Monthly Archives: January 2012

Should you Swim Your Racehorses?

Swimming is a great therapeutic tool for injured horses, as well as a nice change of pace for healthy ones undergoing stressful trackwork – but it is not an activity that contributes significantly to an overall conditioning effect – here’s why:

The above chart is taken from a recent swim session where the horse in question was outfitted with an onboard heart rate device (click to enlarge). The red line is the HR in bpm and the x-axis is elapsed time in minutes.

Walking to the pool at the start of the chart; one can see a very relaxed HR of roughly 40bpm. But, at approximately the 3 min mark he finally enters the water – and his HR immediately jumps to 170bpm as excitement and apprehension sets in. At this point the HR is NOT a measure of aerobic exercise intensity, as it is artificially high due to the excitable nature of the thoroughbred. However by minute 5 this effect dissipates and we have an accurate number to discuss.

The blue shaded area of the graph represents a HR range of 140-160bpm, or 60-70% of maximum heart rate. This level of intensity is nearly 100% aerobic in nature, and essential to developing the foundation for later gains in stamina. On the track this horse slow gallops/canters at a 5min/mile pace to reach this same level of intensity.

But in the pool, a large percentage of the bodyweight is supported by the buoyancy of the water; making any effort to swim far less intense than most earth-bound exercise. Sure many muscles are being exercised as one swims; albeit in a non weight bearing environment. As a result, HR hovers around 125bpm, roughly 55% of maximum.

This lines up perfectly with what I find when I swim. As I run I can hit max HR values of 188bpm, but I can swim like a shark is chasing me and still struggle to reach 155bpm – as my 200lbs is greatly reduced by the water. I’m breathing heavily and my shoulders burn; but I’m not doing a ton to help my 800m race times on the track.

Look again as the horse exits the pool at the 11:30 mark, once more the change in activity excites him and his HR spikes to 185bpm for nearly 30sec – if a vet slaps a stethoscope on him now and sees this HR – he’ll proudly proclaim: “185bpm – he really got a lot out of that session!” But he’s wrong as the horse only hit a ‘true’ HR value of 125bpm on average during the whole exercise. (I’ve seen vets WAY smarter than myself make this elementary mistake at top rehab facilities.)

So, is swimming a waste of time? Of course not, but it’s far from an alternative to even the slowest of trackwork in building  a foundation of aerobic fitness. Now if yours is coming off an injury or is otherwise unsound, swim away until he’s ready to move forward – just know that the real work begins only when out of the pool.

The ideal use of the pool may be in the afternoons, giving the horse a break from the monotony of the track and allowing him to stretch his limbs in a cool setting.

EDIT: 2 readers alerted me to an Aussie trainer atop the Hong Kong standings named John Size who swims his twice a day, once after morning work, again in the afternoon before a long walk, and even swims on raceday mornings…here’s Mr. Size’s bio:

EDIT2: Magnificent tool in place at the barn of Niall Brennan in Ocala: an aquacizer that only fills up the water to just below the shoulder – allowing for walking/jogging in cold water and achieving heart rates well within the aerobic zone of intensity:



Modern Stable Integrates Technology into the Art of Horsemanship

Here’s a cool behind-the-scenes view of Manor House Stables in England; a successful barn marrying both the art and science behind thoroughbred conditioning. Watch it – then read below. The stuff germane to this blog runs from roughly the 8:30 through 13:00 minute mark, but it’s all quite fascinating. Kudos to staff equine exercise physiologist George Wilson who is captured installing the HR/GPS gear at the barn as well as later analyzing the data on his laptop.

Jointly owned by ex-soccer star Michael Owen and Betfair founder Andrew Black – it’s obvious that both analytical business sense as well as modern conditioning methods contribute to this stable’s success. Hats off to trainer Tom Dascombe, as we see just how he must juggle so many competing interests in making the tough decisions concerning who to race/where to race/when to race.

Feeling legs for heat is a perfect example of the intersection of horsemanship and technology. All horsemen know that heat in a foot or ankle is a bad sign; but where do you suppose this heat comes from? It’s the body’s response to repairing damage – by forcing blood into the affected regions. Obviously this blood comes from the heart, but what many don’t realize is that the heart doesn’t simply produce more blood per beat in this scenario, it beats faster – and that is measurable via quite simple means.

All vets know that a horse with a common resting heart rate of 31bpm that suddenly shows a number of 35bpm one morning is exhibiting an early sign of stress. But that data is nearly impossible to get as once the horse sees you coming with any device, his HR begins to rise.  It also rises when he wakes up, is ready to eat, gets tacked up to gallop, etc. Too confusing, too many variables at play in order for us to acquire actionable intelligence.

So we look at exercise instead, where the resting HR values are multiplied by 6X or more. It’s the same here as in the stall – more blood than usual is a bad thing. While your horse may not show heat in his legs in the morning while standing in a stall; he may now show extra heat (blood) at a gallop – and that is crucially important to know. Likewise, he may use less blood (heat) to accomplish a piece of work – and that is a good thing.

For a practical applied view, let’s take a 3yo making his first few starts, the following example comes from real-life here in the states – but I must respect my client’s anonymity, so we’ll use no names of horses, trainers, owners, or specific races in the 2011 season.

This colt has promise, and impeccable breeding. After a few minor problems at 2, he’s brought along with extreme patience and makes his first starts in the spring of his 3yo season. A good effort out of the box in a MSW is followed up by a strong in the money finish in a non graded stake despite a less than optimal trip.

