Conditioning via Treadmill

Top trainer Mike de Kock: “When your horse may not have the bloodlines or ability of their opponent, fitness is the one area where you can beat them. Treadmills allow you to get that extra fitness and “the edge”. That is how important they are.”

Mr. de Kock hits the nail on the head, and judging by his numerous successes in Dubai – this horseman isn’t afraid to give a bit of credit to the use of modern technology within his operation.

This isn’t swimming and it isn’t a slow moving water treadmill at your local veterinary or rehab center. Use of a treadmill at conditioning paces from 20-40mph is increasingly common around the world.

The goal of any conditioning program is to give your horse exactly what he needs to get better, without increasing the risk of injury. Horses on treadmills:

  • are not subject to rider error, and love to run with no one on their backs
  • can exercise precisely at the intensity needed for improvement, and not one step too fast
  • do not take ‘bad steps’ due to surface failures
  • can be observed by vets and farriers, who can intervene with suggestions
  • never miss a training day due to bad weather

Here is one example of how treadmill conditioning works with traditional horsemanship in order to influence racing decisions:

In 2005 Lee Freedman, was mulling over a horse called Benicio, which he had bought to run in sprints. He carried out treadmill tests and found that, despite being bred for shorter distances, the horse would excel over longer trips. That year it went on to win the Victoria Derby, the top contest for three-year-old stayers in Australia.

So, how does using this piece of equipment give you precisely what your horse needs to improve? Well, having him in front of us allows us to easily gather heart rate, gallop speed, and blood lactate info in order to quantify how fit he is now, and prescribe what his physiology needs to improve.

For example we would end up with exercise parameters like this to improve stamina:
‘Gallop 1 mile at 20mph on a 6% incline’

Using the incline allows us to take even more pressure off the front cannons and to more deeply involve the propelling musculature of the hind end.


Dubai/South Africa: Mike de Kock

‘It’s great for problematic horses,’ he said. ‘When he came back from his pelvic injury, Eagle Mountain would have spent two months in England only on the treadmill. It is definitely less attrition on the horse and a better controlled, balanced workout at the heartbeat that you want.

Read more:

Australia: Michael Kent and David Hayes

Although Kent left school at 14 to pursue a career with racehorses, his language is full of scientific jargon as he explains his methods. ”We’re really concerned with one very simple concept: how to give a horse the maximum amount of work during exercise with the minimum amount of stress.”

Read more:

USA: Kentucky Equine Research

KER typically uses high speed treadmills to gauge the efficacy of their feed and/or nutritional supplementation. Simply put, researchers have long known that physiological terms like V200 and VLA4 are positively correlated with future racing performance and earnings. Mr. Joe Pagan recently put his money where his mouth is, purchased 4 yearlings at Keeneland, trained them on a treadmill in his lab, and recently finished 3rd with Harry and 4th with Ticky in their respective MSW openers at Turfway Park.

So, there you have it – keep in mind these things are not cheap, a top of the line model with all the trimmings, will run close to $100k, but I feel the trainers above will testify that it has been a very wise investment.

Financing is available so the overall carrying cost is similar to that of a salaried exercise rider – one who works 24×7 and never lets the horse run off!-

  1. Just wondering if there was any reading to be found on conditioning a racehorse using only a treadmill.

  2. I am working on a book now that specifies how fast, how far, and how frequently to use this tool. Please drop me an email and I will let you know when it is ready –

    While some studies indicate training solely with a treadmill is as good as conventional training, I would hesitate to use only this machine as a means of getting race fit.

    If you can find it, there is a great book out there called Scientific Training of Thoroughbred Horses by Allan Davie that gives much more detail.

  3. Gary Hennessy

    I would like any info on training by treadmill. I have one and have had 2 stakes winner, but still just leaning .
    Cheers Gary

  4. I believe that these machines could bring a new type of Owner and or Trainer to racing. The owner Trainer with an income outside of racing.
    There are plenty of horseman out there that have money but work outside of the industry. They don’t have weekday access to a track but live on the land (life stylers) and have a barn with space for a treadmill. (Like me) They can train or more importantly pre-train after work well into the night if they like or rise early in the morning. These people are under no pressure to win stakes’. If you present a properly pre-trained horse to a Trainer, You should find out very quickly if its viable, if you don’t already know.
    My experience is telling me that the future of these machines is in pre-training. An unnamed horse can be pre-trained by anyone and there is an enormous window in a young horses life for pre-training. A properly, or superiorly pre-trained horse has realistic life prospects after racing or trialing.
    I have a 3ry old here that’s done 500 kms on the treadmill, I would not hesitate to put my 7 yr old son on her in the pony club lead rein class.
    This pre-training costs money that the industry doesn’t want to, or cant spend. I don’t find it a problem at all because I like horses.

  5. Id like to post some heart rate numbers that may be of interest to some.
    These are for a little filly 15.1hh that no one wanted. She was Sired by the ugliest race horse I’ve ever seen and out of a Mare that’s probably never shared a paddock with anything faster than a dairy cow, although her 3rd dam was broodmare of the year as a 19yr old. This filly looks like a cart horse and also looks like she was put together by a committee that never met.
    She was so lazy that I broke her in in a couple of hours, put some reins on her head collar and rode her out of the paddock and down the road. She never even considered moving faster than a slow walk.
    She refused the treadmill for 5 months of regular tryouts. She should have and very nearly went to the hounds.
    Then she went on and during the next 185 days she did 164 workouts totaling 500 km. Starting at 2000m and blasting through 12000m a session. The 21 days off included 14 days when I put her first set of shoes on and 7 days off at the beginning of September to freshen up. Day in , Day out she went on the mill and toiled, only once losing weight.
    She will never be a classic stayer but as a 6 yr old may do 4 miles over jumps or similar.
    All inclines up to the 300 km mark were at 2 degrees, and the next 155kms at 8 degrees then the last 45kms at 7 degrees.
    There are some exceptions to this as in the first workout below. I was concerned about some aspects of her form and gave her the following.week off
    She gets about 26 Mcal hard feed a day + forage this includs 400mls of oil.
    If you really look at these numbers there are some interesting questions that I cant answer.
    You will also notice I count the slow heats as heats. this is because they aren’t true rests, they are (For the walk) near max gait speed with a HR around 100 bpm.

    Trot 2000m @4 deg @16 kmhr HR68
    Canter 2000m @7 deg @ 25kmhr HR134
    Trot 2000m @ 7deg @ 15kmhr HR 110
    Canter 1000m @ 7 deg @ 25kmhr HR 140
    Walk 1000m @ 4 deg @ 5kmhr HR missed
    Trot 2000m @ 2 deg @ 15 Kmhr HR 108
    walk 1000m @ 0 deg @ 5 kmhr HR 60
    Tot mileage 11000m
    Week off
    Walk 2000m @7 deg @7 kmhr HR84
    Trot 2000m @7 deg @ 15kmhr HR124
    Walk 2000m @ 7deg @ 7kmhr HR 104
    Canter 2000m @ 7 deg @ 25kmhr HR 180 (raised an eyebrow)
    Walk 2000m @ 7 deg @ 7Kmhr HR 100
    Walk 2000m @ 0 deg @ 5 kmhr HR 68
    Tot mileage 12000m

    Walk 2000m@ 7deg @ 6.8kmhr HR 76
    Trot 2000m @7 deg @15 kmhr HR112
    Walk 2000m @7 deg @7 kmhr HR 106
    Canter 2000m @7 deg @ 25kmhr HR160 (relieved)
    Walk 2000m @ 7 deg @ 7kmhr HR 108
    Walk 2000m @ 0 deg @ 5.8 kmhr HR 64
    Tot mileage 12000m

    Walk 2000m@ 7deg @ 7.2kmhr HR 82
    Gallop 1400m @ 3.5 deg @ 40 kmhr HR 148 ( Relieved again)
    Canter 600m @ 7deg @ 25 kmhr HR148
    Walk 2000m @ 7deg @ 7.1kmhr HR 100
    Canter 2000m @ 7 deg @ 25kmhr HR 112 ( what is this???)(Did she dump her spleen)
    Walk 2000m @ 0 deg @ 5.5 kmhr HR 64

  6. Hi Philip, how do you collect the HR data? Is it a single reading or a continuous one? I ask because when you see a higher than expected number I don’t know if it’s simply a moment in time or an overall inflated average HR, and the difference is quite important. Also, since all of my numbers are on the flat dirt, I have a hard time relating to the treadmill elevations I am afraid.

