Why equine water treadmills should be banned

I have been promising to write a blog on what I perceive to be the evils of water treadmills for horses for some time.  Finally got around to it.  I will try to avoid a rant!!! 

Horses evolved as prey animals, whose only means of defence was basically to run away.  Therefore, evolution has endowed them with specialist movement strategies which involve little or no energy input, meaning that they can out run predatory large cats, without running out of energy beforehand.  Physiologically these are such things as a capability for massive metabolic increase and splenic contraction to inject large amounts of red blood cells into the system – effectively red cell doping.  This is what Lance Armstrong did to cheat – by taking his own blood, extracting the red blood cells and then infusing them back into his body before a race to massively increase his aerobic capacity, but horses do this naturally.

In locomotor terms the horse, more so than any other animal, has evolved to utilise “elastic energy” to invoke and control movements that are not directly utilised to propel the horse forwards (away from the predator).  These movement are limb protraction (where the foot is off the floor and the leg is being drawn forwards) and limb flexion (again when the foot is off the floor but is flexing all the joints in the limb).  These movements are not directly related to propelling the horse away from the predator, as the foot is not on the floor.  When the foot is on the floor the horse is being moved forwards, not when it it in the air.  Therefore, if the horse has to use his energy stores to effect limb movements that are not directly propelling him away from the predator, it is energetically inefficient, and he is depleting his energy reserves.

So what is “elastic energy”?  Think of a rubber band.  If you stretch it out, then you are using energy to stretch it.  But when you let it go, the rubber band pings back into shape immediately without requiring any further energy.  So you only put energy into half of the rubber band movement.  So translate this to horses.  Many of the muscles in the horse have bands of tendinous tissue running through them which act like rubber bands.  Mainly these are the muscles that flex and protract the limb.  I am not going to go into a detailed discussion on the anatomy of equine limbs here (read the new book for that – plug!!) so just take my word for it.  So almost all limb flexion and protraction is passive (without energetic input) without the horse consciously controlling these movements.  Fantastic…… only use energy when the foot is on the floor and retracting and at the same time load the elastic tendinous structures in the muscles that will subsequently be used for limb flexion and protraction (the antagonistic pairs), so as soon as the foot is taken off the floor, “ping”, the limb flexes and protracts with no energy required.  Just like the rubber band, you only need to use energy for half of the stride, therefore not depleting the energy stores as quickly.

BUT what happens when you stick a horse in a water treadmill??  You set up a massive force of water AGAINST limb protraction, but with the limb retraction being converted to a passive movement because of the movement of the treadmill belt, and this brilliant elastic energy system crashes and burns.  What previously required no energetic input at all, now requires a great deal of energy input into muscles that are not specifically designed to accommodate limb protraction, such as the brachocephalicus (for the forelimb) and the iliopsoas (for the hindlimb), there are others.  The biomechanics of the horse’s natural locomotor patterns are completely reversed by the this totally false, unnatural locomotor pattern.

Over just a very short period of time the horse ends up with a massively sore and hypertonic neck, and serious iliopsoas and groin strain.  You only have to watch the brachio straining under pressure whilst the horse is in the dreadful water treadmill to prove my point. So how come there is a recent scientific study that water treadmill exercise improves the epaxial back muscles in the horse?  Simple – any exercise without the rider will improve the back muscles, and I can walk a horse on long reins over a few poles for 10 mins a day and get just as good an  improvement, if not better, and WITHOUT the neck and pelvic strain that the water treadmill will cause.  Durrr!!!  This is why I end up having to rehab horses that have been “rehabbed” on water treadmills.

Rant over – ban all equine water treadmills before we cripple every horse in the world………… and shame on all the colleges who are using these wretched things to train students (who will no doubt go on to perpetuate this cruelty to horses).

If you want to learn more cool stuff about animals then book for the International Symposium in Animal Musculoskeletal Practice www.isamp.org


  1. Ali Burden-Blake says:

    Such a great explanation, thanks Gail!

  2. Thank you for this clear explanation. So what would you think about a walking mill where the horse has to walk in the water himself (no belt)?

  3. Alexander Cheetham says:

    Very interesting indeed. I was profoundly unaware of the subtlety of equine physiology in terms of energy saving and natural red cell doping. Will this be another fad that, 10 years on, people shake their heads at in bewilderment?

    Thank you so much, for providing such a compelling perspective.

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