When the Art of Horsemanship Meets the Science of Equine Conditioning

Yes horsemen and women, you don’t need a $4,000 equine scale to weigh your horse daily, you can eyeball 10-20lbs of loss or gain. But you cannot see 2lbs in any direction for 3 days in a row. Similarly, your trained hands can feel a 2 degree difference in temperature when palpating legs in the morning, but no one can detect a .2 degree change, as that can only be captured by equine thermography. Two of the world’s leading stables ran by traditional, old school, men and women resisted these two technological advances for years, but now use modern science and technology to improve upon their craft.

“People have opinions, horses have the facts.”

Couldn’t be a truer statement, but when you only observe the external signals, you miss half of what the horse is trying to tell you. By the time he’s off his feed, something has been wrong for several days and catching it earlier can minimize damage and/or time off training. Any vet knows that resting HR is an indicator of health and soundness. But horses are wild animals, and getting a true resting HR is difficult. How about recording HR as he walks to the track in the morning? Typical walking HR may be 82bpm, if 3 mornings in a row his numbers are 91bpm, that can be a very early warning signal of illness, infection, or injury – especially in a 2yo with very temperamental shins.

“Horses may lose form, but not ability.”

I have personally seen this in 2 separate countries recently. As you may know, I quantify athletic ability with heart rate, GPS, and blood lactate measures. Stake horses worldwide can 2:00 minute lick with blood lactate levels of under 4mmol/liter. Twice, I have seen former Grade 1 winning fillies come back onto the track for some gallop work after 2-3 years of failing to carry foals to term, and both times they hit these numbers. Amazing. 90%+ of horses in training will never accomplish this physiological task, but these 2 were simply born that way and 3 years of pasture turn out doesn’t take it away from them.

“It’s now how fast they go, but how they go fast.”

Again, I can express this in numbers using current tools that were unavailable to horsemen just 10 years ago. There are a lot of crummy horses with beautiful strides and sound confirmations. Like the Green Monkey, they may go fast – but the energy cost of doing so is too large. Maximum speed is meaningless in a horse race, as they are only at top end speed for a few strides, heck even the World’s Fastest Man Usain Bolt only spends 10m out of his 100m races at top speed. If you have a 2yo now in training that cannot go 25mph with a HR below 200bpm, or during breeze work his maximum HR is only 205bpm – he should debut at Turfway for a tag, not Saratoga MSW – regardless of what you paid for him.

“All horses have 3F of run in them, and use it early, middle, or late.”

Claimers have 3F of run at best, but stakes horses have closer to 5F, in my experience. This 12sec/furlong speed is primarily a result of anaerobic metabolism, or exercise without the use of oxygen. This very intense effort creates lactic acid burn in muscles, and eventually leads to fatigue. As animals of prey, horses are designed by nature to utilize their fight or flight adrenalin response to evade capture, it’s the longer thoroughbred-like race distances that are foreign to them. This concept ties in closely to the next paragraph.

“He has a high cruising speed.”

One of my favorite things to quantify. Cruising speed is the opposite of the 3F of burst described above, as it is the amount of work done using mostly aerobic energy pathways, which include oxygen and do not generally produce significant lactic acid. If your cruising speed is a 2 min lick, you are in the top 10% of equine athletes worldwide.

“Horses tell us when they are/aren’t ready to move forward.”

Yes, they most certainly will – but if you are only using your eyeballs to assess this, just as your mentor did in the 60s – you are missing half of the pieces to the puzzle.

“Every horse is different.”

Psychologically yes, every horse responds to behavioral training in different ways. But physiologically, all have the same blood, muscles, tendons, heart, lungs, etc. (if sound!)

“This horse is dead fit, we’ll just gallop into the race.”

