Known to be a major topic within the racing industry, speed is a decisive factor in a horse’s success. Maximum speed and racing strategies are both words used to describe this key parameter. It should be remembered that a racehorse’s career is short and opportunities to perform in a race are limited. Each piece of data allowing the detection of the specificities and abilities of horses then becomes precious to optimise performances.

            The holding of maximal speed is defined as the length of time or distance over which the racehorse is able to hold his effort to reach and maintain his maximal speed. Few scientific studies have been conducted on the analysis of maximum speed handling and the factors influencing it. In this article our team offers an explanation of the measurement of maximal speed handling. It is based on factors both internal and external to the horse’s aptitudes. We also provide you with parameters to monitor this performance indicator.

HOW TO MEASURE THE SPEED PERFORMANCE?

            Racehorses are not able to hold their maximum speed throughout the entire race. The knowledge of speed handling ability is interesting in order to understand which speed to set according to the progress of the race and when to harness the maximum potential.

            This optimisation of performance is achievable based on 2 types of factors:

Internal factors, those which characterise the physiological abilities of the horse – the horse uses the energy produced internally to generate forward propulsion. Two groups can therefore be defined – The locomotor profile and the processes of energy production and expenditure.

– The external factors, those which characterise the race being run – Topography, competitors, track condition, weather etc.

Internal factors

ENERGY PRODUCTION PROCESS

The process of energy production (see our article on physiology for more information) plays a decisive role in the speed abilities of a racehorse’s. Indeed, a horse requires excellent physical condition in order to maintain his maximal speed for as long as possible. It should be remembered that there are different energy production metabolisms, and adapted training contributes to their optimisation.

– The aerobic process is the most advantageous because it offers an almost inexhaustible quantity of oxygen and does not produce lactic acid. It uses oxygen to convert the fat in the body into energy. However, it takes the body longer to set up this process.

– The anaerobic system is used when the fats are no longer sufficient to produce enough energy quickly. The body then breaks down the glucose and glycogen (sugar) supplies that are stored directly in the muscles, without using oxygen. This breakdown produces lactic acid and leads to muscle fatigue. It is difficult for the horse to keep up his effort. An oxygen debt is then created and can lead to a longer recovery time.


LOCOMOTOR PROFILE

          The locomotor profile also contributes to the measurement of a horse’s ability to maintain speed, as it is at the origin of the forward carrying movement. Some horses have a locomotion of large stride length and low stride frequency while others have a high stride frequency and low stride length. These two parameters make it possible to determine the locomotor profile of a racehorse. It is an important component of physical aptitude because speed depends on locomotion.

          The horse is an animal whose breathing is based on his stride. Thus, horses with a high stride frequency are also able to provide a high respiratory rate. This situation is not optimal for the absorption of oxygen during the cardiorespiratory process and may not be sustainable in the long term. On the other hand, a high amplitude and a low breathing rate allow a later onset of shortness of breath, but they lead to greater destruction of muscle cells because the stride length movement puts pressure on the muscles. 

There is a stride frequency/stride length couple allowing to reach an optimised speed according to the physiological and locomotor profile of the horse. The higher this speed, the more naturally the horse performs, as the efforts required to maintain this speed are natural. Exceeding this optimised speed (during a race or training session) requires the horse to go beyond his optimum comfort zone. The changes in pace and stride length carried out to accelerate disturb the physiological profile of the horse and the speed cannot be maintained throughout the entire exercise without prior training.

External factors

      Whether in terms of distance, topography or quality, the track over which the horses run a race greatly influences their speed. Thus, the maximum speed is impacted by the quality of the racetrack. These factors must be taken into account when developing the race strategy. It is possible to determine the horses’ preferences through training that tests several track configurations. 

           We can therefore state that a horse’s ability to hold his maximum speed is measured by his ability to hold his maximum speed by optimising his energy creation process. At the end of the race, the ability to maintain maximum speed depends on the anaerobic energy reserves. In order to save them, a horse should run as much as possible at an optimal pace, preferably aerobic, in order to save his resources for the final sprint. Thus, one of the goals of training is to push back the speed at which the anaerobic threshold is reached.

           In human athletes, the maximum anaerobic speed is a good indicator. However, it is more difficult to assess it in horses during training. Regular monitoring of the energy production system and heart rate for a given speed (e.g. 60 km/h) allows the progression of a horse’s maximum speed to be estimated. If the horse is progressing, his heart rate for the same speed will decrease.

            Recovery is also a good indicator. For training of the same intensity, a horse which produces less lactate (and therefore draws less from his energy reserves) will improve his recovery. This may be expressed by a faster decrease in heart rate.

HOW TO IMPROVE A RACEHORSE’S SPEED HOLDING?

          Now that we know the different parameters used to measure speed handling, here are some ways to improve it. The first factor to work on is the horse’s ability to hold his effort, i.e. to produce enough energy to improve his ability to maintain a high speed. Although each trainer has their own training techniques, we think it is important to remember the different types of trainings that allows the optimisation of the energy processes of racehorses.

The working sessions can be divided into 3 categories:

Fundamental endurance work: the aim of this type of session is to work on the horse’s aerobic capacity. The intensity should not exceed 70% of the horse’s maximum heart rate. It is a good way to start young horses, to resume work after a convalescence or to perform desaturation.

Aerobic capacity work: The development of an aerobic capacity is necessary in order to exploit the maximum speed of a racehorse. This type of training carried out at 70-80% of the FCmax, is an excellent work tool for jointly developing the production of aerobic and anaerobic lactic energy. These sessions can be stressful for the horses and should therefore be used with care.

Strength work: this type of training involves a more intense cycle with the aim of developing the maximum power of the aerobic cycle and its transition to the anaerobic lactic system. Ultimately, the horse pushes back his MAS threshold, i.e. he will be able to run faster and longer without producing lactic acid. These sessions are very stressful and delicate to carry out and it is advisable to monitor the horse before and after the exercise in order to ensure its state of health.

By optimising his physical condition, the horse is able to maintain a high speed and slow down as little as possible during the race.

CONCRETE EXAMPLE OF THE EFFECTS OF A TRAINING ON THE ENERGY PRODUCTION PROCESS & SPEED CONTROL (data measured by the EQUIMETRE sensor)

 

By analysing the data from Arion I (anonymised for this article), we can see that the training carried out between the two sessions was successful. Indeed, the anaerobic zone is reduced for higher speed. The process of energy creation has been optimised, the horse is able to run faster and longer with less effort. From the data, we can assume that the speed performance is improved. 

maintaining optimal speed in a race for racehorses
maintaining maximal speed during a race with data for racehorses

Training of the 07.25.20

Training of the 09.10.20

References

Mercier Q, Aftalion A., 2020 Optimal speed in Thoroughbred horse racing. PLoS ONE 15(12): e0235024. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0235024

Genty, A., 2013. Les Pratiques D’entraînement Du Trotteur Français Avant La Qualification. Étude Terrain En Basse-Normandie. Doctorat vétérinaire. Faculté de médecine de Créteil.

Spence, A., Thurman, A., Maher, M. and Wilson, A., 2012. Speed, pacing strategy and aerodynamic drafting in Thoroughbred horse racing. Biology Letters, 8(4), pp.678-681.