Indulging in some Equine Physiology

Since we arrived in New Zealand, my wife has been chasing her life-long dream of working with horses; Alice has been working at a stud farm (Chequer’s Stud) and is now in the process of transitioning to work in Polo with Kihikihi Polo club as a groom. Both are very well established outfits, with very interesting people running them.

For those who don’t know, stud farms (in this part of the world) are by and large in the business of producing and training race horses. Cambridge, just outside of Hamilton, New Zealand is awash with stud farms and has produced many great horses over the years. The streets are literally paved with their names; Waipa (Instagram; Website), the district Cambridge is in, lays claim to be the Home of Champions, also hosting Cycling and Rowing New Zealand, and a couple of elite athletes too so excellence extends beyond the equine world (YouTube link).


Recently I did something I’ve been meaning to do for a while – I accompanied Alice to work a morning shift. For Alice this typically involves exercising close to 15 horses, but as we were a weekend shift we only had to exercise nine. Small time eh!

‘Work’ for this particular group of horses typically consists of a session on the treadmill, followed or preceded by time in the horse walker, preparing them for track work. Yes, the treadmill is exactly that and a horse walker is an automated way of exercising multiple horses at once at a low intensity, much like a carousel or merry-go-round. This acts as a warm-up and cool down for the horses, also allowing them to be transitioned to and from the treadmill quickly and providing an easy aerobic stimulus. Key horses are also monitored at Chequers, via the usual means: heart rate and lactate. Lactate values are surprisingly similar to humans during their interval work, and heart rates follow a similar trend to what we would observe in humans too. Lactate is taken directly from a cathetered vein, no ear or fingerpricking here!

Sessions for the horses are similar to what we may prescribe for a human athlete, but obviously are carried out at a much faster speed. The most notable difference between humans and horses is that the cadence and rhythm of a horse is more pronounced than that of a human. This can be seen and heard in the video below. Horsey folk will perhaps think this ridiculous, but we don’t have these clear transitions as a human at least not as audibly. A horse will walk to four beats, 1-2-3-4, trot in the rhythm 1-2, canter in a 1-2-3 and gallop in a 1-2-3-4. Wikipedia provides a more thorough explanation of these patterns, I did try to get a video from YouTube but they had a tendency to be presented by people with as much personality as a dishcloth, and be of poor quality.


Link to canter video – apologies for being too tight to get a premium subscription to WordPress, which would allow me to host videos.

Another thing that really stood out to me was the use of incline to manipulate intensity, and drive adaptation, whilst still maintaining rhythm (see video). In less convoluted wording a horse would canter on a 3 or 4% incline for the allotted length of time, and remain in a canter (1-2-3, 1-2-3). It is thought that 2% mirrors the cost of carrying a jockey on the track (paper), not dissimilar to the seminal paper by Professor Andrew Jones on treadmill gradient and runners (paper). As a sports scientist and a runner, that ability to maintain rhythm is pretty impressive. Us humans, when we come up against an incline, typically decrease our stride length, lift our knees higher and increase our cadence. Sure we can maintain our pace (product of stride length x cadence x ground contact time), but this typically involves a clear change in rhythm; horses, it seems, just keep rolling.

Finally, there are some who consider horse racing and the associated training a cruel practice. Whilst some practices aren’t entirely wholesome, I had the privilege of seeing horses that were clearly engaged and driven in their workouts – they’re literally bred for this, and cared for very well – food, hay, water, shelter, a warm rug and an occasional salt lick with a good blast out on the treadmill as required. I realise this is not the case for every horse, but the enthusiasm they displayed for the work performed was something every coach would want to bottle up and give to their athletes if they could! For further reading on the opinions surrounding racing, the NZ Herald has an insightful article.


Take home messages for athletes and coaches:

  1. Work on rhythm. This could be achieved either by running on a flat then into a shallow gradient and maintaining stride length, or by running up a shallow gradient and running over the hill onto a flat and maintaining cadence. Treadmill running or stride counting can also support this development, and in experienced athletes down-hill running may further develop top end turnover for a trickle down effect across lesser velocities.
  2. Easy aerobic stimuli around sessions can be of benefit – think the Kenyan approach; easy is very easy and hard running is purposeful running. The horses perform a surprising volume of easy work most days, this basic conditioning serves to enhance their capabilities for more aggressive running much like Arthur Lydiard recommended to his band of Kiwis way back in the 1950’s and 1960’s.
  3. Reinforce keeness to work. These horses would literally jump onto the treadmill given half a chance; fast running is fun running, don’t neglect it.


I look forward to dipping my toe into more equine adventures in the future, even if it is just helping my wife muck out on a Saturday morning. Hopefully we sustain a working relationship with Chequers, and can continue expanding our work in Polo (for some ideas see this post) as Alice’s passion blossoms. Horses are magnificent beasts, with tremendous physical capabilities but ultimately training is just the same as humans: a simple stimulus, consistently and appropriately applied. This brief foray into equine physiology has certainly made me think about back to basics work in training, and inspired further reading, namely The Science of Equestrian Sports: Theory, Practice and Performance of the Equestrian Rider. which will inform some of the Polo work we hope to do in the future.

To conclude, here’s a snap of Maggie the dog from Chequer’s Facebook page.


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