissue injury, but it does not yet show why this might be the case.
“It may well be due to increased conditioning of tendons and ligaments via natural movement, or a change in behaviour, or other unidentified variables associated with turnout,” he said.
“It is also worth noting that the median age of the horses in this study was 17 which is skewed towards the older population; the results cannot therefore be assumed to be the same for different age groups.
“Personally, I am a huge fan of horses being out as much as possible and always feel that short turnout leads to more excitement compared to static turnout groups.”
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