• horse;
  • cartilage;
  • exercise


Carpal osteochondral injury is frequently observed in strenuously trained horses. It is clear that the integrity of articular cartilage and subchondral bone are intimately related, although there is controversy about which component is the most important. Calcified cartilage provides the mechanical link between soft hyaline cartilage and stiff subchondral bone so it is essential to understand the tissue's response to exercise. Middle carpal calcified and uncalcified (hyaline) cartilage thickness was investigated in horses undergoing high- and low-intensity exercise. Twelve untrained horses (18–21 months) were paired, and randomly assigned to an exercise group. Group 1 underwent 19 weeks progressive high-intensity training on a high-speed treadmill. Group 2 underwent walking exercise only. Osteochondral specimens were obtained from 8 test sites per carpus immediately after euthanasia. Histomorphometric measurements of total cartilage, hyaline layer, and calcified zone thickness were obtained from decalcified and undecalcified samples. Mean ± s.d. (μm) calcified cartilage thickness for dorsal cartilage from Group 1 was 271 ± 73 and from Group 2 was 163 ± 49; for palmar cartilage from Group 1 was 195 ± 42 and Group 2 was 150 ± 52. Group 1 horses had significantly thicker total cartilage (P<.0001) and calcified zone (P<.0001) than Group 2, but there was no difference in hyaline layer. Within each group all dorsal sites had thicker calcified cartilage (P<.003) than palmar sites, but no difference in hyaline or total cartilage. These findings indicate that high-intensity exercise leads to greater calcified zone depth without alteration in hyaline cartilage thickness, and that this response is maximal at sites that withstand high, intermittent loads. Increasing calcified cartilage thickness with exercise may maintain the articular surface stiffness gradient in the face of alterations in hyaline cartilage and/or subchondral bone stiffness.