The horse’s heart rate is a direct visualisation of how hard the heart is working. The higher the heart rate – the harder the heart is working. The reason for the heart rate to increase, when thinking purely of exercise alone, is to deliver more oxygen to the muscles so they too can work harder throughout exercise.
As horse’s get fitter, they will be able to work at faster speeds or greater intensities at a lower heart rate compared to when they were less fit.
Using a heart rate monitor allows you to track this progress of fitness and also allows you to tailor each training session to your own horse and their current abilities, and as such, ensures training delivers the maximum benefits.
When training a horse, regardless of discipline, to increase cardiovascular fitness there are three components to training:
Slow-moderate intensity distance training
Moderate-high intensity interval training
High intensity continuous exercise
This can be done accurately by monitoring your horse’s heart rate.
Your fitness programme and type of work you do will vary depending on your discipline, your horse and the level you compete at.
However, in terms of knowing if your horse is fit enough and what your horse’s heart rate should be when you are working at different intensities, the information below is useful across the board.
This includes slower, longer work, such as trotting and cantering. Throughout these training sessions the horse is working aerobically, and the heart rate should be steady and below 150-170 bpm.
As horse fitness improves you will notice that they can work at faster speeds or greater intensities, without the heart rate increasing. You may also notice that horses don’t fatigue as quickly at these speeds, if indeed at all, as they get fitter. If you increase speed and the heart rate rises above 170 bpm, you are exercising too hard for this stage, and should slow down.
This stage of training is crucially important for all horses, regardless of their intended job or discipline. These sessions condition the cardiovascular system and strengthen the musculoskeletal system preparing them for your desired purpose. To ensure that your horse is working hard enough to gain enough benefit from these sessions or working too hard that they miss out on the benefit, using a heart rate monitor while exercising is essential.
Interval training is a brilliant method to increase fitness, by asking for high intensity work for a short period and then allowing time to recover. Interval work is fast and short and involves pushing your horse into anaerobic exercise – which uses glucose and glycogen as the fuel source.
Horses will be working at heart rates over 170-180 and it is vital that a heart rate monitor is worn as horses may well be working close to their maximum heart rate (210-240) and should slow down when this is close to being reached. In the recovery phase of intervals, the horses’ heart rate should drop back below 120 bpm within 2 minutes before the next interval is undertaken.
As horses get fitter, the recovery time between intervals will get quicker. The maximum heart rate will not get higher, and it is important this threshold is not pushed.
The final stage of training, that the previous two stages have prepared for is continuous work at high intensity. In these sessions horses conduct fast work with a heart rate between 170-190 bpm. If the heart rate starts to creep above 190 bpm you should slow down. This type of work is on the cusp of the aerobic/anaerobic threshold (the exact bpm that a horse switches from aerobic to anaerobic is individual to each horse) and as such the duration of these sessions are longer than intervals but not so long as the slower work.
High intensity work should only be carried out by experienced riders and trainers, as part of a well thought out and planned training programme, for example racehorse training. It is advisable to work alongside a professional trainer if you are planning on training your horse at high intensity.
The time it takes for a horse’s heart rate to recover is a great indicator of fitness. The faster the heart returns to a lower rate, the quicker the horse has recovered and therefore the fitter he is. There are some recommended guidelines of how quickly your horse should recover, and if your horse is taking longer than this, it may be a sign that he isn’t fit enough for this level of work.
Typically, after moderate work, your horse’s heart rate should return to 100 bpm within two minutes and should be below 60 bpm ten minutes after exercise has ceased.
We know that resting heart rate alone does not give a clear indication of fitness. But by tracking and monitoring heart rate throughout training sessions we can build up a clear picture of fitness. Training sessions can be compared to track improvements – you should notice that the speed or duration at which you can ride, without pushing the heart rate above the aerobic threshold (around 170-180 bpm) increases as your horse becomes fitter.
It should also be apparent that training horses is a very individual process, and it is here the use of a heart rate monitor comes into its own. While we have rough guidelines of what heart rates should be while working, a good heart rate monitor tells you exactly what your horses heart rate is, and as such empowers you to increase or decrease your work intensity, so you know your horse is getting the maximum benefit from each session. Using a heart rate monitor and ride tracker app with a replay function is also a good tool, to allow post-training analysis of the session.
We should also have an understanding of where the heart rate should be for each level of work and use that to determine fitness levels. For example, if a horse is doing ‘light work’ but has a heart rate of 150 bpm it would be considered less fit than a horse who was in ‘hard work’ with a heart rate of 130 bpm.
Using a heart rate monitor is a great way of keeping track of the intensity of each training session. If your horse’s heart rate is increasing above 170 bpm and you are not doing intended hard, fast work, you should slow down. You should avoid working above the aerobic threshold for prolonged periods of time, as horses will fatigue quickly, and the risk of injury may increase.
You should also become familiar with your horse’s heart rate at different speeds. If trotting usually produces a heart rate of 100 bpm but your horse is trotting with a heart rate of 140bpm this gives you an indication that they are working harder than you would expect for the level of work they are doing and you should make some rider adjustments – perhaps you are going uphill, but haven’t slowed down, perhaps it is suddenly much hotter than usual, or perhaps you have done some fast canter work and your horse is still recovering. There is always lots to consider and having the insight of knowing what your horse’s heart rate is allows you to ride accordingly.
If the time taken for your horse to recover from exercise once you have stopped riding has been longer than 10 minutes to drop below 60 bpm it is an indication you have worked too hard on this occasion.
If your horse is working at a speed and their heart rate is at the low end of the scale for that speed’s range, you may not be working your horse hard enough. For example, if you are in light work, be that continual trot or steady canter, and your horse has a heart rate of around 100 – 110 bpm there is scope to work your horse harder. That could mean increasing the speed or working at a greater incline. Or, if at a steady canter the heart rate is around 120 bpm, you can feel confident to increase speed in order to improve cardiovascular fitness. It is worth remembering that you should also be taking care you are working over good ground to avoid any musculoskeletal injuries.
Fiona Farmer BVSc MRCVS
If you have any questions regarding your horse’s heart and how best to train your horse, you should speak to your vet.