Your Horse’s Fitness Level and Heart Rate
It’s *mostly* easy to track your horse’s fitness level. You can journal and track trends, or get a bit more specific about things by tracking your horse’s heart rate and exercise recovery rate.
Your horse’s heart rate
- Do you need a heart rate monitor for your horse during exercise? Or to even measure your horse’s heart rate?
- So yeah – you need to have at least some knowledge about your horse’s heart rate. Taking your horse’s vital signs, like temperature, pulse, and respirations gives you a snapshot into your horse’s health. Any variations from normal indicate that something is going on with your horse.
How to measure your horse’s heart rate.
- There is about the most simple thing you can do to monitor your horse’s health. When your horse is at rest, his heart rate should be between 24 and 40 beats per minute (bpm), although most horses are between 32 and 36 beats per minute.
- For measuring your horse’s heart rate you can use a stethoscope on the left side of the chest behind the elbow. You need to really jam the end of the stethoscope into your horse’s armpit area. Your vet can guide you.
- Count the beats for 30 seconds and multiply by 2.
- You can also put your fingers across the lingual artery which runs at the bottom of the cheek and jaw area across the bone to count your horse’s pulse. No stethoscope needed, so you can quickly do this as your horse is cooling out.
Coincidentally, stethoscopes are also good for listening to gut sounds. You need one.
What does your horse’s heart rate tell you?
- When it comes to your horse’s heart rate, you can learn a lot. A horse’s heart rate can tell you if there is pain, and give you insights into his fitness level. Your horse’s resting heart rate will rise when your horse hurts. It’s a mostly invisible way of alerting you to danger. When it comes to fitness, your horse’s heart rate during exercise tells you how much he’s working. After exercise, his heart rate tells you how quickly he recovers from exertion.
What about your horse’s respirations?
- Your horse’s respiratory rate is also an indication of his fitness levels. Typically, a horse’s respiration is 8 to 12 breaths per minute with about 1.25 gallons of air per breath.
- To measure your horse’s respiration, it’s usually easiest to watch your horse’s flank. If you are watching a clock, too, place your hand on your horse’s flank area and feel for the inhales and exhales. One inhale and exhale cycle is one count.
- If you are using a timer with a beep, you can watch the area and count.
- Logically, as your horse is exercising, his respirations will go up as well. Some racehorses have been recorded with respirations as high as 180 breaths per minute, which I can only imagine is highly uncomfortable! A more reasonable exercise induced rate would be somewhere in the ball park of 80 to 120 breaths.
- You will also see flared nostrils, as this allows your horse to physically take in more air. Horses can’t ever be mouth breathers as their respiratory system is physically unable to do this. Unlike this one guy I dated in college. Briefly.
- As you are measuring your horse’s heart rate after exercise, also jot down his respirations to see how easily they return to a resting state.
How can we measure our horse’s fitness?
- Your horse’s vital signs are a great place to start when you are getting an idea of your horse’s fitness. This starts with learning your horse’s baseline vitals – his temperature, pulse, and respiration at rest. You may want to do this in the morning and evening when your horse is chilled out.
And here’s the kicker about a resting heart rate for a horse.
- Horses are giant, freaky goobers that can be alarmed at anything real or imaginary. Don’t be surprised yourself if you are taking measurements and mostly they agree and then there’s an outlier. The boogeyman might be in the shadows, and your horse has decided to freak out a bit. This is also one of the reasons why taking your horse’s resting vitals is essential every single day – so you can notice trends and find the normals.
Many controls are needed in a laboratory setting designed to measure a horse’s fitness.
- Fitness is your horse’s ability to do his job, in a stress-free manner, without getting fatigued or injured. A perfectly designed measurement tracks your horse’s responses to the same exercise in the same conditions over time. That means the same warm-up and work in the same gaits for the same amount of time, all in the same temperature, humidity, time of day, etc. This is great for treadmill studies, but what about our personal horses?
- We should be tracking our horse’s fitness over time to ensure our exercise plan is on track. But we can’t duplicate lab tests with reality going on. And – who really wants to do the same thing every single day?
Log your horse’s info
- For simple, at-home fitness tests, you may want to create a spreadsheet (YIPPEE) or journal to track your rides and your horse’s starting, finishing, and recovery heart rates.
- Measuring your horse’s vitals after some exercise and then at set intervals after exercise will give you a place to start.
- Tracking your horse’s heart rate spike immediately after trotting, cantering, jumping, or other exertion. Over time, as fitness increases, that spike will start to level out.
- Recovery rate when you are cooling out and/or back at the barn also gives you an idea of fitness. Faster recovery rates indicate greater fitness. As you get rolling on your data collection, you might want to hop off your horse right before you cool out to collect your vital sign number, and then use a timer to measure again every couple of minutes.
- You might also notice that your horse’s level of fitness declines over time. Is he approaching retirement where this seems appropriate, or is your horse hurting somewhere and that is affecting his fitness. The information you collect is a starting point – nothing more.
Does your horse need a heart rate monitor?
- It’s easy to do this before you mount and return to the barn, but what about while you ride?
- You can find heart rate monitors that your horse can wear as you ride. These devices sync with your smartphone so that you have a clear picture of what is going on as you ride, and at what point in the ride.
- You might also be able to discern some behaviors from others. For example, if your horse loves to spook in one corner of the arena, does he do this out of play or habit, or do you see a huge spike in heart rate that might tell you he’s legit scared?
- The heart rate monitoring over the course of a workout also allows you to see how hard your horse is working and how easily he recovers while still exercising.
Look for trends
- The big picture here is to remember that tracking fitness – especially if you are doing so casually at home – is not exact. You want to notice trends – not get fixated on one day or one instance.
- You may also want to consider a heart rate monitor if you have a horse with respiratory issues like heaves, is recovering from an injury, or is just beginning to ramp up his exercise levels. The data you get while riding is critical to informing you how much you can ask of your horse.
- Obviously your vet and trainer can help you out with designing a program, as can having your horse wear a heart rate monitor.
What types of heart rate monitors are available?
- This is a new horse market, and you have a few options. There’s a device that your horse can wear on his girth – which is ideal for when you are riding. The CEEFIT System includes a strap for you to wear in addition to the horse monitoring sensor on the girth. Similar brands out there, such as V-Max and Polar Equine, offer similar products.
- The Smart Halter from Night Watch is a leather halter that has vital sign monitoring built-in. You do need to recharge regularly. It’s not designed to be used under saddle.
- There’s also a system called Trackener from the UK that is a shoulder harness. Your horse wears this for extended periods, like the halter, so you can track vitals and behavior over time. You can also use this under saddle. It can’t be used in the US at this time, but maybe soon!
There’s a lot of blood pumping here!
What are “typical” heart rate numbers?
- Grain of salt here – every horse is going to vary, from hour to hour and over time. Most horses have that baseline heart rate of 30-ish bpm. At a brisk walk, perhaps about 75 bpm, but usually between 50 and 90 bpm. Trotting, perhaps about 120 bpm, or somewhere between 80 and 140 bpm. Cantering, look for a bpm around 145, generally between 120 and 170 bpm. Galloping is much greater, logically, at around 200 bpm in a window between 160 and 240 bpm.
What if all of this seems tedious?
- I suppose not everyone loves charts and graphs like I do, which is (mostly) fine. Keep up with daily vital sign measurements before you ride, and every week create a simple workout plan that you can measure to track fitness over time.
- Investing in that heart rate monitor is a much easier way to do things, and then an app can do all of the analysis for you.
A quick video on bringing your horse back into fitness.
Different wearable technologies
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