ALL YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT ATHLETIC HORSE’S HEART RATE
Why should you measure the racehorses’ heart rate? How do you monitor data during the horses’ training? How to improve recovery to reach an excellent fitness and to prepare the horse to races?
The aim of this guide is to provide you with all the keys necessary to analyze racehorses’ heart rate. Improving performance is an important subject for any trainer, and professional in the racing world. The arrival of data in the industry provides new key, objective and necessary information to implement winning racing strategies.
On the agenda:
1. Collect a data historic to assess the fitness level over time
2. Quantify the training workload
3. Evaluate the impact of a training session
4. Longitudinal follow-up of heart rate and fitness condition
I. THE RACEHORSES’ HEART RATE
1 – Definitions
Heart rate (HR)
Just as humans, the racehorse’s heart rate is the rhythm of his heartbeat. The cardiovascular system is made up of the heart and blood vessels. It ensures efficient blood circulation and the transport of a large volume of oxygen, mostly to the muscles.
The volume of blood that the heart ejects with each beat during cardiac contraction (systolic ejection volume) is more than one liter in racehorses. The weight of the heart represents about 1% of a horse’s mass and training will tend to increase his cardiac mass by about +15%. This improves his cardiac capacity and allows the heart to get less tired by beating more slowly for the same amount of work. Thus, measuring the heart rate of racehorses provides information on their level of fitness and their adaptation to training.
Maximum heart rate (HRmax)
The maximum heart rate is the maximum number of beats per minute that a horse’s heart can achieve. On average, the HRmax ranges between 204 and 241 BPM. This parameter is specific to the physiology of each horse, it changes little and decreases slightly with age. It is recommended to measure the maximum heart rate at least twice during the season with the help of an effort test supervised by a veterinarian. These measurements allow you to better understand your horses’ work and to individualize their training by making each of them work on their own heart rate ranges. A standardized test of effort is a tool to assess a horse’s training capacity by objectifying his response to training.
HRmax is therefore not a performance indicator in itself. However, this parameter allows for assessing the maximum volume of oxygen (VO2max) that a horse uses during an effort. VO2max is one of the best indicators of performance level. Once the HRmax is reached, there is a little left for the horse to accelerate and reach his VO2max. The horse has to draw on his other energy sources to be able to accelerate. As these other sources are present in limited quantities in the body, the horse is able to maintain its maximum speed for approximately 600 to 800m during a race. The maximum heart rate can be measured during exercise where the intensity requires a significant amount of energy. Typically, a maximum speed effort of 70% to 80% over at least 1600m or on a track with a positive altitude gain, or strength greater than 90% of maximum speed over 600m.
Example – Analyse a high max heart rate in young standardbreds
Arionea, a 2 year old standardbred, showed a worrying maximum heart rate during her first intense training. Indeed, we notice on the data below that during the first technical training, the heart of the filly goes up to more than 250 BPM.
Data from the EQUIMETRE platform
How can Arionea’s abnormally high maximum heart rate be explained? The answer in our case study here.
2 – Heart rate parameters
Heart rate variability (HRV)
Heart rate variability (HRV) is different from the heart rate. It assesses whether the time between each beat is constant, or whether it is subject to variability, over a given period of time. The degree of variability reflects the degree of relaxation of the nervous system. The more relaxed you are, the greater the variability between the different heartbeats; whereas the more stressed you are, or the more pain you feel, the lower the variability will be. To sum up, it is a measure that will indicate the state of stress or relaxation of a person or a horse during a given period of time.
EQUIMETRE is one of the only systems validated scientifically specifically for cardiac variability measurement in horses.
Emmanuelle Van Erck
Veterinarian specialized in equine sports medicine
The V200 stands for the speed reached by the horse when his heart rate reaches 200 BPM. Best horses will have a higher V200 than others. However, this parameter should be used to compare pieces of training of the same horse rather than to compare horses with each other as they have different heart rates when exercising.
It allows quantifying the progress achieved during a training period. Indeed, if a racehorse has a higher V200 at the end of a training period, this shows an improvement in his speed abilities. He is able to run faster at the same heart rate frequency.
The V4 parameter
V4 or VLa4 defines the speed associated with a blood glucose level of 4 mmol/l. When a horse has 4mmol of lactate (muscle waste) per liter of blood, he reaches his V4. This value matches the transition point between aerobic and anaerobic effort. During an anaerobic type of effort, glucose becomes the majority source of energy creation and the lactate volume in the blood increases.
Therefore, V4 is specific to each horse, according to his fitness level. Some breeds have a higher average V4 than others, highlighting the need to individualize training for each horse. If a horse’s V4 increases, it means that his ability to remove lactates has improved. Indeed, the faster lactates are eliminated, the better a horse can maintain his effort over time and the less risk of pain and injury. When the V4 increases over time, it means that the horse’s fitness and resistance to intense exercises have improved.
However, like the V200, the V4 is dependent on many exogenous factors such as the track slope, type and quality of the ground. Therefore, researchers have established a variant: the HR4. It measures the heart rate of a horse when the 4mmol/l threshold is reached. Generally situated around 170 BPM, the FC4 is therefore independent of the exogenous factors mentioned above.
