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: