The science of training a competition horse
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The training of horses for different sporting disciplines requires different physiological adaptations in order to achieve fitness appropriate to the activity. Often, fitness programmes are based upon traditional methods passed from generation to generation and although effective, the scientific basis of these programmes and possible areas of improvement may not be considered. The continuing emergence of exercise-related technology allows fitness and health to be monitored and the success of fitness programmes assessed.
When a horse starts a period of moderate exercise their heart will rise steeply in the first 30 seconds and then tapers back to settle at a lower rate. The heart will beat four times per second at the highest level of exercise. This is the maximum rate at which the chambers of the heart will have time to refill between each of the contractions. When the period of exercise is finished the heart rate of the horse will rapidly decrease in the first 1-2 minutes, then continue to decrease at a slower/steady rate until it reaches the before exercise rate. The return to the horses resting rate can take up to an hour. When the horse is relaxed not all of the red blood cells are in active circulation but stored in the spleen. The spleen will contract in response to the horse exercising which will cause the increase of circulating red blood cells as much as 68%. This increases the oxygen carrying ability of the blood during exercise supplying the muscles with a good supply. Hard/strenuous exercise changes the way the blood is distributed in the horse’s body as blood circulation to the horse’s legs muscles can be increases as much as 75% (https://ker.com/equinews/from-the-heart/ ). Because the blood is mostly circulated to the muscles in the leg’s and the diaphragm, areas such as the digestive organs have a reduced circulation rate.
Figure 1 – The cardiovascular system after training – the heart
Exercise causes the horses blood supply to the muscles to improve due to the capillary density increasing. The many capillary vessels allow a good supply to the horse’s muscle fibres and heart ( supply’s glucose and fatty acids) as well as the efficient removal of carbon dioxide and lactate. The most improvement can be seen in the first few weeks of training as there is an increase in the number of red blood vessels. The is causes by an increased demand for oxygen during exercise. Plasma volume also increases which is used via sweat to help cool the horse during exercise and physical activity.
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Heart rate is one of the ways you can measure the fitness of the horse. This is because the resting and the maximal heart rate will not be affected by any changes in the horse’s physical condition. These two rates are not good indicators of an animal’s fitness. Instead we can use the horse’s recovery rate (time it takes for the heart rate to go back to the resting heart rate before any exercise) to measure the horse’s overall condition. For example, endurance horses normally perform a moderate exercise regimen for a long period of time meaning that the riders are well acquainted with measuring the horses heart rate at specific times during the workout or race as well as after. Another indicator of the horse’s fitness can be related to drift also known as the slow increase of the heart rate which will occur before the horse’s fatigues. Overall the horses which are at a higher level of fitness are able to maintain a certain heart rate for longer periods of time unlike horses which are less fit or unfit.
A horse’s muscle tissue will react when exercise is increased in many ways. The horses individual muscle fibres can grow bugger when they carry out more strenuous and harder word for longer periods of time. Training will also bring about a delay in the production of lactate causing the fibres to adapt to use fatty acids rather than glycogen. These adaptations will decrease and slow the onset of fatigue during training. There are two basic types of muscle fibres; the ones which contract quickly to fast powerful movements e.g. jumping and sprinting. And the others which contract slower (less intensely). These muscles support a slower and longer period of exercise e.g. endurance. Even though every horse has these two types the proportion will vary depending on breed, training and many other factors as well as varying from horse to horse. Some evidence suggests that muscles will respond to training in a particular type of exercise. This the changes the horse’s fibre type to support the demands of the exercise regimen .An increase in training and a regular training regimen will help improve the blood supply to the muscles which will supply the fibres with fatty acids and glucose as well as the removal of lactate and carbon dioxide more efficiently, especially in the first few weeks of training.
Measure fitness –
There are many ways to measure a horse’s fitness such as measuring the horses pulse using a HR monitor or a simple stethoscope
Injuries can occur during training and performances due to many reasons. One of the most common injuries seen in competition animals are stress fractures, these are very common in young competition horses as their bones are still developing. Stress fracture are commonly seen in the long bones such as the metacarpal as well as the pelvis, vertebrae and scapular. The radius and tibia are the most common areas a stress fracture can occur. Stress fractures can be made up of a single or multiple, also known as star fractures, cracks in the bone. These fractures are for the horse painful at first however this pain will often resolve rather quickly before healing fully. However, if a horse is exercised before the fracture has healed enough or is not diagnosed the fracture can grow to become a complete fracture which can have catastrophic results for the horse. If a stress fracture is suspected they can be diagnosed by using radiography to view the internal form of the limb, blood tests for biochemical bone markers (https://www.southtees.nhs.uk/services/pathology/tests/type-iii-procollagen-peptide-piiinp/ ) and nuclear bone scanning before treatment can begin. There are also many clinical signs which can be used to gage if the horse has a stress fracture and scanning is needed, these include lameness, heat and swelling of the area or whole limb.
Figure 2 – stress fracture on the tibia
A stress fracture is caused by over working and repetitive mechanical loading which damages the bone which over time accumulates to a stress fracture. The body will naturally heal a stress fracture alone without any medical assistance however during the healing period where the old bone is replaced with the new healthy bone, there will be a lag period when this occurs. Normally most stress fracture will heal completely when the exercise regimen is halted to allow for healing. However, depending on the severity of the damage caused will affect the time it takes to heal and how long the horse will be required to be on rest for.
- https://www.southtees.nhs.uk/services/pathology/tests/type-iii-procollagen-peptide-piiinp/ – blood test marker – fracture
- https://www.horsehospital.co.nz/Resources/StressFractures.html – bone image
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