4 good reasons to measure your horse’s heart rate while training

Many human athletes wear heart rate monitors while they work-out, what about your horse? When used properly, heart rate monitors can be very valuable training aids.

1. To measure exercise intensity
The main reason for your horse to wear a heart rate monitor while training is that heart rate is an indicator of exercise intensity. In order to improve your horse’s fitness you should vary the intensity of the training sessions (i.e. one day interval training, the next day slow trotting, etc.) depending on the health of the horse and the objective of the training. A heart rate monitor can help to make sure you’re not under or overtraining your horse. Too intense training, executed close to an individual’s limit may trigger several pathologic conditions, which are associated with either a decrease in performance or consistent under-performance. On the other hand, very low intensity training will not improve your horse’s fitness, but is still important for recovery. A good balance is the key to success.

1.1. High intensity + short duration training = powertraining
During very high intensity activity or anaerobic training, such as fast galloping, the oxygen demands exceed the amount that can be carried by the bloodstream, forcing the horse’s body to use glycogen as a primary fuel source, which then turns into lactic acid. The accumulation of lactic acid (> 4mmol/L) is the cause of sore muscles and should be avoided. To improve removal of lactic acid from the body, push your horse to its limits for a very short period of time (30 sec to 2 min), the heart rate of your horse during these periods can increase up to 200 bpm. Every training session should consist of 2 to 8 intervals and adequate recovery in between intervals is very important and the heart rate should go down to 100 bpm. You should only repeat the interval training once every 4 to 5 days and slowly build up the amount of intervals per training.

1.2. Low intensity + long duration training = endurance training
During low intensity activity such as walking, trotting and slow galloping, the aerobic energy system supplies oxygen to the muscles, giving them the energy needed to sustain the effort. The goal of training the aerobic system is to improve overall cardiovascular fitness, which is very important, especially at the beginning of the competition season. The training consists of long intervals at lower intensity (f.e. 4 intervals of 5 min with a speed of 450m/min). You should aim to have your horse’s heart rate around 140 to 160 bpm, so that the lactic acid levels stays below 2 mmol/L. Adequate recovery (2 to 3 min walking or slow trotting) in between intervals is very important (heart rate ≤ 100 bpm). A good guideline is to schedule the endurance training twice per week.

2. To monitor heart rate recovery
The heart rate recovery of your horse is the speed at which the heart rate returns to normal after exercise. The faster the heart rate recovers, the fitter and healthier your horse’s heart is. A good guideline is that the heart rate of your horse should be 50% lower (or < 100 bpm) within one or two minutes after exercise compared to the maximum heart rate immediately after exercise.

3. To monitor the overall health of your horse
Heart rate is also affected by a number of other factors, including excitement, stress, track conditions, weather conditions, underlying lameness or systemic disease. Tracking your horse’s heart rate during every training session will give you more insight into your horse’s overall health.

4. To adapt training to the needs of your horse
These are some basic guidelines for using heart rate to monitor and control the intensity of your horse’s training. Note that the numbers are averages and that every horse has a slightly different individual heart rate. If you want to know the exact heart rate your horse starts to produce too much lactic acid (> 4mmol/L), then you should do an exercise test with your veterinarian at the beginning of the competition season. Adapt your training to the needs of your horse and to the circumstances. Make sure to always warm up and cool down your horse in an appropriate manner. Take enough time and build up slowly, because the cardiovascular system adapts faster than the musculoskeletal system. Remember that it’s better to prevent than to cure an injury!

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