One of the great benefits of being where I am today with Gogo is the fact that our barn has an Horsegym walking treadmill. In terms of proving a safe and structured work environment for a horse in rehab, providing light exercise for a fresh or creaky horse, warming up or cooling down a horse in work, and offering a visual assessment of a horse's specific movements up close, you can't get any better than a walking treadmill. It's our personal horse pacifier, is safer and more structured than handwalking an injured horse, and saves my staff endless hours of extra work. The horses all LOVE their treadmill time! It's exceedingly simple to operate, easy to maintain, and makes some extra money for the business by offering a service to clients. Plus it's damn sexy!
The particular model we have here is the S3 Automatic, made specifically for walking only. It has a shock absorbent belt, nine computer-controlled incline programs to choose from (from 0-10 degrees), and has adjustable speeds up to eight miles an hour. It is fully weather and water-proof - ours in installed outside with a custom roof over it, but it can also be used indoors. Even in a snowstorm when we can't turn out, as demonstrated by the gracious Rahlo, we can still safely exercise horses. It is exceptionally safe - there is a shock sensor that picks up abnormal movement and shuts the treadmill off, and a photo cell that stops the machine if the horse dissapears from the sensor's view (if it fell, escaped, etc). I've only ever seen it engage once, and it was my fault that it happened.
It's exceptionally simple to use:
As demonstrated by the Princess, all you have to do is lead the animal up to it, release the butt bar if you haven't already, walk up onto it, and attach the chest strap. All of our horses are quiet and don't step backwards, so we also attach the crossties before continueing on to the butt bar, but if you have any concern about the horse backing up, you can use a second handler to keep the horse in place while you secure the back end of things. Once both ends are in place (never forget that butt bar!!), you return to control center where you can adjust the program, speed and incline as you like. If everything is all set the way you like it, you just have to push the big green "Start" button. If you need to stop it, push the big red "Stop" button. Anyone can do it! All of our horses are currently on Program 1, the flat setting, but it changes. The treadmill's nine programs all give different levels of incline for different levels of time, ranging over a span of 10 degrees.
Training a horse to the treadmill is seriously easy. Since it is next to several of the turnouts, all of the horses are used to seeing and hearing it before they ever get on. It's airy and see-through, much less scary than a trailer, so if a horse gets on the trailer it generally gets on the treadmill. I've not yet had one that wouldn't. With a handler, you generally lead the horse up onto it and off of it a few times, then let it stand quietly while you fasten everything up. With one person at the head with a handful of cookies and one at control center, you start the speed out exceptionally slow, which is the hardest part for the horses. Most of the horses stare at the moving belt in confusion, and take awkward steps. They all need to bump the butt bar a few times in order to understand that it is there, but I've had a few get their butts lifted right off the ground when they were too slow to pick it up. Usually though, with one person offering cookies at their head and the other with their finger over the stop button, the horse figures out that it needs to walk forward, and gets rewarded with snacks when it does and a bump in the hiney when it doesn't. Every horse I've put on there usually is pretty darn confused the first time, but has a lightbulb moment the second, and never looks back. I've never had one that wouldn't get on it and walk on it normally, but I have had a few clients I had to say no to, horses I knew wouldn't deal with it. I don't have a single one on the property right now that has a problem with it though. It really is that easy, and once horses get going on it, they look forward to it. The surgical colic we had earlier in the year loves it so much we call it his pacifier.
Interestingly, the dressage riders claim the treadmill doesn't do anything unless it's on an incline program, and is therefore useless to them. Depending on the horse, I've found this not to be true - if the horse is forward-thinking, it will walk right up against the chest strap and use the crossties as sidereins if you will, stretching and working the back. When Gogo was first out of commission when she arrived on the farm, I started to treadmill her and noticed that she was maintaining something resembling a topline. In fact, she put on muscle right behind her withers, something I never expected to happen while being stuck on stall rest. I was pretty thrilled, to say the least!!
