Fit to Ride: Conditioning your horse, part I
In part I of a series, science nerd/fitness buff Biz Stamm shows us how we can quantitatively measure our horse’s fitness and conditioning progress.
We all want our horses to be fit, but how do we gauge our horse’s level of general fitness and measure whether our horse is getting fitter or not? Well, being a scientist (something I like to remind people of frequently, generally in the context of “Yes! Having that shot of tequila is a good idea. Trust me! I’m a scientist!”) I like to take a quantitative approach.
To quantitatively measure our horse’s fitness, we are going to acquire and analyze some heart rate data. Wait! Come back! I promise that you don’t need to be a scientist to do this. All you need is a stop watch, some very basic math skills, and perhaps a friend to record data as you measure.
We are going to start off by measuring our horse’s resting heart rate. Aside from being a great tool to measure your horse’s relative fitness, knowing your horse’s resting heart rate can often clue you in if your horse is having health problems. “Resting” is the key word here, so before taking this measurement be sure your horse hasn’t performed any kind of strenuous activity.
There are a few different ways to measure your horse’s heart rate, but I’m going to go over the easiest way that requires no equipment other than a stopwatch. First, we need to locate the facial artery, which is located under your horse’s jaw.
It’s a pretty prominent artery and should be relatively easy to find. Pretty quickly after locating it, you should begin to feel the pulse. After you feel the pulse, pull out your stopwatch and count the number of beats that occur in 15 seconds. Multiply that number by four and you have beats per minute (bpm). The average resting heart rate for a horse is anywhere from 28-44 bpm.
Unlike in people, a horse’s resting heart rate changes very little as fitness increases. What does change is the rate of recovery, or the amount of time it takes your horse’s heart rate to return to the resting heart rate after exercise. The faster your horse can recover his resting heart rate, the fitter he is. Just like heart rate, there are several methods to measure recovery time, but I’ve developed a quick and easy protocol that I’m going to share with you.
Start off by trotting your horse two minutes in each direction (four minutes total) and then let your horse stand quietly. After 30 seconds of standing, count the number of beats that occur within 15 seconds. Count again, at 60 seconds, 90 seconds, 120 seconds, etc. until your horse’s heart rate returns to the resting rate. Here is an example table you can use to record your data.
Repeat this test every two weeks, recording your horse’s total recovery time each time. If the recovery time is decreasing, your horse is getting fitter! If you want to be super nerdy about it, you could even graph your results and determine the slope of the curve to calculate the rate of improvement!… or not.
So now we know how to measure our horse’s general level of fitness, but how do we go about making them fitter? Find out in Part II tomorrow!
Biz Stamm is the 29 year old trainer and instructor of Stamm Sport Horse, LLC, specializing in pure dressage, as well applied dressage for riders involved with other disciplines. Originally haling from Hudson, NH, She is now living in Corvallis, OR. Biz started riding lessons at the age of 6 years old when the Dr. recommended that it may help with her bad balance and lack of coordination. While she is fairly coordinated and balanced on a horse these days, she is still somewhat of a mess on her own two feet.
Biz currently owns two horses: her lesson horse, Kalvin, a 7 year old half-Arabian gelding…
… and her personal horse, Alpha Helix, a 2 year old Kiger mustang gelding. Biz has had Helix since the day he was weaned, and considers him her “heart” horse.
Biz is also the proud owner (more like ownee!) of a 5 year old standard rex bunny named Pi Rex Rufuse (Get it!? Pi r-squared!!!). Biz has always wanted to have some sort of mini horse to live in the house, and since the current landlords won’s allow any kind of equine on the property, Biz opted for a rabbit, which evolutionarily speaking, is very closely related to the horse.
After getting a Masters degree in Plant Pathology, and pursuing a career in the scientific world, it became clear to her that she was only truly happy when she was interacting with, or talking about horses (and sometimes rabbits). Now that she is riding full time, Biz still keeps her scientific training close at hand, focusing on correct biomechanics and physics involved in riding.
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