With the second week of the 2018 World Equestrian Games underway and show jumping set to kick off Wednesday (September 18, 2018) now is a great time to reflect on the incredible amount of training, dedication and passion that the athletes competing have invested to reach this level. We are all familiar with the outstanding feats of coordination between horse and rider that culminate in world-class performances in the ring, however, sometimes we don’t consider all of the “behind the scenes” work that makes this possible. As a fan of show jumping, as well as someone working in the industry, the steps needed to reach the top have always fascinated me. I have performed a number of analyses quantifying currents trends in competition and training theory and have been lucky to discuss my thoughts with some of the top horse people in the world.
In this series, I will provide an overview of some often-forgotten yet important considerations for producing a winning round at a major show-jumping championship. I will discuss recent exciting scientific findings around these concepts, and I will share my two cents on where I think the future of the sport may be heading and the potential role of technology in this evolution.
As WEG continues, the top riders in the world will be looking to solidify the horse’s skill set and ensure their equine partner is fit for the demands of a major championship. To prepare for this important competition, the horse’s training program will have to develop numerous factors (i.e. strength, speed, technique, flexibility, rideability, endurance, psychological) in synchrony so the horse can jump at his best.
It is well known that there is a paucity of information regarding the training practices of show-jumping horses. To date, only a few textbooks have been published on the subject, and high-quality peer-reviewed research on the topic is almost nonexistent. The result of this gap in knowledge is that there is relatively little evidence to inform training practices, and how training should be planned to ensure a horse peaks at the correct time is only known to the world’s top trainers.
To develop an elite jumping horse, we must first understand how training influences each of the factors noted above. This is no easy feat, as the amount of available information characterizing the transfer of training to improvements in results is limited. That said, there has been some great research produced over the past 20 years providing insights into how different types of training influence these factors.
For example, researchers have proposed that sport-specific workouts develop the types of muscle fibers needed to produce and maintain high-velocity movements in Thoroughbred racehorses, and that an increased proportion of these muscle-fiber types is linked to higher performance levels in both Thoroughbred racehorses and show jumpers. Conversely, training focusing on long duration and submaximal intensity exercise has been shown to increase the proportion of muscle fibers needed to maintain work for extended periods of time. Another study examined how training influences health in show-jumping horses. The authors reported that more diversity in day-to-day training, as well as riding horses on certain surfaces, was associated with a lower prevalence of injury. Finally, movement is positively correlated with bone density in young horses, highlighting the benefits of time in pasture versus extended time in a stall to ensure quality bone formation.
Despite the interesting insights this research has produced, one of the major limitations is that the studies are often performed over a short amount of time and in unique settings, limiting our ability to apply the findings to the training of elite level horses. Without a way to quantitatively and qualitatively assess the influence of different training methods in your stable, it is challenging to fully understand the complex interplay between all training exercises.
Over the past few years, there has been growing discussion, especially among vets and support staff, around the idea of monitoring equine athletes to access new insights regarding the health and fitness of horses. The recent release of equine exercise and wellness monitoring devices, such as Hylofit, is now making quantifying training practical and insightful. For this reason, equine activity monitors are likely to become a vital tool for many trainers and riders looking to maximize each horse’s potential.
Similar to the fitness technology revolution in human athletes, horse activity monitors have the potential to unlock previously unknown training insights. This information can be used to help guide training as it provides a direct measure of how hard a horse worked on a given day, and subsequently, how they responded to that work.
For example, the Hylofit system provides real time heart-rate data directly to the rider or trainer’s phone. This data provides information regarding how the horse’s body is responding to work, such as:
• Is the horse finding the workout easier or harder than you expect?
• Does your perception of the horse’s exercise level match what the data says?
If a horse is struggling in a workout, it may be a smart decision to end the workout or to adjust the goals—as chronic fatigue is linked to an increased risk of injury. Conversely, if a horse’s heart rate is remaining low in a workout meant to be challenging, the rider has data to support making adjustments to the training plan that day.
In the video below, a 5-year old dressage horse takes his first ever jump wearing the Hylofit device. In the top right-hand corner of the video the heart rates for horse and rider are displayed. Notice that the rider’s heart is elevated indicating that she is working hard to keep the horse packaged and balanced, while the horse’s heart rate remains low. Check out more videos like this here.
In summary, information from activity monitors can be used to quantify and track training over days, weeks, months and even years. One of the central tenets of sports training is that all training is interconnected; what a horse did in training a month ago will impact what happens in training or competition tomorrow. To truly understand a horse and optimize training, it is important to consider the entire scope of the training program, and not just what happened over the last week. That is what technology does so well—stores and displays all of this data so we can quickly identify trends and patterns that help explain what does and does not work in training. With these insights, the performance level of horses will continue to increase alongside an important reduction in the prevalence of injury.
Dr. Tim Worden is a consultant for Hylofit and specializes in the translation of human high-performance training theory and techniques to equestrian athletes. With expertise in both equestrian sport and sports science, he is uniquely positioned to move training techniques from ‘human to horse’; improving the performance of horses and reducing injury risk. Tim completed his MSc (Biomechanics and Neuroscience) and PhD (Biomechanics) at the University of Guelph, Canada. He has published a number of peer-reviewed articles on human navigation through complex environments and the control of stability during locomotion. During his time as a doctoral student, Tim concurrently worked as an equestrian sport scientist, with a clientele composed predominantly of FEI-level show jumping riders. Follow him on Instagram - @twordentraining.
Hylofit is sponsoring Practical Horseman’sshow-jumping coverage of the 2018 FEI World Equestrian Games™ Tryon.
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To read Part 1 of the series, Producing a Top Horse, click here
To read Part 2 of the series, The Art of the Deal, click here