Book Review: Scientific Training of Thoroughbred Horses by Dr. Allan Davie

The Australian author works extensively with some of the biggest thoroughbred operations in the world, essentially everyone who owns a high speed treadmill for conditioning. Mike de Kock, Coolmore, and several Australian trainers consult with Mr. Davie on a regular basis – to name a few. This book, copyrighted in 2003, was penned as a follow up to “A Scientific Approach to Training Thoroughbred Horses”, of which I have NOT read and cannot locate online. Here we go.

We begin with an analysis of the 3 systems used to deliver energy to a racing thoroughbred: the ATP-CP system, the aerobic system, and the anaerobic system. ATP-CP uses stored fuel throughout the muscles to support exercise, but only lasts for a few seconds. Aerobic metabolism takes oxygen out of the air and delivers it to the muscles, and anaerobic metabolism produces energy from glucose/glycogen and leaves us with lactic acid as a waste product.

Next, we are made aware of the different muscle fiber types in a thoroughbred: FT, or fast twitch, muscles which deliver the highest power output, yet fatigue easily. ST, or slow twitch, which gives horses their endurance capabilities. Within each type of twitch muscles fiber there are also subtypes of fibers. Whichever percentage of fiber a horse is born with does much to determine his optimal racing distance.

Conditioning a horse to win races focuses on improving 3 main physiological factors: cardiac output (how much blood the heart can pump), maximal oxygen consumption/VO2max (how much oxygen the muscles can actually take from the blood and use), and lactate threshold/OBLA (the point at which energy utilization in a racing horse becomes more anaerobic in nature).

*Very good point here by Mr. Davie: unlike in humans, horses with large VO2max values do NOT show increased chances of success. Personally I have a bit of a difference in opinion. First of all, we really only collect VO2max values in endurance human athletes who perform in races lasting over an hour – not very applicable to a horse race lasting 120seconds or less. Therefore it doesn’t surprise me that V02max in horses is less predictive of a winner. Also, at the top levels of human sport VO2max loses some of its luster in predicting performance, as economy of motion is becoming more of a marker.

Of course, cardiac output, VO2max, and OBLA are both genetically predetermined and also influenced by nutrition, aging, and training. The pedigree merely sets the blueprint – the other variables determine how much of this blueprint is realized.

Mr. Davie also does a great job of emphasizing the importance of the aerobic system in equine sport. Even our ‘sprints’ at 6F rely on aerobic metabolism for as much as 70% of the total energy expenditure – this is a much higher percentage than in comparable human events. I will add my two cents here: when you limit a horse to gallops of 1.5-2 miles in training – you also limit the extent of his aerobic development. Don’t do that.

At the most basic level, conditioning a performance horse involves application of a stimulus over time designed to elicit specific physiological adaptations from the systems involved in the event. Although Davie included a very nice graphical representation of this in his book, I also blogged the same info a few years ago – so I’ll include that here instead:

Preparing a horse to compete is best done with an approach to training that involves specific stages: foundation, general preparation, and specific preparation. As one progresses through the stages intensity of exercise increases, while volume (in general) decreases.

Interval training, the most often searched keyword on the internet that leads readers to this blog: The concept is that with IT you can manage fatigue to the point that the horse is able to do more quality work in a specific session in a safer manner. I am fond of saying: “The difference between humans and horses is that humans can train through fatigue and become stronger, while horses who train while fatigued become injured.”

Interval training involves manipulating several variables in order to maximally stress the systems responsible for racetrack performance. You can vary the speed of exercise, the duration of a gallop, the number of repetitions, and the rest interval in between. Davie does a nice job of mentioning that the psychological nature of the horse must be considered at this point. High strung fillies, for instance, who just can’t seem to relax during the rest intervals, are not good subjects for such training. Similarly, if you train over a small hard track with sharp turns, IT is less than desirable.

Of course, the ideal training preparation involves developing the systems key to exercise while at the same time minimizing the risk of injury. Davie has found the use of a high speed treadmill as the best alternative. Rather than repeat the same info, I refer you to a specific page of my blog/site where I used much of Mr. Davie’s info in speaking of the advantages of this type of conditioning:

The rest of the book goes on to detail specific training regimens for thoroughbred racehorses and is very informative. I hesitate to go into too much detail as this info is copyrighted. What Davie and I have found is that the gallop speed at OBLA is the prime determinant of racehorse success. Consequently, training at this intensity is the best way to improve this number. Additionally, I have found if you can quantify this ‘cruising speed’ in your horses – you can better place them in a class where they can find success.

I’d love to recommend where one can find this book, but I have not seen it available online. I had to return my copy to the gentleman from which I borrowed it – do any of my Australian readers have an online resource where it can be purchased?

Overall a fantastic book filled with practical info you can use today in conditioning your thoroughbreds, IF you have a treadmill. If you don’t and you still wish to take advantage of this stuff you may do so, but you best become intimately familiar with an onboard HR/GPS device to use in the field with a capable rider.


About bpressey

Equine Exercise Physiologist

Posted on July 11, 2011, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Bill, I just ordered a copy from the UK through the Equine Veterinary Journal bookshop. Cost was GBP 15.00 plus postage.

  2. I received the book today from the UK. Now that is service!!!

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