In eventing around the world, fitness has always been one of the hardest factors to quantitatively measure and accurately assess for different horses. There are a lot of different factors at work for determining fitness, and almost every rider has a unique system for establishing the perfect balance between fit and sound. But, let’s face it, a lot of this comes down to experience with many horses over time and the ever-elusive “feel” that comes from knowledge gained while in the tack.
KER President Dr. Joe Pagan set out a few years ago to try and crack the code to fitness, and the result of many months of experiments and tireless toil is the KER ClockIt Sport App and website. Combined with the power of the Polar equine heart rate monitor, the app provides data to horse owners, riders and trainers that has never been available before, giving us new ways to analyze and modify our training systems for the betterment of the athletes.
The cornerstone of eventing is cross country, and, as such, we are understandably fitness-fixated in our sport. There’s a fine art to getting each unique horse fit for the current level while maintaining their trainability and technique for both jumping and dressage, as well as keeping their body physically sound. We don’t have the advantage of other sports that get to focus on one skill set every day, and because we cross-train our horses, our precious fitness days are even more important.
KER has spent more than 25 years studying equine fitness and exercise physiology and has designed the KER ClockIt Sport App to help measure a horse’s relative level of fitness through analyzing their heart rate during exercise.
By using an equine heart rate monitor that seamlessly attaches to your tack alongside Bluetooth technology that connects to your phone, you are able to record heart rate, speed, distance and altitude in real time, allowing the rider or trainer to accurately assess work intensity and keep the resulting data for future use.
I’m about to get real science-y with you, so hang tight because it’s important.
In short, research has shown that heart rate is highly correlated to both oxygen consumption and blood lactate production during exercise. The relationship between oxygen consumption (aerobic exercise) and heart rate is linear, which means they rise at the same rate. However, lactate production (anaerobic exercise) stays relatively low until the heart rate reaches about 175-180 beats per minute, which is approximately 80 percent of the maximum heart rate of a horse.
So why do you care? After this 80 percent threshold, blood lactate production increases exponentially, which results in significantly more fatigued muscles and a decrease in ability to perform for the horse. High levels of lactate may translate into disobediences, time penalties and a failure to feel 100 percent fresh and ready to go on the next day.
“If a horse has to generate energy without oxygen, it creates an oxygen deficit, which eventually leads to fatigue in the muscles,” explains Dr. Joe Pagan. “During this anaerobic exercise, the horse uses 18 times more glycogen than if he were generating the energy aerobically, and this can very quickly deplete muscle glycogen.”
For the interest of completing a CCI, it is worth noting that when experiments were conducted on purposefully depleting a horse of muscle glycogen, KER found that it was physically impossible for the horse to replace that within 24 hours, and in fact it takes at least 72 hours for the body to rebound. As the muscles used during show jumping for collection, power and accuracy are highly glycolytic, this is extremely relevant to success on the final day.
The KER ClockIt Sport App offers multiple ways for you to track your horse’s fitness during training as well as competition. Purely as a record-keeping assistant, this app promises to offer great educational opportunities. You can gain access to your workouts from weeks and months ago, see how they correlated with your competition success and adjust accordingly.
Using the app, you can clock your mileage by day, week or month, as well as view GPS maps of your rides. I never knew how many miles I was clocking each week with my horses, and I was pretty surprised by how long my “hacks” were turning out to be.
You can evaluate your horse’s relative fitness by comparing workouts through easy-to-read graphs that show heart rate, speed, elevation and distance. If I galloped the same track twice in one month on the same horse at the same speed, how did the two workouts compare?
I found it really interesting to measure Leo’s recovery heart rate from gallops. One of the really fun aspects of the app is that you can watch the heart rate change on your phone WHILE you are riding (if you are coordinated enough!). You can see when it drops as you are walking home, and later you can measure the time it took exactly on the graph.
Leo is a big, heavy horse who has never done fitness work before and I believe has not yet learned how to breath properly during a gallop. Hence, when you do a gallop, he always seems like he’s on the brink of death afterwards, and I have been giving him very generous recovery periods and somewhat feeling sorry for him.
Turns out, however, that his heart rate recovery is really quite good, and he’s a lot fitter than I thought, which is something that I would never have been able to tell from the saddle. Above you can see a measured record of a trot and gallop day for him, where I asked him to gallop up four hills, can you tell?
The app can also help you measure how much time you spent at various speeds, which are recorded as the most common gait for each speed. For example, speeds from 120-300 meters per minute are recorded as “trot” while speeds from 300-480 meters per minute are recorded as canter.
KER ClockIt Sport is also a handy tool for coaches and students, as you can connect with other riders and include your coach in your workout, or even assign a workout to a student. With a good cell phone signal or wi-fi, your coach can even watch the data streaming on their phone as you are galloping remotely in another field!
During this spring’s study on 34 eventing horses training in Florida, heart rates during training were compared to heart rates during competition, and KER found that from Training level to CIC3*, most horses spent the majority of a cross country round with heart rates greater than 80 percent of the maximum beats per minute. Intermediate and Advanced horses routinely had heart rates greater than 90 percent of the max beats per minute for several minutes of their round.
However, their training during the week included barely any work in those zones. Are we preparing our horses for cross country well enough? What is the perfect amount to ask at home? These are questions that can only be answered with more data, and KER is determined to find out.
Dr. Pagan hopes to create a way to better understand fitness and the ways we go about achieving it for our sport horses. “What we’ve done is create a giant research environment, and now that we can take these measurements and keep them, we can learn from looking at information from many horses over time,” he said.
Theoretically, in the future, instead of a coach telling a student to go out and do “three sets of three up the hill over there,” you could hook up the KER ClockIt Sport and specify how many minutes of what speed and what heart rate level you wanted to achieve, and be much more specific about the type of workout required. Coaches could develop their own methods and share it with students in a factual way through the app.
Dr. Pagan is currently over in England working with riders in the UK to run a study on a large group of eventing horses across the pond. Combined with a second study of U.S. event horses in the fall, this offers the first ever opportunity to compare international fitness regimes in a scientific and fact-based method!
The best way to use your KER Clockit Sport App and your Polar heart rate monitor is just that: Use it. Use it every day or use it for all your fitness days. You can buy one in the KER online store for $153.50. Logging data will help you better understand how your horse is progressing over time and will help you explain your training methods to yourself and others.
And, better yet, you will be contributing to a greater global experiment that, given time and additional data, promises to provide answers to many of our fitness questions and change the way we think about equine fitness programs for years to come.
Coming up next: how to navigate and get the most out of your KER ClockIt Sport App on both your phone as well as the website!