Predictive Value of Fitness Tests in Eventing


What if you held a scientific study and no one showed up? That’s nearly what happened to these Dutch researchers planning to follow 29 horses during preparation for the 2010 European Eventing Championships. By the time the competition rolled around; nearly half of the horses were injured and unable to participate. Entire study here:

Out of many slides to use as a picture, I chose the above because it greatly illustrates an old time horseman’s saying; “It’s not how fast they go, but how they go fast.” Truer words may have never been spoken. Merely using the stopwatch to record a workout time over half the competition distance is not a statistically significant method of fitness analysis – but collecting HR and blood lactate information most certainly is.

“Therefore the increase in peak HR seemed to precede visible lameness in a horse.” – Conclusion

Also of note here is that Eventing trainers make the same mistakes that thoroughbred trainers often make, as quoted in the study: “Horses of the subpopulation were trained at a much lower speed than required during competition; similar observations have been made by Serrano et al. and Baumann et al. An explanation for this might be that riders believe that (heavy) condition training increases the risk of injuries. However, insufficiently trained horses might not be physiologically adapted to the high demands of competition.”

The same phenomenon is now ongoing in American football. Within the past few years player’s unions won concessions at the bargaining table aimed at limiting the number and duration of pre-season practices. Now injury rates are soaring – although the league itself refutes that claim.

Anyway, one of the clearest forms of underconditioning in this study was the speed required to produce a blood lactate value of 4mmol – abbreviated as VLA4:

“Two horses and eight ponies had VLA4 values at SET-I below the average speed demanded at the level of the European Championships (for horses the acquired average speed is 9.5 m/s and for ponies 8.7 m/s). These animals should be considered unfit to compete at European Championship level because an increase in workload above the anaerobic threshold results in an exponential rise in LA, leading to rapid onset of fatigue.”

Several years ago in Lexington I attended an Eventing seminar called to discuss a few recent competition related horse deaths. A few vets got up to explain that 99% of all catastrophic injuries were due to intense physiological exhaustion of horses prior to the onset of injury. I spoke of the need for this precise practice of pre-event exercise testing and was summarily ignored.

The previous quote shows that some research has been done as to the VLA4 values demanded by Eventing at this level; 9.5 m/s for older horses and 8.7 m/s for ponies. If your horse cannot achieve that physiological parameter prior to competition – he cannot win and should not compete. Period.

I have also been ignored here in the US prescribing a similar pre-competition exercise protocol for our Kentucky Derby entrants:

There exists a precedent for using a heart rate monitor in conjunction with equine racing. Many endurance races of 30 miles and over require the checking of an exercising horse’s heart rate during several checkpoints throughout the course. Should the heart rate fall outside of the normal ranges, the horse is disqualified from the competition and immediately examined by trained personnel.

Through the use of a heart rate monitor/GPS unit, one can outfit a horse in under 30 seconds with the equipment required to measure and record equine heart rate, speed, and distance during any gallop, breeze, or race.

The resulting info serves much as an exercise stress test does in a human, observing and quantifying the horse’s heart rate response before, during, and after an exercise bout will indicate the presence of abnormalities. The equine heart is the best vital sign of lameness, illness, or injury – often weeks before any visual cues are apparent to the trainer.

For the Kentucky Derby length of 10 furlongs, I would recommend the following:

-Test to encompass 12s/furlong pace at 60-70% of race distance for these elite horses

-1.25 mile race requires 6 furlongs breeze in 1min12sec

-Taken and passed, no less than 3 days before race, no more than 10 – ideal would be 7 days out.

-Recovery heart rate must fall to 120bpm within 2 minutes, and 80bpm within 10 minutes of peak work speed. (2min period reflective of horse being cooled down properly, 10min period reflects fitness level/conditioning of horse for the effort.)

In my opinion we must strive to prove that a horse is conditioned appropriately for a 6 furlong effort the week before being asked to race 10 furlongs. Horses that have undiagnosed problems with bone remodeling, tendon or ligament stability, or systemic illness or infection will not pass such a test.

-taken from letter sent to appropriate authorities in March 2008 by yours truly.

As 2014 approaches I can look forward to being ignored by these very same ‘experts’ for another 12 months whie researchers on the other side of the world continue to prove my theories. Happy New Year!

(thanks to blog reader John for the great tip on the study)


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About bpressey

Equine Exercise Physiologist

Posted on December 27, 2013, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Recovery rate is mentioned in every study but few reference at what speed. Walking? Trotting? Standing?

    • I noticed that, too. Recovery rate (in my opinion) is useless for excercise that is mostly aerobic. In US thoroughbreds on dirt, I only analyze HR recovery if the speed is over 15sec/f, or 30mph. In that case, and faster, I want to see HR recover to 120bpm 2min after passing the wire, and further down to 80bpm 3min later (5min since the wire). That means the horse handled the work with 100% recovery. Now, if you are wishing to increase fitness, HR recovery may be 130bpm and 105bpm, for example. If recovery is 105bpm and 71bpm, what you just did was insufficient to even maintain fitness. HR recovery is only applicable if much of the exercise is anaerobic in nature, with working HRs in thoroughbreds well over 200bpm. Hope this helps!-

      • Ok, so we’re working on a slowing down gallop of about 2f after the line the probably a walk after that 40 seconds, by my estimation & the walk could well be a hypey, 1/2 jog or a nice relaxed, long rein one lol. So many variables, especially from horse to horse! Thanks Bill.

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