Recovery is one of the main parameters of a horse’s fitness: the better a horse’s recovery, the better his fitness. Analyzed in parallel with the intensity of the work required, a horse’s fitness tells whether a horse is ready to run. Optimal fitness is shown by the ease with which a horse recovers and an excellent recovery during heavy work.
A horse recovering well from intense training is more likely to win his next races than a racehorse having trouble getting over an intense exercise. To assess the recovery, you need to collect heart rate data. In order to analyze the evolution of a racehorse’s heart rate during training, 4 heart rate zones can be defined:
A – The work zone: speed and heart rate parameters are high. This zone allows the HR level reached during the effort to be quantified. The training difficulty can be assessed by looking at what percentage of his maximum heart rate the horse has worked.
B – The deceleration zone at the end of training: At the end of the exercise, the speed decreases significantly, the heart rate must follow this decrease. However, it can remain high in order to compensate for the oxygen debt accumulated during effort.
C – The phase of rapid decrease in heart rate – «rapid recovery»: At the end of work, after a period of heart rate maintenance (zone B) at a high level, the heart rate decreases very rapidly over a few tens of seconds (zone C). It is important to evaluate the level of return relative to the horse’s HR Max.
D – Slow heart rate decrease phase – «slow recovery»: The faster the horse is, the faster the horse returns to his initial heart rate. It has been shown that the recovery time (D) is correlated with the level of performance of the horse: the lower it is, the better the horse.
Data from the EQUIMETRE platform
Nowadays, trainers rely entirely on experience, feelings and feedback from riders. Still, supplementing this process with objective data such as heart rate and recovery maximizes the effectiveness of decision making on race entry and success, while ensuring the medical follow-up of horses.
II – Heart rate data dedicated to the racehorses’ performance
1 – Collect a data historic to assess the fitness level over time
The collection of historical data specific to each horse allows a personalized follow-up and the detection of possible anomalies. This historical data helps to detect abnormal values, such as poor recovery or a higher heart rate during warm-up.
This data is only comparable if it has been collected during training sessions under similar conditions. It is therefore important to qualify the training sessions: track, training, weather, etc.
2 – Quantify the training workload
In an environment as competitive as horse racing, trainers strive to maximize their chances of winning at the racetrack. Quantifying the racehorse’s training workload gives undeniable advantages. The workload assessment is the volume and intensity of a horse’s training over a given period.
First, it reduces the risk of under and overtraining. By collecting objective data such as heart rate, speed, and recovery, you can monitor the training workload and ensure the effectiveness of the training. The main overtraining symptom noticeable with a heart rate monitor is the decrease in performance. The horse is no longer able to hold his effort as long as before. The heart rate remains high after the exercise.
Secondly, the training workload quantification allows adapting the training to the racehorse’s needs. Depending on their training level, last race, or current fitness, they do not need to work on the same specificities. For example, some horses may need to work more to maintain their good fitness.
Example – Analyse a high max heart rate in young standardbreds
By analyzing the data from Arion I (anonymised for this article), we can see that the training carried out between the two sessions was successful. Indeed, we can note that this racehorse’s recovery has improved thanks to proper training. The data are comparable as the trainings were similar.
Training of the 04/17/21
Speed = 38 Mph
HR after effort = 118 bpm
Training of the 04/22/21
Speed = 38 Mph
HR after effort = 107 bpm
3 – Evaluate the impact of a training session
When a horse’s heart rate tends to remain high while the speed has dropped, it means that the training has been too intense and not well supported by the horse. Ideally, the BPM curve should fall directly with the speed curve. If this is the case, the horse is in good physical condition.
Data from the EQUIMETRE platform
However, the heart rate does not only depend on the effort, but also on exogenous factors such as the inclination of the terrain, the weight of the rider, a change in the type or condition of the track, weather conditions, etc. In order to compare two training sessions, it is important to check that the conditions are as standardized as possible.
Once the maximum heart rate has been measured, it is possible to evaluate the energy consumption of your horses during training. This evaluation can then be confirmed by performing a standardized exercise test, during which lactate measurements are taken. The parameters of V4, FC4, V2 and FC2 are then evaluated.
4 – Longitudinal follow-up of heart rate and fitness condition
In order to compare horses over time, it is necessary to compare reliable parameters for which training will have an influence. For example, the maximum heart rate only changes very little with training, whereas the physiological adaptation leads to a decrease in heart rate at a given speed (for sub-maximal exercise).
All adaptations of the cardiovascular system are linked and some are shown in the measurement of the heart rate during exercise. Knowledge of the maximum heart rate is essential to quantify the levels of work and recovery specific to each horse. This makes it possible to define the work zones relative to the improvement of specific physiological parameters. In addition, knowledge of characteristic heart rates and recovery times can allow the evaluation of abnormal increases which may be warning signs of an incipient pathology or fatigue.
