Heart rate monitoring can allow trainers to assess racehorses’ workloads and adjust training for improved conditioning and race outcomes. | Photo: Paul/Wikimedia Commons

National hunt racing and steeplechasing call for extremely fit horses and rigorous training programs. But how each horse manages these programs’ workloads can vary. Overwork can lead to health, performance, and welfare issues. Fortunately, recent study results suggest heart rate monitoring can allow trainers to assess racehorses’ workloads and adjust training for improved conditioning and race outcomes.

“Heart rate monitoring has real advantages for the trainer,” said Jane Williams, PhD, researcher in the Hartpury University Centre equitation science department, in Gloucester, England. “It’s powerful how we can bring science and technology together to support training.”

In their study, Williams and her fellow researchers used commercially available heart rate monitoring technology on 10 national hunt racehorses, averaging 9 years of age, during training sessions. Horses warmed up prior to the gallop for 1 kilometer (about 0.6 miles), then galloped at 20 miles per hour for three furlongs (one furlong is an eighth of a mile), and walked for three furlongs. Then, they repeated these exercises twice. The researchers recorded average heart rate and end-of-session heart rate during all three sessions in each horse, once a week for six weeks. She presented their work at the 2017 International Society for Equitation Science Symposium, held Nov. 22-26 in Wagga Wagga, Australia.

Study Results

They found that for 60% of the gallop runs, the horses worked within normal aerobic exercise levels with heart rates between 120 and 180 beats per minute, Williams said. The other 40% resulted in anaerobic exercise, meaning the tissues were not getting enough oxygen. As such, they were exceeding the target maintenance workload.

“It could be the difference between a horse working at its best and not,” she said.

The scientists also compared the actual results with the work level the trainers thought the horses were experiencing, Williams said. For the most part, the trainers were right. But there were a few exceptions in which the trainers’ estimations were off. “We’re talking about marginal gains that are consequential,” she said. “Working on (even a) 1% gain can still give quite a difference.”

Williams’ student Kieran Kenworthy, BSc (Hons) in equine science, contributed to this study.