Reflections of the Heart

 Heart Rate Monitors and you:


The use of heart rate monitors has been around for some time and their existence and use for fitness purposes seems obvious.  Although, the general public would probably be surprised how little they are used in the racing industry.  One would assume that their use would be a standard piece of equipment in all racing stables, as the physiology of the horse is fairly well understood.  I should add a caveat here, and say that in the United States they are not as commonly used as one would expect but in Europe and other places are a more common training tool used to monitor fitness empirically.  Of course, the racing industry has its reasons and they can be discussed in another post.  For now let’s explore the usefulness of heart rate monitors for most horsemen.

For some background I will digress with a story begging the indulgence of the reader.  When I was working with a racing group and using the heart rate monitors to access the training programs already in place there were several somewhat eye opening observations that came to light as we collected the data on daily training sessions.  One being that the training regimen set out on paper appeared to adhere to solid science in terms of what we know it takes to build aerobic capacity before more rigorous training is introduced.  However, when the monitors were used and along with lactate testing the results of the set in stone programs that most trainers use or used became questionable.  The reason is, that although on paper the training regimen appeared to be in line with the physiology principles, the results were different.  The horses were and are individuals.  Some are early responders and others are late.  Late and early responders referring to the time it takes for an individual to adapt to the training level and be able to move on to the next level, in order to adhere to the physiological principles of the equine athlete.  This concept is not the same as innate athletic ability.  Put in another way an individual can be genetically gifted as an athlete (for the particular discipline training is taking place) but be slower to respond to a training regimen.  The empirical evidence that the monitors and other devices can produce can tell the trainer how to proceed the next day and weeks.   That information can eventually be used to access the horses’ long term success depending on what the discipline the individual was bred to compete.  Sadly the horses are treated as throw away items and the evidence that can be used to treat them as individuals is often ignored.  The general result of ignoring the evidence is injury.  The injury rate is very high in racing and performance horses.  The solution is to call the vet, ignoring the root problem that the management scheme is in error according to the known science and often the data available. 


The above is one example of usefulness of heart rate monitors.  Admittedly it involves a whole other level of equipment, data storage and the resulting analysis.  However, the benefits for individuals that care for their equine friends can be huge.  As one starts to monitor heart rate when fitness is involved lactate and other factors, a second use of the monitor will become evident as it did for me with the racing group.  That is the emotionality of the horse will be shown through rising or lowering heart rates.  Many years ago I wrote in the Nature of Natural that the first problem to fix or deal with was one of emotion.  As Darwin stressed emotions are for survival and are immediate.  In the horse they will often trigger the famous flight/fight response as the horse interprets the environmental stimulus as a threat.  There are reasons for this based in learning theory and the hierarchy of learning abilities and as the great horseman Tom Dorrance once said:  “All the horse has is self-preservation”. 


One of the racing candidates we were training was a very talented mare.  She showed signs of fabulous speed potential even greater than one of the super stars we had in the barn.  The problem was you couldn't’t control her.  She would not rate on the track.  As we started using the monitors I started to place the monitors on the horses long before their training sessions.  In Libby’s case she showed signs of rising heart rates when the grooms entered the stall.  By the time that she was tacked and walked onto the track her heart rate was often nearing 200 BPM.  As you probably know resting heart rate is usually in the 30’s and anaerobic threshold is around 150 BPM (depending on the breed, fitness level and innate capacity).  Libby was melting long before she went into her daily training routine, she was anticipating (Classical Conditioning) something that she found to be fearful.  Heart Rate monitoring was telling us this, and it was showing us where to begin.  First to break the routine.  To not do the exact same actions that triggered her emotions to rise to the point where she became uncontrollable. 


As you might suspect the answer for this problem was more force, bigger bits, and lots of other devices that I’d never even seen.  I must say the racing industry is very creative in terms of the equipment they have developed to control horses.  The root was in teaching the horse something different, something that showed her that her life was not in danger as she appeared to believe.  The heart rate monitor was revealing to us where to start to help her generalize her environment and to learn that being on the track with other horses was not a life threatening situation.  If this could be solved then her athletic ability could be tapped into, otherwise training became impossible and her innate world class abilities would go untapped. 


This post is only meant to point out the usefulness of heart rate monitors and the full story of what one might do for a horse like this is better left for another article or even a hands on clinic demonstration.  In Libby’s case let us say she made great improvements but as she did the owners of the horse wanted to skip to racing long before the empirical evidence showed her ready.  Once again the great Tom Dorrance had a saying for the time:  It takes as much time as it takes, there is no limit (not a direct quote, cause I can’t remember it exactly).  In Libby’s case the powers that be were not ready to give it the time to correct what would have been obvious if these methods had been adapted in the beginning.  It is always harder to fix a learned response that was based in fear than to teach them differently in the beginning.  This use of the heart rate monitor is probably the one with the greatest benefit to the average horse owner.  To understand how your horse perceives the environment, what places, people, situations, etc. (stimuli) are they likely to find novel and thus fearful.   What level of learning do they need to work at to progress as a companion and or competitor?  Heart rate monitors and other empirical based equipment can be used to help with these situations. 


A third and perhaps more subtle use of the monitor is that of pain.  In this example my friend and colleague Ginny Elder had a client with a new horse.  This horse was an old trooper and as solid as they come (look for Ginny’ blog on this case).  However, the horse was unshod and although she was not taking any bad steps whatsoever was showing a heart rate of 180 BPM.  This along with no outward body language signs that the horse was uncomfortable.  In this case one must know that Ginny is a very experienced horse woman with considerable credentials and very good at reading horses.  When the situation was pointed out to the owner she agreed to have the horse shod and ride her again.  In the same arena and at the same gates the horse once again appeared fine but heart rate had fallen to normal levels for the gaits that were being ridden.  Admittedly there are many conditions that affect heart rate and one would have to eliminate temperature, footing, and other factors but in this case all of those were equal.  Ginny just had a feeling something was wrong and the HR monitor confirmed her suspicions (for the whole story see Ginny’s story about Ellie). 


As you can see there are several useful reasons to use a Heart Rate monitor and gain some empirical evidence on how to manage your equine assets.  There seems to be one great problem with that concept though, it’s us!  As Pogo said: “We have seen the enemy and he is us”.  We as a people don’t seem to like to change when we believe something different even if the facts seem to show otherwise.  We love to create certainty in the beliefs we have and do not want others or other information to interfere with that belief, that dogma.  We just don’t like to change.  As I write this I know well that I am more than a few pounds overweight (40 to be exact).  However, I am resisting getting on the scale and knowing the numbers on a daily basis.  I know what to do; I just don’t want to know the truth that will force me into living a more disciplined life.  When people do change writing things down, journaling and in my case keeping track of what you eat tends to work.  Holding yourself responsible for your actions will get you results.  And once again our old friend Tom Dorrance had a saying:  “The change in the horse comes from the change in the person”.  Heart Rate monitors can help guide you to a change and in the end benefit your horse and all you do with your equine friend. 


In an attempt to show the usefulness of this Ginny and I sought out a horse to use the Heart Rate monitor on and to try to reshape his behavior on film.  If you have made it this far take a few more minutes and watch the story of Senor on the web site. 


“The Keenest sorrow is to realize you are the cause of all your adversities”

Sophocles 395 BC


In this case remember that Sophocles was a friend of Xenophon, and they probably knew what Tom Dorrance has pointed out.  The change comes from you.  Are you up for the challenge? 


Tim McGaffic