Maintenance of the treadmill is easy. Occasionally our maintenance guy comes over and greases some of the machinery to keep it going. There is a special treadmill oil we very occasionally have to refill, which is housed in a clear container with a red line so you know when it is low. The treadmill shuts off by itself if the oil gets too low anyway, so you have no chance of burning out the machinery. Once in awhile, you have to scrub the whole thing down, just like you do the tractor or any other machinery. You also have to pick up all the poop that, of course, gets sent down the belt and into a big pile on the back ramp. Beyond that, there isn't much. Our treadmill has been in place for about two years and has yet to break down or have an issue, and we have at least ten horses on it every day.
So what makes the treadmill so awesome for my boss and boarders? Horses in training can be popped on the treadmill for warmup, and can alternatively be tossed on for cool-out if my boss is running behind and needs to scoot to teach a lesson. Wet horses dry out in the nice shady breeze, cold horses warm up, and hot horses cool down. In terms of training, the treadmill offers a shock absorbent surface which strengthens tendons and ligaments without causing excessive concussion elsewhere in the body. It provides a controlled environment so that the horse must develop correct muscling - it can't walk crooked so it must use its body equally on both sides. Especially with the incline program, horses muscle up over their topline and hindquarters. It also increases a horse's aerobic capabilities. There is something to be said about 'walking for fitness' - it really DOES work and is why I spent so many hours just hacking around at a warm last year. When Gogo hacks out, she tends to meander, wander, slow down, speed up, etc. On the treadmill, the horse has to walk at the same speed in a straght line. You can't dawdle and wander.
What makes the treadmill so awesome for my tendon rehab? Some of the same qualities still apply. When it comes to tendons, consistency is key. A firm surface is necessary to stimulate the new fibers of scar tissue to align properly (up and down versus in a jumbly knot), and staying in straight line is of vital importance - circles, lateral work, and general crookedness are exceptionally stressful on a compromised limb. The treadmill also offers consistency in speed, and keeps the horse moving forward with a plan versus dawdling and losing manners on long handwalks. It also offers me a flat surface to work with - this part of CT is very hilly, and hills are also trouble when it comes to a tendon rehab. (In short, anything other than flat straight lines is a big no-no.) When she is forward, she uses her back and butt efficiently and correctly, helping keep her fit during her down time. (When she's lazy, she is still working hard, but tends to sit on the bar and let it carry her along.) It also offers me safety - you know when she's bad, she's BAD, and the treadmill provides a quiet and completely controlled environment where one can't spook at the various things you might find on handwalks or go leaping around, protentially damaging tender tissue. It's also located right outside the barn next to the all-weather turnouts, so horses feel safe and close. I've also spent a lot of time analysing her movement while on the treadmill - you can stand a foot away from her at all angles and see exactly how she is moving, even checking to see if she is presenting a nice heel-first landing. Before her hock injections, I was noticing she perpetually walked with her haunches left just a hair. (That explains a lot!) Now, she's walking straighter. NEVER would have seen that if I hadn't had the treadmill.
Downfalls to the treadmill? Not many. It's MAD expensive, so unless you have about $35k to drop on something random and probably uneccesary for your farm, you're out of luck. If you are like me and eventing, you obviously can't substitute treadmill time for hack time out in a field. Like a cross-country runner, you're going to get nowhere if you spend all your time on an indoor treadmill and then go try to run a marathon outside on the street. So long as that is clear from the get go, however, it's not a problem, and the straightness and muscle your horse can develop on the treadmill is certainly an asset for when you get out to work in the field. The biggest thing is that lazy horses tend to sit on the butt bar and let it push them along. Know what happens then? Yep, they rub out huge pieces of their tail! The simple solution to this is to wrap their tails with a polo, but we have some sneaky suckers who still lift their tails high enough to keep rubbing out the hair below the tail wrap. In this case, we have to braid tails up and do a full broodmare tail wrap. It's a slight pain in the butt, but worth it if it keeps the hair in!
If you want to condition a horse, get a young horse fitted for the sales, improve topline and aerobic capabilities, rehab a horse from an injury or surgery, make some money for your farm, save your staff endless hours of work, cool horses out, warm horses up, or analyze gait for vet and farrier purposes, you've got a friend in this machine.
In short, the treadmill is pretty freaking awesome.
The very special Ridgeway weekend
3 days ago