The objective of this study was to document the development of biochemical heterogeneity from birth to maturity in equine articular cartilage, and to test the hypothesis that the amount of exercise during early life may influence this process. Neonatal foals showed no biochemical heterogeneity whatsoever, in contrast to a clear biochemical heterogeneity in mature horses. The process of formation of site differences was almost completed in exercised foals age 5 months, but was delayed in those deprived of exercise. For some collagen-related parameters, this delay was not compensated for after an additional 6 month period of moderate exercise. It is concluded that the functional adaptation of articular cartilage, as reflected in the formation of biochemical heterogeneity in the horse, occurs for the most part during the first 5 months postpartum. A certain level of exercise seems essential for this process and withholding exercise in early life, may result in a delay in the adaptation of the cartilage.