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Roadwork – worth doing or not?

Recent research now suggests that particularly trotting horses on tar roads leads to more incidences of lameness than was originally thought. The benefits of riding on roads are that they are flat, generally even surfaces and many people have previously suggested that roadwork is good for joint, tendon and bone health.

However, the new research shows that roadwork subjects the horse’s hoof to 20 times more force than grass or arena surfaces. A lot of this force naturally gets absorbed by the hoof, fetlock and bones and joints of the knee, and it is now thought that this force causes damage to these structures, and does not in fact have many of the benefits that it was previously thought to. Vets have likened roadwork, especially roadwork done in trot, to running on roads for athletes. Shin splints, joint issues and pain are familiar territory for runners who spend a lot of time on hard surfaces – the same is now thought to be true for horses.

The best advice for keeping horses sound and in optimal health is ultimately to work them on numerous different surfaces. Too much time spent on any one surface increases the risk of injury, so a wide range of exposure is considered best. Riding a horse only in a perfect arena is also not advisable, as horses need to be able to adapt to different surfaces and conditions. The general consensus thus seems to be that we should be walking our horses on as many different surfaces as we can, but should only enter the higher gaits on high quality surfaces that support our horse’s joints.

Important points to note:

  • Trotting on the road actually doesn’t strengthen tendons.
  • Roadwork increases bone strength but only really in young horses, and very little work is required to achieve this effect.
  • Working on soft, uneven surfaces also increases the risk of injury particularly in the higher gaits.
  • Barefoot horses are affected by road surfaces in the same way as shod horses.