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EGB magazine 2 How to gauge the efforts of our horse in work


In the previous article, I told you about the fuel efficiency of our horses, using a hybrid car analogy. Unfortunately, I won't be as anecdotal in this article but I'll try to illustrate where I can.

So last time we learned that higher intensity work will use more of our horse's petrol: glycogen. And that glycogen is a depletable fuel source that can even have harmful effects when we go into anaerobic mode. Running low on glycogen will cause potential fatigue and loss of power. For our endurance horses we want to use the " electric-power mode": running our horses on non-depletable fatty acids which every horse has more than plenty of. We do need a lot of oxygen for this fuel utilisation however, and this can be a limiting factor for some horses (the ones with smaller heart and lung size, and/or those that have fewer type 1 muscles). To optimise fatty acid use and stay in the cheap fuel mode, we need to train all our horses the right endurance way so they will default to this mode of fuel as much as possible.

Horses are amazing athletes, and a horse's body is much more able to change its fuel efficiency than a car (or even a human) is. A car has a set ability, with fuel efficiency that will only change to some extent with our driving style and some minor external parameters. Our 1 horsepower has a much greater ability to improve their output, they will get a better and more economical fuel efficiency when we train them. The body will add more ways to get oxygen to the muscles by making more capillaries and adding mitochondria which will actively improve fatty acid use at higher intensities of work, whereas before it would have had to resort to using less efficient glycogen. This will also delay the moment the horse needs to resort to anaerobic measures.

Any training will have this benefit: the fitter a horse becomes, the higher the anaerobic threshold will become. An unfit horse might have a threshold of 65% of the maximum heart rate, a very fit horse can go as high as 85%! This will make a huge difference in favourable fuel use. For endurance, we have to make the aerobic pathway the default option even more than for other sports, because we are working our horses so much longer than anyone doing dressage, jumping, eventing, racing or even hunting which can also go on for a good portion of the day. The big difference is that hunting is much more stop-start and there is a lot of waiting involved in hunting 😉 

So for endurance we need to stay in aerobic settings as much as possible, and the way to do that is to stay within a certain level of intensity. But how do we know how the horse is finding the intensity of work we ask of it? Unfortunately unlike our car, we don't have a lovely panel of gauges to see our speed, fuel efficiency and how much petrol we have left, installed in our horse. Perhaps a flaw of the evolution of sport horses? And while we are finding flaws in the lack of information about what is going on inside our horses, can I request to add a green light when a horse is ready for its next training and perhaps a fault light with a printout of problems when there are any? Of course, there will never be such an option and we have to rely on other ways to know what is going on by observation and often feel. What we feel when we are riding is one part of knowing what we are doing, but what we feel can sometimes be deceptive. As a rider, we interpret the circumstances based on our state of mind, our own fitness and our preconceived (sometimes humanised) ideas of what our horse is feeling.

Research has shown that riders gauge the effort of an exercise for their horse quite differently than the objective parameters given by the horse's heart rate monitor. There was a substantial link to how mentally challenging the rider felt an exercise was compared to the actual physical effort for the horse, but also a distinct correlation between rider fitness and how tough the rider thought an exercise was for their horse. More experienced (and perhaps fitter?) riders were more accurate than more novice riders.

To translate this to our endurance perspective: A rider might find a cold windy boggy ride very hard, the ground might be a bit more slippery and we might struggle with keeping warm. But for our horse these conditions might actually be quite ok, the rain is cooling, but not cold due to the movement, and because the ground is a bit slippier we are going slowly, thus staying within a much lower to moderate intensity which the horse is more than able for. The other way around is as important, our horses can give us a different feel depending on company, the time of year, or where they are. Especially adrenaline in an excited horse can give us a false feeling of fitness as it seems the horse goes effortlessly and seems very fit and happy, but the impact on the system can be quite a different story.

So to really know how hard work is for our horse we need an impartial view. We do have tech to help us, GPS watches to measure speed, distance, pace and average speed and hopefully also elevation. This can give us a lot of information on what we have actually done and I would really advise you to have some system of logging. I love logging all info, but then again, I'm a massive nerd. I'm such a nerd that I have spent the majority of the 2021 and 2022 winter months devising an index that gives an idea of the intensity of work we have done, based on a lot of these parameters you can get out of your GPS watch or riding app.

Distance, riding time, average speed and if at all possible (and reliable, because some mobile apps are not very accurate) elevation, are good parameters to keep track of for your progression in training. I also keep track of how many minutes I have cantered during my total ride time and use that in an index: the canter index.Double check if you have an app that gives you gaits as it can very much differ per horse if this is accurate. We once did the exact same amount of cantering with 2 different horses, both with that app on and I also checked on my GPS watch later. The app gave a totally different canter time for the 2, and on the watch it was different again!

Besides the canter index, I also make a climb index, these 2 serve to keep an eye on the most important indicators for higher intensity. The climb index is meters of elevation within my total distance in km. 

The best bit of tech that will really show how the horse feels the intensity of the work is the heart rate monitor. These come in several shapes and sizes, both in the way you can use them, but also they can come with a different price range. I will tell you more about how to use the different options in training and competing in the next article.

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