Oh how many times I have heard this one, usually along with “he breezed a half in 48 and couldn’t blow out a match back in the stall”. How many of you have heard, or said, this about yours and proceeded to watch them run 7th? The respiration rate of a horse 10min after a breeze means almost nothing. It is influenced by humidity, temperature, and other variables that have little to do with fitness. Thoroughbred fitness is measureable, and what gets measured typically gets improved. For instance, before his BC Juvenile win last year, Uncle Mo would have galloped a mile in 2:00 with a HR of approximately 187bpm or thereabouts. That is his metabolic signature when he is truly ‘dead fit’. Before the Wood Memorial this year, he was sick – but no one knew that because no one measured these variables. Instead, he was observed to be fine, ran 3rd, and lost $5 million in residual value. Conversely, years ago Barclay Tagg went the other way with Funny Cide. After a Derby win, this gelding was rode hard home in a rout at the Preakness, then worked 5F before the Belmont, and lost that race to a fresher Empire Maker. Quite possibly he was slightly overtrained, and knowing his metabolic signature may have been a help at the time. In 2011 there is no need to guess this stuff.

Finally a word to the owners, as I ran into several at the recent Bloodhorse Pedigree, Genetics, and Performance Symposium in Lexington this week. Being owners gives you an advantage that you are not currently using. You have access to your horses! You can gather info from them during exercise that gives you confidential data on which to base your selling, or racing, decisions. Every buyer in the world utilizes pedigree, conformation, heart score, biomechanics, vet scans, etc. while deciding whether or not to buy your horse – you need ‘inside’ info before you agree to sell.


About bpressey

Equine Exercise Physiologist

Posted on September 11, 2011, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Hi Bill, Your comments about the race mares intrigued me. Are these 2min lick w/<4 lactates occurring after a full mile or are they going longer ?

    • Hello KH, one was in South America galloping over dirt, the other was here in Lexington over the Polytrack. Both workouts were in private settings away from the track, and were just exercises to ‘get the blood flowing’ as a last resort to multiple miscarriages. I find that 4mmol/liter corresponds to V200 at least 80% of the time. So I wasn’t pulling bloods on these, but collecting HR/GPS data instead. Essentially both jogged a half mile to get loose, then proceeded to hit the 2:00 pace/15sec/f in the straightaways, never going over 200bpm in the process. Roughly one gallop mile in total – 15’s on the straights and 17’s in the turns. I would expect the introduction of speedwork would improve these figures even more, perhaps closer to 14s with HR of 200. Since both were Grade 1 winners, I assumed max HR would be 230 or thereabouts.

      Had a great meeting with EQB last week at the Bloodhorse event, together we discussed how large, athletic hearts with nice ejection fractions are useless if max HR tops out at merely 202bpm as cardiac output then suffers considerably. One would think these sub-optimal max HRs would only be found in lesser bred horses, but in my experience that is not the case. Conservatively speaking, I predict that fully 1,000 of the 4,000 catalogued yearlings at the current Keeneland sale may have this limiting neuromuscular coordination problem – meaning 500 of those 1,000 will get injured during training because every step they take is at 10% higher effort than others with healthy maxes of 225bpm+. The other 500 will never break their maidens in my opinion. Imagine how much easier this game would be if that is found to be the case?

      Thoughts? Currently one can only get a yearling max HR number on a treadmill, and no one here with valuable stock is going to do that, so I am developing a girth strap that can be worn during turnout pasture play, hoping to get a max HR figure at some point during the day of horseplay with the others…

  2. I assumed this was straightforward and correlated with a swim test. Sure the max swim might be different than a max treadmill test, but I’d have thought Leonie had this one pegged with an X BPM adjustment to estimate track or treadmill Max HR from a plunge in the pool.
    Getting them all to go for a swim while at Keeneland would be a bit tougher though!!!

  3. I can’t get on board with a swim test just yet, in the pool the horse only has to support about 10% of his bodyweight, any high HRs to me are a result of ‘holy crap, I’m in water’ as opposed to workload – but I may certainly be wrong,

    I don’t have enough pool experience with HR and horses. I just know that when I run my max HR is 184bpm, and when I swim it’s 169bpm maximum, and I expect the same in equines.

    Again Leonie can get hers on a treadmill, but the really big name farms with fancy stock are currently unwilling to do so in most cases. I have a choice: get data on a few dozen lower level horses each season on a treadmill, or get data on 100s of top prospects at the farm in traditional sales prep settings: of which 5+% end up as stakes winners and give me a much larger sample size.

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