Longeing horses is a common practice among trainers and owners in a variety of equestrian disciplines. Whether used for starting a young horse under saddle, or advancing the training of a competition horse, researchers say it’s important to consider longeing’s effects. Individuals must understand the biomechanics of how a horse turns and use the best methods to support joint health and the horse’s career longevity.
As horses travel on a circle, or turn of any kind, they push off with the outside limbs and catch that push with their inside limbs. Greg Staller, DVM, Dipl. ACVS, of Running S Equine Veterinary Services, in Califon, New Jersey, notes, “The lower leg joints of the horse—the coffin, pastern, and fetlock joints—have evolved to move in only a front-to-back plane. When a horse is traveling on a circle, there is compression on the inside (medial) aspect of the joints and tension on the lateral (outer) side as the horse’s foot wants to land flat on the ground.”
This unevenness in how the horse loads the inside and outside limbs on the circle increases the strain on the ligaments of the outside limbs and increases compression of the articular cartilage in the joints of the limbs to the inside of the circle. “There is a high potential for acute injury if the longeing is not controlled, and for chronic injury from repetitive stress even in cases where the horse is worked under control on the longe line,” says Staller.
Even low-speed activity on the longe can cause changes in animals’ anatomy. In a study completed using calves, researchers determined that short term, low-impact longeing could impact a horse’s joints (Logan et al., 2022). Alyssa Logan, MS, PhD, who completed the research while completing her doctorate at Michigan State University under Brian Nielsen, PhD, PAS, Dipl. ACAN, says, “In the calf study, we found that after just exercising at the walking gait for seven weeks, there were differences in the molecular makeup of cartilage between the inside leg and outside leg of the calves that were walking on a small circle. It certainly leads us to wonder what the joint health looks like in animals that are longed three to five days a week for many years of their life.”
What is the Safest Way to Longe my horse?
Our sources say factors such as speed and circle size also contribute to uneven limb loading. When exercising at faster speeds or working on smaller circles, the horse pushes more with the outside limbs, while slower speeds and larger circles help the animal work more evenly on all limbs.
“Centrifugal force plays a role here, as the horse leans into the turn to maintain its balance,” says Staller. “As the foot tends to try to land flat on the surface, there are different forces on the inside versus outside limb in the circle, as well as differences between the inside and outside of each limb.” As speed increases or circle size decreases, such forces on the joints are magnified, he adds.
In addition, researchers have found that gait has a major effect on longeing’s impact on the joints; the trot is the most stable, leading to less strain on the joints than other gaits when a horse is exercised on the longe line (Logan et al., 2021).
The ideal longeing conditions include working at a controlled speed, on a large circle, where the horse is using his body correctly, traveling upright, and using his core and topline, says Logan. Banking the footing in an area such as a round pen has also been found to help the animal travel more evenly around the circle, as it allows the feet to land flatter than they would in a longeing area with no banking. “This is why you will see banking during turns on racetracks—to to allow for the hooves to have a flatter interaction with the ground,” she adds.
When possible, horse owners and trainers can use alternatives to longeing to best protect the horse’s joints. Warming the horse up under saddle is a positive option, says Logan, as it allows for better control of the horse’s pace and track. Turnout can also be used as a substitute because it allows the horse time for free exercise, grazing, and natural interactions that are impossible to create under saddle or while longeing.
“I recognize that sometimes longeing just needs to happen,” says Logan. “There may be no option for turnout, or a rider may not feel comfortable to get on their horse that day before longeing. What I truly desire for riders to be considering before they longe is, ‘Why am I longeing?’ and, ‘How am I longeing?’”
Researchers have also shown that the age of the horse plays a significant role in determining the effects of longeing on his joints. “In general, the bones and soft tissues of young horses are softer and more pliable than those of older horses,” says Staller. “However, the strength in bones and ligaments is increased by training and movement, so young horses’ bones and ligaments may not have had the opportunity to strengthen the way those of an older horse have.”
Because horses younger than 3 have open growth plates, which are delicate and easily injured, excessive longeing can lead to not only ligament and cartilage injury but also growth plate damage. This has implications for the conformation and alignment of the horse’s limbs; therefore, owners and trainers should longe these horses minimally and in a very controlled manner, says Staller.
“It is worth noting, that while the impacts of longeing on growing horses still need much exploration, exercising horses during growth should not be avoided entirely,” says Logan. “In fact, permitting exercise to young horses is beneficial to bone, cartilage, tendons, and ligaments.”
Ultimately, when longeing a horse of any age, working at slower speeds, on larger circles, and avoiding overuse of this training method is the most effective way to protect the horse’s joints for soundness and career longevity.
Logan, A.A.; Nielsen, B.D.; Robison, C.I.; Hallock, D.B.; Manfredi, J.M.; Hiney, K.M.; Buskirk, D.D.; Popovich, J.M., Jr. Impact of Gait and Diameter during Circular Exercise on Front Hoof Area, Vertical Force, and Pressure in Mature Horses. Animals 2021, 11, 3581. https://doi.org/10.3390/ani11123581
Logan, A.A.; Nielsen, B.D.; Hiney, K.M.; Robison, C.I.; Manfredi, J.M.; Buskirk, D.D.; Popovich, J.M., Jr. The Impact of Circular Exercise Diameter on Bone and Joint Health of Juvenile Animals. Animals 2022, 12, 1379. https://doi.org/10.3390/ani12111379