Fitness Trials and Tribulations: Galloping the Warmblood

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A magical water dinosaur. Photo by Erica Stevens.

Ah, the never ending quest for the perfect fitness regimen for our event horses. Will we ever know the ultimate answer? Will we ever be as adept as Michael Jung at literally anything? The answer to both of these questions is probably no, but that does not mean that we cannot continue endeavoring for greater success. When it comes to formulating a fitness program for every horse you ride, the answer is always changing and growing as to how we can create the perfect balance of fitness, soundness and sanity.

I’ve always ridden OTTBs or very high-blood warmbloods, and so Leo, my Hanoverian gelding, was really my first adventure into the lands of real warmblood fitness. Not only did he come to me as a 6-year-old with no base fitness to speak of for his entire life, but he actually didn’t know how to gallop. At all. Add to this that he’s a heavy sweater, and a dramatic breather, and I thought maybe he was dying any time I did a trot set or god forbid a baby canter set.

With the Thoroughbreds, we don’t even really start to think about fitness until the cusp of Preliminary, especially if they raced. Maybe they do some trot sets at Training level, but for the most part, they have a pretty good sense of how to cover the ground efficiently, and they’ve had a base level of fitness as youngsters that really comes back quickly. If there is one thing I’ve learned, there is certainly something to be said about riding a horse that’s been fit before in its life.

Last summer, I set out to really conquer this fitness thing with Leo. I was running him at Novice and looking to move up to Training, but I was honestly worried about the galloping and especially at one-day events, I wasn’t sure he could make it through all three phases in one day without lying down and expiring at my feet with dramatic flair. Enter, Kentucky Equine Research and the KER ClockIt Sport app.

Admission: I am a human fitness idiot. I literally can’t run 50 feet without tripping over myself and getting a cramp, and I’m barely able to avoid drowning in a swimming pool. However, I understand horse fitness to an extent because I’ve ridden at the track for many years, and had a horse at the upper levels for a number of years, so I had a general idea of how they should feel, but when it comes to science, I’m a noob.

The KER Clockit Sport kit includes the Polar Equine Heart Rate monitor and a bottle of ultrasound gel which is used during application of the electrodes. Photo by Kate Samuels.

The KER Clockit Sport kit includes the Polar Equine Heart Rate monitor and a bottle of ultrasound gel which is used during application of the electrodes. Photo by Kate Samuels.

So, I heard about the KER ClockIt App, and thought that maybe it was time I upped my analytical skills in the way I was training my horses, so I ordered the heart rate monitor, downloaded the app, and put in a call to the founder and president of Kentucky Equine Research, Dr. Joe Pagan. If you’re gonna figure out how to use something, why not just go right to the source?

Joe spent about two hours on the phone with me, delightedly explaining all of the features of the new app and website for the KER ClockIt Sport, and his excitement surrounding the project was palpable. I can’t begin to explain the vast ways in which you can put this project to use for your horses, but you can check out my original post for a taste.

So I began tracking trot sets and gallop sets with Leo, and found, to my surprise, that he wasn’t dying during gallops; he was actually doing very little cardiovascular work, but he FELT like it was a lot of work. Warmblood drama. A really great part of the ClockIt app is that you can watch heart rate and speed in real time on your phone as you are galloping. (If you are coordinated enough, that is, and your horse isn’t bolting, which wasn’t really a problem here … )

Henceforth, I could make observational measurements about how hard Leo was breathing, how much he was sweating, how slow off the leg he was, and how coordinated or uncoordinated he felt underneath me and compare them in real time to his heart rate and his actual speed. This was really illuminating for me, and I think it really enhanced my understanding of the work he was doing. I was able to modify my speed or length of gallop more on the numbers that I wanted, and less on how sympathetic I was to his terrible plight.

Along with the real-time benefits, I was also able to record several weeks worth of gallops as he moved up to Training and kept going through his season. The records of these gallops still exist on the website, and I can go back any time and compare them. If I were to record new ones today, I could say where he is on HIS fitness scale, knowing what I felt last fall. I know the exact workouts because I use the same gallop fields today, and I can see on the KER ClockIt site where I was on the GPS, so I could replicate a workout precisely and compare the numbers afterwards.

The KER ClockIt system is easy to apply to your horse and seamlessly fits into your tack without being obtrusive. Photo by Kate Samuels.

The KER ClockIt system is easy to apply to your horse and seamlessly fits into your tack without being obtrusive. Photo by Kate Samuels.

Ultimately, I found the KER ClockIt Sport app to be especially useful for Leo, but it also really opened my mind for a greater view of fitness in general, and a new way to think about the fitness puzzle. I would highly recommend it to anybody (and do on a regular basis) who is learning to feel gallop speeds and fitness levels on different horses, as well as just adding to the arsenal of information that you have on your horse.

Do you know what your horse’s resting heart rate is at different times in his fitness year? How long does it take him to recover from a gallop up a hill? Do you get more of a workout from a steep hill and a slow pace or a long haul on the flat?

While we might never know the perfect fitness regime, the KER ClockIt Sport app helps us modify our general themes to each horse, depending on his or her needs. With more facts and science on our side, we can only improve the way we prepare our sport horses for their jobs, and be better informed on how to keep them happy, sound and primed for the challenge.

Click here to download the KER ClockItSport app and get started on your own fitness journey with your horse.

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