Reasons for performing study: No data exist on the intensity of exercise required or on possible harmful effects of increasing exercise in foals over the natural level when free at pasture.
Objectives: To investigate whether an increase in workload over free pasture exercise in the period from directly after birth to the start of training is tolerated by Thoroughbred (TB) foals without increasing injury rate or producing other undesired side effects.
Methods: Thirty-three TB foals were allocated to one of 2 exercise groups directly after birth. One group (PASTEX) was raised on pasture and the other (CONDEX) kept under identical circumstances, but was additionally subjected to an exercise protocol of gradually increasing intensity. Foals were monitored periodically and scored for the presence of clinical signs related to the musculoskeletal system (joint effusion, pain at flexion, occurrence of physeal swelling), and radiographs taken at the end of the conditioning phase. Also, behavioural studies were performed to detect any changes in behaviour related to the exercise programme. Cortisol levels were measured in both groups, to assess the level of stress.
Results: Workload in the CONDEX group was significantly higher than in the PASTEX group (approximately 30%). Conditioning increased the likelihood for joint effusion in the antebrachiocarpal joint, but reduced tarsocrural effusion and physeal swelling at the lateral distal radius, the third metacarpal bone (medial aspect) and lateral and medial aspects of the third metatarsal bone.
Conclusions: The 30% increase in workload did not affect the animals' welfare, effects of conditioning exercise on clinical musculoskeletal health were few and there were no adverse effects.
Potential relevance: This study supports the feasibility of imposing early conditioning exercise in horses and is a benchmark for its effects on the development of equine musculoskeletal tissues.