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EGB magazine 3 Using your HR monitor when training


In the previous blog, I told you about logging the distance, duration, average speed, and elevation of your training sessions. Adding indexes for climb and canter gives a selection of great parameters to compare training and see how you progress. But these numbers do not tell you anything about how your horse actually experiences the effort during work. In the first article, we talked about the intensity of work and fuel efficiency,and the only direct feedback on how the horse finds the work it is doing can be obtained via a heart rate monitor. The higher the exertion, the higher the heart rate. Knowing the pulse of your horse at rest, in walk, trot and canter, going uphill (or even steep uphill) and how quick it will then recover back to a normal rate, and the recovery after your ride is all very interesting and important information about how your horse finds the work, and how fit it actually is. These numbers can be very different depending on the type of horse you have, because of its inherent athletic ability and its level of fitness

So a heart rate monitor can be a really handy bit of kit. But there is so much available! Let us start with the different types of heart rate monitors available. Cost is of course a consideration. The cheapest heart rate monitor would be our hands really, we can count the heartbeats at the pulse, for instance at the inside of the jaw. Easier is a stethoscope, you need a bit of practice but you can easily count the beats. More tech is the handheld HR monitor, which gives a reading after holding it to the horse's side for a minute or less.

These methods can only be used when a horse is standing still, so what we really measure is the recovery, not the exertion, although high exertion would usually give a slower recovery. Measuring heart rate when standing still will not tell us about, the effort the horse has had to make, with subsequent fuel use. This is where the ridden heart rate monitor comes in. We have 2 options for ridden heart rate monitors:

* A monitor paired to an app on your phone (to check after the workout to see that the horse has done)
* A GPS or smartwatch paired to the monitor to see what is going on in real-time, often these sessions are also recorded to look back later.

Ideally, you would use the option with a watch or another way to see in real-time what is going on so you can check and learn while you are riding. You will see what is normal for your horse and what is quite a high value for instance when you accelerate or go up a hill. The recordings can help you do comparisons between workouts to have an idea of how your horse is progressing in fitness. If you only look back at a session you will be less able to make the connection between the moments of harder work and how your horse felt during them, or even what caused the higher heart rate to see if you would change the way you work your horse another time. The version with a (smart)watch is a bit more expensive, as most apps on your phone are free to download.

The heart rate monitor hardware consists of electrodes and a sensor that transmits the data to your phone or watch, or both as some sensors can have multiple connections. Old-type monitors were electrode pads with a wire to the sensor/transmitter. A sports watch gave real-time data such as HR, speed average speed and distance. This information would be stored in the phone and some could also be connected to a computer to download the info. This hardware is slowly becoming replaced by belts or sleeves that incorporate the electrodes and a Bluetooth sensor/transmitter, getting rid of the fiddly wires and a dangling transmitter. It can still be tricky to get a heart rate monitor working properly, the belts can shift, sleeves might not always fit your girth quite right and because the electrode areas are bigger and less concentrated they can get less accurate if connectivity is lost because of the contact area drying out, a hairy horse or when a horse makes bigger moves in canter or going uphill. Personally, I have not found a 100% functioning monitor yet that will give a constant reliable heart rate in all kinds of endurance riding.

An interesting side note is that all brands of heart rate monitors (bar 1) were devised for humans and/or racehorses. Because of this, they are set up with certain parameters in the back end, geared towards humans or talented sports horses. The diversity in endurance horses and their athletic ability is much greater than that of human athletes and racehorses and we ride in a very different way so the feedback on your training by the apps is not always that valid. My advice is to not pay attention to any zones or thresholds given by the apps or make your own (with my help), and to focus on baselines, fitness tests and what you see during work.

The first step is to know what is normal for your horse, a baseline test will tell you that. You will need a flat space to comfortably ride in all gaits to find normal parameters for your horse in walk, trot, canter, and a faster canter if you wish. Make sure you spend a similar time in each gait (and each diagonal/lead) and keep the same speed in the different gaits. Walk (or halt) in between the trot and canter bits to see recovery. I always include the HR when tacking up as well, as when untacking. Now you know what is normal for your horse and you can use the baseline to monitor changes. If you want to compare with a later baseline, be sure to do the same thing, so make a little protocol to repeat.

Most horses will walk with a HR between 60 and 80 and this is when for instance hill work becomes so interesting. With any ascent, the horse has to put more effort into the work and you will see the heart rate rising quite quickly, more so for an unfit horse, a horse that has not done hills before and horses with smaller heart and/or lung capacity. The heart rate can easily double or more from the baseline value. I have seen my horses which are reasonably fit, athletic and used to hills have peak heart rates of 140 to 170 walking up a very steep hill. For them, this is a heart rate equivalent to a fast canter or even a gallop! Hard work indeed.

Any increase in speed or elevation will result in a higher heart rate, when a horse gets fitter the horse can do the same effort as a while ago, but with a lower BPM. The resting pulse won't change, the recovery time normally would get shorter, the baseline readings of an unfit horse will drop a little as well, and the ones of a fit or athletically talented horse will stay pretty much the same. Remember that circumstances like weather, especially temperature and humidity, and ground surface, like deeper going can influence the heart rates as well so these might influence your baseline readings, and also how the horse is perceiving a training workout.

Contact Groen Equestrian if you need any help with your heart rate monitor readings or to work on baselines, fitness tests and creating zones of work.

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