Too many horses, too few riders—how do you keep your equine athletes fit? Horses in training need regular exercise, which demands a labor pool of skilled riders. One solution is the mechanical exerciser.
One person can control the conditioning of several horses with these automated tools, which keep horses on the move. An instrument panel, or even a computer you can program, lets you determine time, distance, and speed. When a session ends, you bring in the next set of horses. Mechanical exercisers like walkers and treadmills complement your training and conditioning program. Anke Magnussen, who represents the Liberty Horse Exerciser, explains, “It’s not necessarily a training tool. It doesn’t take the work away from the rider—it’s an addition. A human athlete works six or seven hours a day. A horse only works an hour, and then he stands in the paddock.”
Tailored for fitness goals, an exercise regime is an important component of the daily workout for the equine athlete. We’ve surveyed three types of exercisers: the traditional horse walker, the free exerciser, and the treadmill.
Racetracks and training barns have used the mechanical “hot walker” for decades. Horses are tied to the arms of the device, with a central electric motor rotating the arms in a circle. At many barns, this lead walker is used to cool off horses after work. It’s also a handy post-bathing tool, allowing the horse to dry off.
For safety, horses need to learn to maintain forward movement, and halt when the machine stops turning the arms. Being tied to the arm can be uncomfortable, and horses can resist and pull back. A quality walker reduces risk with safety features like an emergency breakaway release and emergency stop control, as seen in Priefert walkers.
In recent years, the European-style free exerciser has become popular in the U.S. This mechanism also moves horses in a circle, without tying them. Horses walk and trot in a fenced track, with the central motor turning arms that suspend panels to separate horses into lanes. Also called a panel walker, the panels guide each horse along the track. Because the horse is at liberty in the exerciser, he’s moving freely and getting exercise similar to turnout.
Horses move along a track that’s eight feet wide. In most models, the panels or gates that separate horses are seven feet wide and about four feet high. Gates can be constructed of a frame of tubular steel with welded wire—a safety option is a rubber flap on the bottom. You can also choose to electrify the gates through a fence charger. When a horse touches the gate, he feels a shock to convince him to move forward.
When it comes to speed, the choice is yours, but there are general parameters. Average walk speed is just under 4 mph, and trot ranges from 5.5 to 9 mph. “One hour walking is important for the blood circulation and the muscles,” says Magnussen. She recommends a large circle, especially for trotting the horse—the four-horse exerciser track can be 50 feet across; the six-horse, 66 feet; and the eight-horse, 80 feet. “Never canter your horse in an exerciser. The horse can slip, and the other horses would roll over him,” she says.
A gate allows you to bring horses in and out. After putting a horse into its lane, you slowly move the exerciser forward so the gate opens into the next lane. Sean Daniels of Priefert Ranch Equipment says, “We have a lot of people who buy the panel walker, replacing their lead walkers. The six-horse is the most popular.” He adds that horses quickly learn the free exerciser. “It only takes them a few minutes. They learn to move with it—they all follow that panel that’s in front of them and stay within six inches of the panel.”
A treadmill exercises a single horse, set at a specific program on a moving belt. You can use it for conditioning, rehabilitation, or developing a young horse. “You can build up muscles without putting weight on the horse,” says Henrik Gundersen of the Horse Gym. He notes that the treadmill can help strengthen a horse with a weak back.
“The treadmill gives you controlled training, unlike a round pen or walker. The horse walks on a uniform, flat surface,” he says. The horse doesn’t have the possible stress of uneven footing, or moving on a circle. You can also adjust the incline to increase the conditioning.
The treadmill can strengthen the muscles that carry the horse, and the muscles that push the horse forward. Gundersen cautions not to train the horse on an incline steeper than eight degrees. “A horse on the flat can walk for hours without getting tired. On the incline, you might go 30 minutes with a fit Grand Prix horse,” he says.
He recommends combining the treadmill with turnout. He explains, “If I jump a Grand Prix horse Sunday and really use him, Monday morning will be when he is most prone to injury if I turn him out. So first he has 20 minutes on the treadmill so he can warm up and loosen up.”
Exercise on the treadmill is more consistent than handwalking a horse. “Under the belt is a shock-absorbing surface,” Gundersen says. “It’s the best way to train a horse with a tendon or suspensory injury. The horse has to walk at the speed you set.” The treadmill is also portable. You can move it indoors to maintain horses’ fitness through the winter.
When it comes to getting a horse trained to walk on the treadmill, Gundersen explains that it’s simple. “Most take two to 10 minutes to get relaxed, and they’re already familiar with walking up a loading ramp. Start the belt moving very slowly—the horse needs to adjust to the belt’s moving.” A young horse should be used to handling, and be at least three or four years old for the treadmill.
Plan to install your exerciser near the barn, both for convenience and to connect to electrical power. “Put it on slightly elevated ground, not in a low spot where water sits if it rains,” advises Daniels.
Pour a concrete pad 6 feet x 6 feet for mounting the motor in the center. You can do most of the installation yourself, and hire an electrician for the wiring. Motors run at 220, 230, or 240 V, depending on the model. Fencing for a free exerciser can be pipe panels, or solid panels of wood or metal on the lower fence. Mount the machine’s control panel on the outside fence, near the gate.
Some barns construct a separate roofed enclosure for the machine. A building can have solid walls of blocks or bricks, with wood panels lining the inside like the kickboards in an indoor arena. Cover All and MD?Barns also offer covered round pen arenas. In a typical covered exerciser, the solid walls stand 5 feet high. A taller wall, as in 7 feet, may be safer for large horses and stallions, but can limit your vision of all horses.
The Liberty model can be attached to the ceiling. The building serves as either a round pen (with the exerciser raised) or an exerciser with the device lowered. Upkeep is fairly simple, with the motor requiring occasional lubrication. You’ll spend more time grooming the track’s footing.
Footing can be of your choosing, but to keep the track fresh, Priefert sells a drag that connects to the exerciser’s arms. You can also add a water mister system to control dust. These tools can be a major investment for your barn. For a lead walker, expect to pay from $8,700 to $10,000, depending on the size. The free exercisers are priced in a broader range, with a basic unit (no fencing) starting around $9,000. However, over the years, exercisers can save you thousands in labor costs. With managed exercise, your horses will enjoy the benefits of better conditioning.