Each racehorse has its own physical abilities. Thus, they do not all have the same limits. Some horses naturally have the necessary breath to run a 2500m, while others are out of breath at the end of a 1200m. This is why it is essential to analyze the evolution of the heart rate at the end of each training session. It is then possible to answer the following question: is the horse really struggling to reach the finish line? The heart rate graph is a tool to characterize the horse’s recovery and the intensity of the training performed. These parameters objectively quantify the horse’s level of fitness, its ability to hold an exercise and its fatigue.
A low heart rate at rest (without disturbance) would be associated with a good level of fitness, while a high value may be associated with pain, illness or fatigue related to overtraining.
III. HEART RATE DATA DEDICATED TO THE RACEHORSE’S HEALTH
Today, high-level athletes surround themselves with health professionals ensuring their health and reducing the risk of injury thanks to physiological data analysis. Racehorses should be no exception. Collecting cardiac data quickly and seamlessly is an asset for the racing industry to reduce health risks. For example, longitudinal monitoring and ECG analysis are tools to detect signs of arrhythmia and treat the horse accordingly.
1 – Working with ECG during training
Equine electrocardiogram – It is a veterinary tool that records the electrical activity of the heart. It allows to investigate and monitor the heart function of the horse by displaying the electrical activity of the heart.
The analysis of the ECG allows several things:
- The detection of possible heart problems
- The evaluation of the effects of a treatment during the follow-up of a horse
- Checking that the heart is working properly
- Observation of heart rhythm during general anaesthesia
- Heart rate variability & fitness status measurement
How to collect an ECG?
It is necessary to have a tool with electrodes and a sensor that records the measurement taken. Over time, the development of ambulatory devices has made it possible to perform ECGs in the box at rest, as well as during exercise for sensors with wireless autonomy (such as EQUIMETRE). The signal can then be stored digitally and transmitted wirelessly via Bluetooth or 3G, allowing live viewing during exercise.
2 – How to detect respiratory issues?
The racehorses’ respiratory system faces high physiological (high-intensity training) and environmental pressures (such as dust and humidity). These can lead to an inflammation of the respiratory system. By collecting heart rate data during exercise, it is possible to detect early signs of such pathologies.
We can see that this horse reaches his maximum heart rate as soon as he starts galloping. This is an abnormal situation, all the more so as he is not launched at maximum speed. When analyzing this training, the trainer should ask to consult his veterinarian to investigate the problem.
3 – How to detect cardiac arrhythmias in the racehorses?
The detection of arrhythmias in racehorses meets some challenges in the racing industry: animal welfare, accidents limitation in training and on the racetrack, analysis of underperformance, and detection of hidden pathologies. Whether benign or pathological, these heart rate abnormalities should be investigated to ensure they do not endanger the horse.
Definition – Cardiac arrhythmias are changes in the rhythm of the horse’s heart. They can be abnormal or physiological. They are quite common in highly athletic horses and can become problematic when they disrupt blood circulation and subsequently reduce oxygen supply (through the blood) to the muscles.
Example of ECG where the horse has atrial fibrillation (ECG collected by the EQUIMETRE heart rate monitor)
Example of an ECG where the horse is in good health (ECG collected by the EQUIMETRE heart rate monitor)
The Arioneo heart rate monitor as a measuring instrument
Heart rate monitor can be used to accurately measure a horse’s heart rate. This is one of the most widely used measuring instruments for sportsmen and women, and allows the heart rate to be recorded to the nearest second.
Arioneo’s heart rate monitor is made up of internationally patented electrodes specifically dedicated to the equine athlete. It enables the heart signal to be collected during the entire effort, even at full speed.
4 – Detecting an anomaly
Even before resorting to an electrocardiogram, monitoring your horses’ heart rate can allow you to highlight abnormalities. Indeed, both during warm-up and training, an abnormal heart rate value can be a symptom of pain or pathology. It is therefore important to investigate an abnormal heart rate in order to establish a complete diagnosis and potentially discover a pathology or pain.
A tool such as Equimetre can allow you to observe and analyze the heart data of your racehorses. With a recorded history and the platform’s analysis curves, this device helps you detect abnormal data that require veterinary investigation.
Example – Detect a heart failure
Arion, a 4-year-old gelding who had never raced, reached a heart rate of 250 BPM at the start of a gallop during training. This abnormal heart rate could be a sign of pain, a heart problem or a respiratory problem.
Data from the EQUIMETRE platform
Arion’s veterinarian analyzed the ECG automatically collected by EQUIMETRE during training. The ECG analysis showed that Arion was suffering from a cardiac arrhythmia. Want to know more about the diagnosis? Do not hesitate to click here.
The heart rate is therefore an essential element to follow and analyze in the training of racehorses. Indeed, it allows you to know more about your horses’ fitness and physical abilities but it also allows you to highlight anomalies or pathologies. Using a heart rate monitor like Equimetre in the training of your racehorses is therefore a significant asset in terms of performance and an essential tool to preserve the health of your horses.
If you wish to implement connected solutions to collect cardio, speed and locomotion data, don’t hesitate to call on one of our experts!