3 Indicators of an Upper-Level Event Horse’s Potential for Success

A three-day event horse’s performance depends on his athletic ability and his fitness level. How do you predict, however, whether a horse has what it takes to be successful?

Joe Pagan, PhD, founder of Kentucky Equine Research (KER), in Versailles, conducted a study recently to find out. He presented his results at the 2019 Equine Science Society Symposium, held June 3-6 in Asheville, North Carolina.

“We’re trying to get clues as to how good a horse is and how successful he’ll be,” Pagan said.

He performed his study at a U.S. horse trial, using 11 horses competing at the advanced or three-star level. Using a Bluetooth heart monitor and KER ClockIt, a fitness app, he recorded each horse’s speed and heart rate during warmup and throughout the cross-country phase of the event.

“It calculates how much time the horse spent in different heart rate zones,” Pagan said.

Pagan estimated each horse’s average heart rate and speed during cross-country and calculated V200 (an indicator of a horse’s fitness). Five minutes after each horse completed the course, he took a blood sample to measure plasma lactate levels (lower lactate indicates a fitter horse). He found that as a horse’s average heart rate increased, so did his lactate.

Pagan then looked at how all these data correlated with a horse’s final placing in its division.

“Top finishers had the lowest heart rates and lowest plasma lactates,” he said. “Top-finishing horses also had higher V200.”

Interestingly, said Pagan, the horses with higher V200 (i.e., the fitter horses) had better dressage scores, which “may seem counterintuitive in the eventing community, where conventional wisdom says that fitter horses do less well in dressage.”

Rather, “this study suggests just the opposite,” he continues. “The same qualities that allow horses to run around cross-country at near optimal speeds with low heart rates and lactates contribute to better dressage performances.”

Pagan deduced that  these three measurements—V200, plasma lactate levels, and average heart rate—might give owners and riders useful information about a horse’s fitness and ability.