App Could Change the Face of Fitness for Event Horses

Phillip Dutton and Fernhill Cubalawn. Photo by Jenni Autry. Phillip Dutton and Fernhill Cubalawn. Photo by Jenni Autry.

How do you really know if your horse is fit enough for your next competition? It’s a question that torments every eventer, from the lower-level rider all the way through to the pros who are legging up for a CCI4*. Kentucky Equine Research is hoping to take a lot of the guess work out of conditioning by developing a new app for smartphones.

KER has conducted research into equine exercise physiology for many years, working with David and Karen O’Connor to study heart rates leading up to the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and later joining the United States Equestrian Federation as the organization’s official equine nutritionist in 2000.

Dr. Joe Pagan, founder and president of Kentucky Equine Research (KER), and his team work to formulate feeds specifically designed to meet the nutritional needs of performance horses, and now KER is ready to take that nutrition research one step further by tracking heart rates and lactate levels in event horses as they train for competition.

Intensity and duration of exercise 

“One of the difficulties for us in terms of knowing how to feed performance horses is understanding how hard that horse works, because the amount of feed and the composition of the feed we’re going to give is related not only to duration, or how long the horse exercises, but also to intensity, or how hard the horse exercises,” Joe said.

“A lot of our work has been trying to understand the relationship between the duration and intensity of exercise and the nutritional requirements of the horse. That’s easy for us to do on the treadmill at a fixed speed with the horse hooked up to a monitor so we can measure heart rate and lactic acid, but we wanted to take these measurements and apply it to horses in the field.”

Measuring heart rate gives an indication of the overall intensity of the exercise the horse is doing, while measuring lactic acid gives an indication of how much energy the horse is drawing aerobically versus anaerobically during work. What does that mean, and why is it important?

Aerobic vs. anaerobic energy

Here’s how Joe explains it: In work, the horse’s muscles uses adenosine triphosphate (ATP) to contract, and those muscles produce ATP in various ways. “When the horse is going slow, the ATP is produced to a large extent by burning fat. As the horse goes faster, the ATP is produced by burning carbohydrates, which, in the muscle, is in the form of glycogen,” he said.

When the horse reaches a certain intensity of exercise — and a heart rate of 180 beats per minute — the muscle can no longer produce ATP aerobically just by burning fat, so it has to produce ATP anaerobically. At that point, glycogen is broken down into glucose so the horse can create ATP anaerobically.

And what’s the end result of that entire process? Lactic acid. By measuring lactic acid through drawing blood samples from the horse after exercise, KER can better understand the anaerobic intensity of training at different durations and altitudes. And why is it important to study that in event horses?

Training adaptation

“In order to train a horse’s muscle to handle the sort of environment it sees in competition, the horse has to train at levels that will replicate that environment,” Joe said. “You adapt a horse’s muscle to deal with the lactic acid by letting the horse’s muscle experience the accumulation of lactic acid it will see in competition. That’s what training adaptation is all about.”

By using this new app to track heart rates — with a Polar Equine heart rate monitor — and lactic acid levels through drawing blood samples after gallops, our High Performance riders can better understand the duration and intensity of exercise they need achieve the proper level of fitness for a specific competition. And here’s where it really gets cool.

Coach David O’Connor can monitor the data from anywhere in the world, as it’s stored on KER’s servers and immediately available for viewing. He could be coaching riders in England while watching another horse’s fitness work in real time in California, monitoring the heart rate, seeing the speed and looking at the altitude of the land being used.

“David probably has a good idea in his mind of what he considers to be the ideal type of training intensity. We want to give him the tools so he can go measure that intensity and then look at someone else’s training to see how it relates to what he considers the ideal intensity,” Joe said.

High Performance training

Eight of the High Performance riders will begin using the app immediately this winter with heart rate monitors to start collecting this data, David told the riders in his third session with them at the USEA Annual Meeting & Convention in Fort Worth, Texas, this past weekend.

“We want to first look at places that a lot of people gallop on, like the hill we have in Virginia and Nelson’s Hill in Unionville, which is shorter and sharper. What does that do? What’s does Will Faudree’s new all-weather gallop do? What does the one hill in Ocala do?” David explained.

We know a horse’s heart rate must reach 180 before the work achieves a level of anaerobic activity, but he wants to know how long horses need to stay there to properly prepare them for amount of lactic acid accumulation their muscles will experience in competition, he said.

“For the people who use these hills all the time, I don’t think it will change your fitness program, but now we can put it on a national level to determine what your speed on flat ground has to get up to in order to create that pushing feeling,” David said.

Advantages for amateurs

Ultimately, Joe hopes the new app can become an asset to help Team USA develop a national fitness program, but also that it will help amateur riders better develop their own conditioning plans, whether they’re gearing up for a Novice Three-Day or their first Prelim.

Australian vet Mike Davies originally developed the technology for the app, called ClockItEQ, to track heart rates in racehorses. KER has partnered with Mike to re-release the app under the new name KER ClockIt Race for racehorses and KER ClockIt Sport for sport horses — that’s the one that eventers will be using.

Two different versions of the app will be released April 1, 2015, for both iOS and Android phones; one version will track heart rate when the horse is hooked up a monitor. KER will be selling Polar Equine heart rate monitors on its website for about $90 once the app is released to the public, but the app will work with a variety of heart rate monitors, Joe said.

Here’s where it gets exciting for amateur riders: A free version of the app will also be released that tracks duration and intensity of fitness work and then compares it to how others riders at the same level are also training.

“We’re hoping a lot of riders will use it so we can gather information about how hard riders train at various levels. Say a rider is preparing for a Training Three-Day. Once we have that data, we can give feedback to an individual rider on how their training relates to other riders who are training for the same type of competition,” Joe said.

The free app will also give users the ability to add their trainers, who can then remotely access the data from a student’s ride and make recommendations on fitness training accordingly.

The nutritional tie-in

“We’re not trying to tell people how to train their horses,” Joe said. “We’re trying to assess how hard a horse is being trained so the people who are professionals can make educated decisions on what they could be doing differently. Our role is observational, and we’ll leave it to the David O’Connors of the world to use the data to make suggestions on how to modify training.”

And remember all of KER’s research on nutrition for sport horses? The app will also give advice on the nutritional needs of your horses based on the data it tracks during your fitness work, from how much fat and fiber he needs to the levels of starch and sugar that should be in his feed.

The app is being tested by a large group of riders in Ocala from January through April, and Joe will present the research in Lexington on April 20, the Monday before the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event, comparing the research on sport horses to his findings in testing the app on racehorses.

Joe is currently recruiting riders who are in Ocala for the winter and are interested in testing the app. If interested, please email him at [email protected]. As a side note, the beta version of the app is being tested in iOS, so anyone wanting to test the app in Ocala must have an iPhone.

We’ll continue to track the testing phase of this app and how it’s being used by our High Performance riders. What do you think, EN? Will this app be a game changer in how our High Performance riders prepare for big events? Would you use it to track your own fitness program?

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