Horse Training: What Does Fit Really Mean?By Kentucky Equine Research Staff · April 3, 2017
Horses should be both sound and fit to compete safely and successfully. How best to assess fitness remains questionable, even among the most experienced trainers. According to a recent study*, multiple factors must be considered to determine fitness accurately.
Common measures of fitness include heart rate during exercise, heart rate recovery, and time to travel a certain distance. A variety of telemetric GPS-enabled devices now facilitate these measures, letting owners and trainers track their horses’ progress during conditioning. One such is the KER ClockIt mobile app, developed by Kentucky Equine Research (KER).
More advanced measures of fitness include blood lactate concentrations. During exercise, lactate, a chemical produced by muscle during exercise, increases and can be easily measured in a blood sample. The rate at which the lactate builds up indicates fitness. Horses with a lower “lactate threshold” fatigue easier and are considered less fit. By training at different intensities, for variable durations and frequencies, the lactate threshold can be increased, allowing horses to perform more intensely or longer before fatigue sets in.
Standard exercise tests (SETs) performed either on a treadmill or in the field allow owners and trainers to monitor their horse’s response to the selected conditioning program and help tweak the training regime. These SETs typically involve increasing levels of work and monitoring standard measures, including heart rate and blood lactate.
According to recent research* conducted by de Bruijin and colleagues, “little is known scientifically at this point concerning appropriate training protocols and applicable SET test protocols for each individual sport discipline, for example dressage versus show jumping. Moreover, it can be expected that a breed-specific approach is needed within each sport discipline.”
To test this hypothesis, de Bruijin’s team compared two different SETs in young Friesians typically used for dressage or carriage driving. SET-A involved an increasing level of work (walk then trot then canter), whereas SET-B involved a variable level of work (walk then alternating between trot and canter). The researchers found both SETs effectively detected an increase in fitness level determined by blood lactate and heart rate, but the two SETs each had pros and cons. For example, the researchers suggested that SET-A had the highest value for assessing training response, whereas SET-B provided a solid template for training horses in the aerobic window.
In sum, the team concluded that not all horses, breeds of horses, or horses involved in different disciplines can be trained using the same strategies and SETs, which reinforces traditional beliefs.
“Regardless of the conditioning program and SET selected, slow, steady training allows for various body systems to adapt to condition, including the cardiovascular and musculoskeletal systems,” explained Kathleen Crandell, Ph.D., a nutritionist for Kentucky Equine Research (KER).
She advised, “Offering a joint supplement such as KER•Flex or Synovate HA will support an athletic horse’s delicate joints. Horses may also benefit from an electrolyte supplement such as Restore SR to replenish electrolytes lost in sweat and expedite recovery from exercise.”
*de Bruijn, C.M., W. Houterman, M. Ploeg, et al. 2017. Monitoring training response in young Friesian dressage horses using two different standardised exercise tests (SETs). BMC Veterinary Research. 13(1):49.