  7. But as I look at your numbers, it is fascinating to see the drop in HR over time with consistent speed/incline/distance exercise. Of course, for an American thoroughbred speed is also vitally important and too much endurance/stamina training can be counter-productive. I have yet to find any reliable HR indicator of splenic contraction.

  8. I haven’t got my HR monitor set up yet so do it by hand on the girth. I stop the mill from any speed in 2 seconds even a gallop, the horses don’t mind at all. Then within another 2 seconds I’m counting beats under the girth. I count 15 seconds then multiply by 4. I realize the HR drops off. If I count for 60 seconds the slow down is noticeable.
    So I guess in my case a high one is a high one.
    This horse has been conditioned to do daily workouts and there is some evidence including in today’s workout that a day off has a disruptive affect on her numbers, the odd wild card here and there. Maybe when she was tired all the time it made her consistent.
    I’ve pulled back the workouts to every second day now as there is no need to keep pushing her. Her numbers tonight were generally good yet I have to remind myself that she’s being pre-trained not race trained.
    Yes speed, even if this horse had speed which I don’t think she has, Id be doing the same thing. In fact, if it looked like a horse was going to be a Group winner, Id be thinking of going longer and harder ( not much faster). Ill do some HR tests on the flat and 3 degrees to measure and compare HRs with the 7 & 8 degree numbers I have already.
    I will start to put some speed in her around Christmas and will post those numbers. That will be when it becomes clear just now long and slow we can make them, and then what it takes to bring them back to speed . I think that will be very telling.
    Basically I’m going to Speed her up at an ever decreasing incline .
    The sooner someone writes a book on treadmill training the better. (Because im winging it)I wouldn’t be surprised if it takes another 5 years.
    As far as HR monitors go for treadmills I have settled on a Cateye Q3 cycle setup. There are some important reasons for this model.
    A treadmill requires a cycle HR monitor as the GPS system of the polar and others is of no use on a stationary mill.
    Most cycle HR monitors transmit at low frequencies and don’t have the power to transmit 3m or more on a treadmill. The Cateye HRM operates at 2.4 Ghz and will transmit 5 meters. The system has a Cadence sensor that can be used to measure the treadmill angle of incline and will put this onto a PC interface the same as the polar does. Even Cateye don’t know this. It involves converting the angle of incline into electromagnetic pulses which the cadence sensor sends to the watch.
    Cadence is the rpm of the bicycle pedals.
    The system is set up so that a cadence of 10 is equal to 1degree and a cadence of 100 is equal to 10 degrees. So
    25= 2.5 deg
    50= 5 deg
    99=9.9 deg etc
    My electronics friend and I have design its basics but haven’t built it. Its actually very basic.

  9. Phillip Haycock

    I went away after my last post and did some trials of heart rates at lower inclines and found out what many already know, that heart rates can be fickle things.
    I fully expected to see a dramatic decrease in HR numbers by halving the incline. What I saw initially was a modest decrease in HR that continued downward over a period of days. My sample was small and I didn’t consider it worth while making a study out of it as I already had a job to do.
    It seemed to me that many things can have an influence on HR including simply changing a routine.
    What Id like to post now is a Treadmill workout for the horse that is described above. The 3yr old Thoroughbred filly, Midge.
    This little filly is no racehorse but the more I read about the modern American Thoroughbred, the more I suspect that there should be a gene or two from horses like this girl.
    Or alternatively some of the same type of training that this horse has soaked up during the previous 7 months.
    I wouldn’t expect that this training would make a race horse, but it would almost certainly give you trainers something rock solid to work with.
    Its widely believed that for now at least the Thoroughbred has peaked in speed, the next challenge then may well be to see the breed become tougher and more resilient. The good news is that this may be only 10% breeding and 90% training, or similar numbers.
    I urge you to take a look at the link below ( or bill may post) this Graph is for a 15.1hh 3 yr old filly that know one wanted.
    She took 5 months to get on treadmill. She’s become the toughest, gentlest, safest, hardest trying, soundest little horse I’ve ever seen.
    She’s done 650km of long and slow and will do some speed work next January before she begins a build up for a year of endurance racing.

  10. Very nice graph Phillip. People are often shocked on the track when the collect HR data on a firm surface, then move to a deeper, sandier track and HR shoots up 20bpm initially – you are so correct in noting any seemingly minor change to conditions can effect the HR intensity dramatically at first.

