Round 'n' Round We go

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When you have to exercise several horses in a short period of time, exercisers and hot walkers can be real time-savers. These machines, which exercise several horses at once, can supplement your best-laid conditioning plans, perform warm-up and cool-down, and are invaluable aids for horses returning from injury. Sound good? Many trainers say they simply “can’t live without” them.

There are reportedly at least 20 exerciser manufacturers worldwide, and probably as many making hot walkers. The most common size is a six-horse machine. Respect herd mentality here; one horse acts up and the others follow, so with exercisers, more horses isn’t necessarily better. However, some companies make massive models that hold up to 10 or 12 horses.

Today’s exercisers are divided into sections, or chutes—that’s where the horses go—and those compartments revolve around a central base at a speed determined by you. Unlike the hot walker, exercisers are designed to pick up the pace a little with trot and canter speeds, in addition to the walk. Two low-voltage electrified screens separate the chutes—one screen in front, the other in back of the horse. The entire apparatus is surrounded by a fence and can also be covered by a roof.

The more traditional hot walker has a similar circular setup, but it requires attachment of the horse’s halter to a hanging lead and snap. Current models are manufactured with built-in quick-release hooks, should a horse rear, flip, or otherwise become endangered while on the walker. Older models may be retrofitted with the same safety features, and should be.

Know that costs average from approximately $7,000 up to $19,000 for a basic exerciser set-up. Then, you’ll need to consider options such as fencing, a roof, programmable timers, even an optional equine heart rate monitor. And don’t forget the costs of site construction, installation and labor, building permits, footing and drainage, electricity, and shipping. Adding bells and whistles to your project can substantially add to your bottom-line costs.

If your finances rule out a free-form exerciser, know that most hot walker systems can start as low as $1,500 and top out around $3,500. Diameters can range from approximately 20 to as much as 60 feet, depending upon the number of horses on the walker.

When shopping for either piece of equipment, details matter. Contact several companies and investigate the concept thoroughly:?motor size, type of drive, quality and durability of parts, and warranty and service after the sale. If you don’t understand, ask.

Horse and Machine Mix

Alan Cobham, co-owner of Centaur Equinecisers and Horse Walkers in Mira Loma, Calif., sells eight Equinecisers for three to six horses, and eight models of two-to six-horse hot walkers.

He’s realistic about mixing horses and machines: “Anything that’s mechanical with a horse next to it is dangerous, but bottom line, trainers need these.”

Carefully consider the very idea of a walker: “Walkers are fine if horses are broken to them properly: Don’t be impatient, because the horse can also rear up, striking its head on the overhanging arm.”

He suggests putting fencing around a walker, too, so the horse is always 90 degrees to the arm and can’t swing out.

When it comes to an exerciser, Yves Lefay, a European show-jumper trainer, has manufactured his Euroxciser since 1998, and is now based in Los Angeles. For him, horse exercisers just make sense: “We ask horses to be athletes and to compete, yet they stand in their stalls 23 hours a day. This machine gets them so much more fit.”

Note that the usual speeds for exercisers can vary from 5 to 10 mph at the walk, up to 15 mph for trotting and to 20 to 22 mph for cantering.

Users of the machines vouch that most animals take to them easily and quickly, with few problems; common sense must prevail, however, so always start at low speed, the walk, and allow the horse to learn the machine’s turning circle. Although it may appear that horses are “pushed,” that’s not what occurs. The low electrical current—which may be turned off—will teach a horse to respect the panel coming behind him. A horse that’s spooky is best introduced to the apparatus with other horses.

Labor-Saving Devices

At Rancho Santa Fe Riding Club in California, manager Bill Milligan uses an exerciser, having upgraded from a walker. He oversees 100 horses and three English-discipline trainers.

He advises users to be aware of footing and calls his small tractor into play or assigns “two guys two hours” to do the job manually. “My unit runs six hours a day, non-stop,” he reports.

Ron Houghton of Sylmar Farm in Christiana, Pa., raises and trains racing Thoroughbreds. “I’ve had no problems getting any horse to walk in the unit,” he says of his exerciser. He installed black top macadam for a base with rubber mulch on top. “It drains great; snow’s not a problem.”

He also chose to bolt down his surrounding fence with “little steel anchors,” and recommends “tightening down the clutch and maintaining cables so they don’t get loose.” He applied rubber belting on his fencing, and ultimately, different gates. He mastered an issue of cold grease adversely affecting his motor and clutch: He wrapped the clutch system (not the motor) with heat tape, and recommends using lighter oil in cold weather. Houghton chose not to use programmed controls “because we can stop it to take a horse off.”

At West 12 Ranch in Lodi, Calif., Matthew Butterworth is into multi-tasking, and finds that his exerciser helps with the care of 80 Thoroughbreds. “We put six fillies in for half an hour. Our pens are 50 yards away, so while they’re exercising, we can clean pens.”

If given a second chance, Butterworth says he’d put his own wall up and is planning changes to improve the gate.

Sally Broten, of Sally Broten Horse Company in River Falls, Wisc., is a high-level non-pro reining horse breeder, trainer and rider. She has a staff of herself and two part-timers and can’t imagine not having her exerciser: “Every horse at every stage has a different need for it.”

With sale colts as a primary income source, she uses the exerciser to fit them: “There’s no need to stand in the arena with a lunge line for 45 minutes; 15 to 20 minutes each direction with the exerciser does the job.”

She loves it for maintaining levels of conditioning for all horses, and saddles up and bits her two-year-olds in it for a month before she gets on them. “They think more about moving than the breaking process,” reports Broten. She figures the walker cuts training time expenditures drastically, giving her more flexibility and time to do other high-priority tasks.

Underfoot

Robin and Bill Bestham own Portaferry Farm in Batesville, Virginia, where they train hunters and jumpers. For them, footing for the exerciser is a major consideration and is a “work in progress.” They put in asphalt covered by rubber chips, but after three years, manure became a problem. She’s changing to a mixture of sand and rubber that can be more easily raked. Confronting how to keep footing in, and water out, she’s still improvising with the boards around the bottom of her unit and confides that “if I had it to do again, I’d put large holes in a lot of places, and use hardware cloth to hold footing.”

Talk to everyone who might provide input on footing and drainage, advises Bestham, especially those who have the machines. You can learn from others’ successes and mistakes.

As stable managers seek out and utilize non-traditional forms of conditioning, it’s highly likely that exercisers will play an even more prominent major role in keeping horses fit and healthy, while lightening the daily workload.

Contacts:

Centaur: 1-800-962-8050

Equi-Ciser: 1-800-570-3848

Equigym Products: (859) 987-1389

Euroxciser: 1-877-772-3876