What next? A common saying is ‘you gotta run them against tougher to see what you have at some point, may as well be now’. That’s 1930’s talk folks, but this is the 21st century. Measurements of how he gallops and breezes, objectively, tell you what you have under the hood, here’s how.

My role is to simply gather data in this case, and report my findings to the connections, making suggestions as to how far/how fast/how frequently to gallop – as well as what class of athletic ability is being demonstrated in the morning workout sessions.

So we have the 3yo in question coming off the first few races in his career. His HR/GPS data from training sessions are beginning to form what I call his ‘metabolic signature’ – and this is becoming quite valuable in making racing decisions.

In this case, our colt was galloping at a 2:17 min/mile pace with a HR of 200bpm (which was 85% of his maximum value) prior to his first MSW victory. After a game effort during a race that was quite a step up in class next time out – his V200 value has improved from a 2:17 pace to a 2:07 pace – indicating possession of stakes level stamina, but certainly not that of the graded stakes variety just yet – he’s certainly on the improve, but caution must be exercised for his next ‘test’.

However, traditional horsemanship dictates otherwise, and he’s sent to post in a big 3yo race against seasoned competitors – where after contesting through the first half mile…he fades to a 30+ length defeat.  It’s been many months since and he has yet to find the winner’s circle while now toiling back in the allowance ranks.

Here again we see how science and technology can impact the art of horsemanship. In the above clip it’s quite evident how important it is to keep horses happy and confident. When you put one in against much better competition to gauge precisely what you have – you run the risk of ruining this carefully cultivated mindset of confidence, and many will never be the same again psychologically, not to mention physically.

You had no other option but to make an educated guess over the past 70 years, but today you do – if you take advantage of it. Coolmore leads the way in Ireland, as does Manor House in England, but who will step up in the US?

P.S. The entire Equidia documentary of Manor House can be found here in 4 parts:

New Year’s Resolution: Learn about Internal Conformation

‘Conformation is the blending of the various body parts, and how well they fit together visually and physically to create a running machine.’ –

As the image above indicates; conformation can be further defined by various subjective opinions of the head, neck, shoulder, hip, legs, feet, walk, etc. More modern work has focused on equine biomechanics – or objective measures of many of these same factors. Gait analysis of 2yo in training quantifies this further by putting the horse in motion.

Horsemen hone these observational skills concerning what makes a runner over decades watching horses race, exercise, stand in their stalls, and parade around various auction rings worldwide.


One of my New Year’s Resolutions for 2012 is to educate the thoroughbred world about the importance of internal conformation – how the equine lungs, heart, spleen, blood chemistry, enzymes, muscles, capillaries, mitochondria, etc. act in unison to define ‘class’ and athletic performance. You can’t see this stuff, and it doesn’t mean anything while a horse merely stands or walks – but put ’em at a gallop and the resulting numbers tell much of the story.

I could stop here and go into detail about each of the aspects of internal conformation, but that misses the entire point – it’s not the heart, or lungs, or biomechanics, per se that define athleticism – it is the inter-related function of ALL systems during exercise that provides the most valuable insights.

We are no longer predicting potential based on pedigree or external opinions, we are measuring actual performance objectively through data analysis of workload vs intensity of metabolic effort.  Just as any horseman can tell you the potential equine version of Michael Jordan from observing the chassis, when you look under the hood during exercise – one can gauge just how accurate that assessment is.


In writing this blog about conditioning, I am routinely told ‘all horses are treated as individuals’ when it comes to training, and I have no doubt this is partially true. Trainers observe their charges each morning, feel legs for heat, check out the feed tub, and decide whether or not a particular horse will walk, jog, gallop, or breeze on any given day.  That is traditional horsemanship, it is external in nature and highly subjective – no numbers are present, only judgments.

Internal horsemanship accomplishes much of the same, but with one major difference: once the decision is made as to the type of exercise to undertake, internal horsemanship tells you precisely how far and how fast to go. If the last breeze was 4F in :51 and the 2min heart rate recovery was 115bpm – this time you can go either further or faster. Similarly, if the last gallop was a mile in 2:30 and the blood lactate level was 2.7 – this time you can go in 2:20 to the mile, or stretch out the 2:30 pace by an extra half mile and be assured you are giving him exactly what he needs to get better, and no more.

Remember, humans have opinions – but horses have the facts, and HALF of those facts are on the inside –  a valuable source of feedback that can be objectively turned into a set of numbers to guide you towards optimal conditioning – maximizing fitness while minimizing injury.

Finally, please consider:

Horses with crooked legs can win races, so can horses with other conformational defects – hell one of my all-time favorites, Assault, was known as the ‘club-footed comet’, showing us that even the old saying ‘no foot, no horse’ isn’t always true as he galloped his way into the Triple Crown record books.

But, no horse with a maximal heart rate of 197bpm can ever win a race, nor can a horse who travels just 7 feet every time his heart beats during a gallop. Likewise, if you are a 22yo human standing 6’2 at 180lbs you may look like an athlete, but if your vertical jump is measured at just 17 inches – you are not going to be able to dunk a basketball.

Horses don’t have to catch, throw, or shoot any ball – they just have to run.

As much as the greats in our sport have been romanticized over the years, it’s not magic folks – these standouts have superior internal conformation that allows them to accomplish great workloads with lesser effort (a large heart is only one aspect) – and these characteristics are largely invisible to even the best horseman.

Now you have two horses with identical physiological underpinnings hook up in the stretch eyeball to eyeball, and one outfights the other, that is magic and well worthy of our respect and awe. Some things are indeed, indefinable – but that is the vast minority of cases.