    I often see really good stamina numbers like this:28mph at HR of 204 for instance, do you think if you kept going faster her HR would get over 215bpm, or is this her max HR?

    If she were a racehorse candidate, my next task would be to see how she handles anaerobic speed bursts: can she cover 3F on the treadmill at 2% in 36sec AND show HR recovery at 120bpm within 2min afterwards? Many endurance runners fall apart when attempting this task.

  11. My calculations say this is 1000m/min, (60kmhr) for 600 m.
    Short answer No. Not yet. because she has never run at that speed. She’s been conditioned to run at 15 miles per hour.
    I have turned her out to be brought back in in January for some speed training, which will tell me how fast she can run or be taught to run.

    However I will say that from what I’ve seen of this horse , She will easily run
    over 900 m/min and achieve the HR and recovery you suggest.
    To back this up I’ve just looked at the spread sheet file for this workout. The software produces a spreadsheet at 2 second intervals of the whole workout and it shows that the last speed heat of 30-33 mph covered 3.5 F and her 125 bpm recovery came in 160 seconds having already covered 6.8 miles of interval type work at 6.5% incline. This horse is not short of stamina, what I suspect she lacks is outright speed. I would be very surprised if she ever reaches speeds over 1000m/min. Time will tell of course.
    This is why I’m setting her up for endurance. If she can jump she may go down that path but there’s plenty of time.
    These tests, (she did 3 HRMax test) all pushed her to run faster than she had run for a long time . This may sound crazy but I’m not convinced that any of the tests including the stamina test brought out her HR Max. The test that the graph shows didn’t really test this horse at all.
    It was done 3 days after I turned her out, she hadn’t been fed for those 3 days, just grass. I put her shoes back on and did the stamina test to try to establish where the bottom of her tank was and get a HRmax.

    The point I’m trying to make here isn’t about this horse of mine, but that it may be a great idea to take one of those multi million dollar Classic primadonnas and see what 1000kms of long and slow can do for it. As long as it goes onto the treadmill sound it will get off sound. Just forget about the money side of things for 12 months and build a horse.
    By the way, treadmills wont save you a bean, they will help you to put more into your horse. More in, equals more out. Or, spend more, do more, get more.

  12. Have you done any work with the water treadmill?

    • I have not, but I have seen many of them in action at rehab facilities here around Lexington. I stay away from the rehab angle, vets and others are the true experts there and many lay-up farms do a great job – I am more concerned with what happens when a sound horse goes back into race-specific training.

  13. Phillip Haycock

    .Hi Bill
    At some stage in my posts I said it would be interesting to see how slow, Long and slow work would make a horse and then what would it take to put some speed back into the horse.
    Well here we are.
    Ill list a few dates and speeds.
    It must be understood that these figures are treadmill numbers, they are indicative of stride rates and are comparable to each other only. That is they are for the same horse on the same treadmill over a 9 month period

    I also said at some stage that this horse lacked pace.

    The horse is 3rs old, unnamed filly (late developer, could barely trot under saddle as a 2 yr old. Best described as weak, compact type, not weak looking)

    Started work 10 April 2011 with slow build up to interval work.

    12 June 2011 could run at 2.17 mile pace , 700meter/min

    15 Novmber 2011 could run at 1.48 mile pace 883m/ min ( had completed 600kms of Interval work at 25kmhr max speed)

    3 January 2012 could run at 1.43 mile pace 933m/min after daily work on lunge and some low jumping over very wide spreads

    14 January 2012 could run at 1.30 mile pace 1066 m/min, 40mph for multiple short bursts during a workout.

    Then a strange thing happens.
    The owner of this 1500 dollar horse (me) suddenly starts to ask the question, Is this fast work safe? Should I rap this horse in cotton wool and stop the speed work? Etc etc. It may be worth something and I could ruin it.
    I now understand why the trainers of real horses worth millions are sometimes a bit soft on them.
    I give them credit for just allowing them out of their boxes.

  14. Thanks Phillip, for that very specific info – what great ‘strides’ she has made! When you are the owner and trainer (and willing to be quite aggressive), things often work out quite well. 7 months is the length of your diary – talk about patience…

    I have one trainer tell me: ‘I hold my breath every time my horses work fast. And I have only $20k stock, I couldn’t ever sleep if I had a $2 million horse, I would be too nervous!”

    Any plans to get her to the racetrack and see how she does with someone on her back?

