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Equine Vet J Suppl. 1999 Jul;(30):201-9.

Should equine athletes commence training during skeletal development?: changes in tendon matrix associated with development, ageing, function and exercise.

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  • 1Royal Veterinary College, Hatfield, Herts, UK.


In human athletes, conditioning, training and competition are commenced before skeletal maturity. Yet in equine athletics, racing of young (age 2 years) horses remains contentious. Tendon injury persists as major causes of wastage in equine athletes. Minimising injury and associated welfare issues could involve a radical approach to the timing and implementation of conditioning and training. Tendons were examined from Thoroughbreds, Dutch Warmblood foals, working horses and also a group of wild horses to evaluate effects of age, function and exercise. Gross mechanical properties did not differ significantly with age or exercise, but showed a high variance within each group. Mechanical properties of tendon tissue showed significant differences as a function of age and location. The collagen fibril crimp angle and length showed a regional reduction in the central core with exercise and age, with a synergistic effect. Regional differences in collagen fibril diameter were seen in long-term exercised older horses, but not in short-term exercised, or younger, horses. The higher proportion of small fibrils in the central region of the long-term exercised horses did not correlate with new collagen formation and therefore appear to result from disassembly of the larger diameter fibrils. Fibril diameter distributions were influenced by exercise regimens in the growing foal. Changes in molecular composition occurred in longer-term exercise and older horses, in the centre of the tendon, with higher levels of type III collagen and changes in glycosaminoglycan (GAG) content. Cartilage Oligomeric Matrix Protein (COMP) levels also appear to be modulated by age, function and superimposition of exercise. These changes were all exacerbated with age and exercise, suggesting appropriate exercise in young horses may lead to a lower incidence of injury than in older horses. An hypothesis is advanced that immature tendon can respond to exercise while mature tendon has limited, if any, ability to do so. These findings support potentially controversial earlier conditioning and racing of younger, rather than older, equine athletes.

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