Oct 17, 2019
Prof em. Ingvar Fredricson has been concerned with longevity in horses for many, many years. In 2002 he started an EU-supported project in which horses at a very young age were activated to travel distances in a rural environment, having to deal with natural obstacles. Now a new project is launched in Brösarp, in the south of Sweden. A group of 25 yearlings and two-year-old showjumpers have some 70 hectares of hilly natural grounds at their disposal. It turns out these youngsters move twice as much as a control group of horses. And four to five times as much as horses kept in stables and paddocks.
“I was a bit surprised, that there haven’t been any good research programmes focused on how to rear young horses in order to support their longevity”, says Ingvar Fredricson, a retired professor in equine biomechanics (veterinary medicine) and father of show jumping riders Peder and Jens Fredricson. “The research I did in 2002 received prizes and everybody thought it was great. But it was too early, and we didn’t get any followers. But I think now the time has come for people to realize how precious a good horse is and how much money a good horse has cost when it becomes lame after a couple of years.”
Extremely important factor
“Of course, when a horse turns lame, a lot of factors are involved. But we are convinced that rearing is one of them, and that it is an extremely important factor. Especially the development of the cartilage is crucial. X-rays cannot show whether a horse has had the chance to develop his bony structures in a natural way, with good movement, good feed et cetera. We have formed Club Longevity - a group of friends and specialists – to develop an attack on the problem of bad longevity in sport horses. We have a professor in chemist technology, a specialist in feeding, we have breeders and I’m bringing my veterinarian background to our project.”
Also, multiple world champion Icelandic horses Magnus Skulason is part of the group. At this moment a group of young show jumpers and Icelandic horses, owned by Jens Fredricson, are living under the most natural and hardy circumstances, in a very hilly part of free-range Sweden, with pastures, but also with sandy parts and forest.
Prof. Fredricson: “In the end we must wait and see what comes out, but thanks to the GPS-systems they have in their head-collars we can see that they move so much more than horses kept under every-day equestrian circumstances. Horses interact with their environment. If you put them in a paddock, they trot a couple of circles and for the rest they will just stand there. In Brösarp the horses interact with their environment too, they are stimulated to move around so much more.”
Looking back on his 2002 project, professor Fredricson concludes that one of the assumptions, which were fundamental to this research, proved to be wrong. “At that time I thought – and many others did so too – that jumping ability in horses could be enhanced by training at a very young age. The foals and their mothers were stimulated to move in a triangular form through nature, clearing natural fences like fallen trees et cetera. It turned out that there was no effect on jumping ability at a later age. We concluded that jumping ability is purely a matter of heredity. If there’s no music inside, there will not be an opera.”
“But the horses that were part of the 2002 project had very strong legs. And then I decided to change the focus on longevity. Because it is a big economical and emotional problem when expensive sport horses have to stop their sporting career just because they can’t handle the impact of training and sport.”
“We know by experience that children grow fat and weak when they are sitting too much. And we know that our parents and their parents were stronger than we are. We see the same decline in soundness in horses. We keep them in stables and feed them too much. Horses – especially young ones – should be outside in a group, with the ability to move.”
“That’s why I’m part of this project. And this research for optimized longevity is only the beginning. There are a lot of others things to be measured and new steps to be taken. If we can proof that horses who have had a natural rearing with plenty of movement are stronger than others, I’m sure that buyers will ask for horses that have had a healthy youth. If you would invest a lot of money in a promising 3 or 4 year old, you can assess what the father has produced, you can see what comes from the damline. But how can you be confident that this precious horse will be fit for the sport when he is older? Not by looking at the x-rays. They only tell a bit of the story.”
“The cartilage of the joints develops at a very young age. The period from foal to yearling and 2 year old is crucial to develop the optimum thickness and quality of the cartilage. When horses are 3, they will not be able to make up for a lack of movement at a younger age. In fact, than we start to destroy horses that did not have a proper rearing. Young sport horses that embark on their career should have the best possible starting-strength. And I expect future buyers and investors to ask for a rearing-journal.”
X-rays are over-estimated
“X-rays are very much over-estimated in that respect. We’ve seen so many successful horses with deficiencies on their x-rays. Breeders and owners have lost a lot of money on those horses. On the other side we see horses with good x-rays getting lame. So it really makes sense to concentrate on a good rearing period of the young horse ánd be able to proof that a young horse has had a healthy upbringing.”
But not all countries are able to provide young horses with a youth like the ones in Brösarp. In that respect countries like Sweden would be the place to be.
Dutch and Belgian foals
“If we develop this project into quality certified rearing centres, we can say to people that have bred or bought foals in Holland and Belgium: bring them to us, we will rear them for you until they are three. I’m too old to live the end of this (Fredricson is 82), but when I’ll be sitting on a cloud, I’m quite sure that this will be a normal procedure. Because it is so silly to breed fine sport horses and waste their talents before they even can start their sporting careers.”