horses' heart rates
During a show jumping competition, a horse’s heart rate can be all over place … literally. Thanks to a new study using both heart rate monitoring and GPS technology, researchers in Italy have gotten a better look at how jumping horses’ heart rates change—and when.

“The simultaneous logging of heart rate and speed from each horse proved to be a reliable and powerful technique for field testing that can help in monitoring, step-by-step, the horse’s response to the jumping effort during both training and competition,” said Giuseppe Piccione, PhD, of the University of Messina Faculty of Veterinary Medicine.

“This could ensure that horses receive a suitable training load for their ability and potentially minimize the risk of injury,” he said. “Matching up horses of similar ability or fitness may allow for a more balanced training approach. It could also help eliminate training sessions that fail to provide sufficient training stimulus. Moreover, this approach might allow us to quantify objectively how a horse is coping with its training exercises or the emotional stress of a competition and to assess the degree of compliance of the horse that will in turn contribute to improving animal welfare and athletic performance.”

In their study, Piccione and his fellow researchers fitted six mares with heart-monitoring systems and GPS units that they wore during warm-up and competition in an event held in Sicily.

They found, in this initial study, that the horses’ heart rates increased significantly in the recovery phase after warm-up jumping, Piccione said. “Heart rate continued to be high even when the speed decreased, and that’s probably due to the workload of the previous phases,” he explained.

They also found that moving the jump height from 100 centimeters (about 3.2 feet) to 125 centimeters (just over 4 feet) caused a remarkable spike in heart rate.

“This increase in heart rate might be due to the sympathetic nervous activity that increases with increasing exercise intensity,” he said. “This results in a consistent increase in catecholamine (a group of chemically related neurotransmitters, such as epinephrine and dopamine) levels enhancing the increase in heart rate, the force of cardiac contraction, and, thus, the cardiac output.”

The purpose of their study, however, was not to investigate the wheres and whens of heart rate changes in jumping horses. Rather, it was to determine whether such a system could be useful and give reliable input. Their study confirmed it would.

“A deep understanding of the dynamics of heart rate during exercise is becoming of crucial importance in order to evaluate the intensity of the physical effort and, consequently, the fitness level of the athlete,” Piccione said.

The study, “Application of a combined global positioning and heart rate monitoring system in jumper horses during an official competition – A preliminary study,” was published in Acta Veterinaria Hungarica.