  15. Phillip Haycock

    Hi Bill
    Yes, the filly is destined for the track but not until she’s past 4 yrs.
    This is something that was decided the day I purchased her.
    All the horses connections and my own opinion on the day agreed she was along way from the track and that was probably a significant motivation for the vendor to sell her at the price.
    The reason I brought her was to keep the treadmill in work for its reliability trials. It made sense to use a race prospect as opposed to a hunter.
    So to answer your question, she will now start another 500km interval regime with sensible speed included and also work under saddle.
    I’ve worked her under saddle at trot and canter already recently and she’s very nice.
    Because she was such a useless 2yr old I’m reasoning that she’s a yr behind and will be a very nice 4yr old.
    She’s small but rides like a normal sized thoroughbred of which I’ve ridden plenty at speed over jumps.
    There is no hurry, life is short but not so that one needs to rush.

  16. I heard of a trainer in Florida that strictly uses a treadmill for training his horses and states that his horses never even touch dirt until raceday. He states that his horses are doing much better at the track since beginning this method of training and he states that he has seen far fewer injuries with this method. Have you heard of this? Do you think this would work? Jerry

    • I have heard of this concept, but not this trainer. Somewhere there exists a research study that states the same: horses trained exclusively on treadmills perform better than those trained on the track, with fewer injuries.

      I see this as the trade off: you get a much more specific workload on the machine as there is no running off, no bad steps, no rider error, and if you want a mile in 1:53 you put those numbers into the treadmill and you get what you asked for – perfect! However, the belt does much of the work in taking the legs from front to back, instead of the hamstrings – but perhaps a slight incline corrects for that?

      I do know, from standing next to a horse’s head while he runs at 33mph on a treadmill; that they are quite happy and relaxed when not having to deal with rider cues and/or surface variations. They just run like hell, almost like we did as 12 year olds.

    • Phillip Haycock

      I don’t know either, but I’ve had x-rays done of fore legs after 600 or 700km of treadmill work up to 2:00 mile pace and the bones weren’t race worthy.
      I then did 2 months of lunging, low jumping on lunge and some flat treadmill work then more x-rays, this time the bone was mush denser. Dense enough to do fast work up to 1:30 pace on treadmill at 0 deg incline which puts the most possible load on the front legs. From there the legs are ready to go out and start being conditioned on the track.
      This was a young horse. I don’t know what applies to older horses.

  17. Phillip Haycock

    Hi Bill
    This is an interesting graph from a horse out performing its V200 twice in a workout. The horse hit the breast rope so hard at one point it rocked the treadmill. One thing I’ve learned from working with this machine is that there are definite pathways to form.
    One course of action or group of actions gets one result and another group gets another result.
    This workout was an easy one and in fact it isn’t a big workout at all but serves to demonstrate an example of a pre race workout and what it does to the horses HR.

  18. Of note, there was a top trotter in NZ about 10 years ago (the name has just gone out of my head) that was soley trained on a tredmill, his owner/trainer had a brain tumour and could not drive the horse so just used the tredmill, the horse won the auckland cup and a bag full of races until the tumour eventually got the trainer, and the horse never had an injury or went unsound.

  19. Classic turbo a Pacer from 1995-2001 trained by the late John MacQuibben in NZ. 24 starts for 11 wins, 4x 2nds, 4x3rds.

  20. I have access to a treadmill that has a top speed of 8mph and an incline of up to 10 degrees. Looks like you can get the horse up to a fast walk or trot, would this be beneficial in training race horses? Any ideas?

  21. Kind of depends Jerry; what HR can you get up to? In my experience, topping out at 8mph, even with a nice incline, is only good for rehabilitation, rather than conditioning/training. Good luck!

  22. Corrie Knack

    Hi Bill, my name is Corrie Knack and I am an accredited Equine Sports Therapist as well as a stem cell techmician for Medivet.

    I was wondering if you have ever done much work with standardbreds in regards to fitness levels? If you have I would love to talk more about distances to work them over and how often.

    Best Regards,
    Corrie Knack

  23. I am looking for treadmill protocols for post injury (R hind suspensory)…any one willing to share…MAC

  1. Pingback: Book Review: Scientific Training of Thoroughbred Horses by Dr. Allan Davie | ThoroEdge Equine Performance

  2. Pingback: Episode 1 of “As the World Trains” featuring Mike de Kock « ThoroEdge Equine Performance

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