Harness racing drivers face heavy heart load – research

Harness racing in the Manawatu region of New Zealand. Photo: Charlotte Bolwell
Harness racing in the Manawatu region of New Zealand. © Charlotte Bolwell

Harness racing drivers may be sitting down on the job, but they still experience a lot of cardiovascular stress, New Zealand research has shown.

Researchers at Massey University monitored the heart rates of a eight professional harness racing drivers before, during, and after races at a North Island meeting.

Each was monitored for seven or eight races during the evening meeting.

The drivers – seven men and one women – displayed a peak mean heart rate of 145 beats a minute, with a spread of plus or minus 21 beats a minutes across- which the researchers described as a significant variation.

The heart-rate information showed an early race peak, a moderate level baseline, then a lift as the drivers took the last turn to the finish line.

The five researchers, led by Dr Chris Rogers, found that the effort required to maintain driver position and the stimuli involved in positioning the horse for a potential placing produced significant cardiovascular stress.

The drivers faced a similar level of physiological challenge to that revealed in a study of jumps jockeys in Britain, the researchers said.

Little information was available on the physiological stresses on horses or drivers during harness racing competition, in part because any device or intervention had the potential to affect the race result.

Anecdotal evidence indicated little attention was paid to the fitness of harness racing drivers as there was little concern as to how this may alter performance, they said.

The researchers, whose findings have been published in the journal, Comparative Exercise Physiology, expected beforehand that driver heart-rates would be elevated during a race and peak towards the end, but they also explored the hypothesis that a difficult-to-handle horse would result in greater physical demands and psychological stress, lifting heart rates even further.

For their study, they put monitoring equipment on eight drivers at a meeting at the Manawatu Harness Racing Club in the summer of 2010. There were 10 races on the card, with an average of 11 horses in each.

Each driver in the study was registered with Harness Racing New Zealand and had completed at least 100 official race starts.

“The first peak in heart rate was associated with the jostling at the start of the race and optimal positioning of the horse within the field,” the researchers found. “There were minor fluctuations in heart rate related to adjustment of the horse to achieve changes in relative position to the lead horse and the inside barrier, and a final larger peak in heart rate which coincided with the final turn into the home straight and race to the finish.”

The researchers found that the heart rate tended to increase steadily during the race.

“Drivers with a chance of placing – positions one to four – had a significantly increased peak heart-rate compared to those finishing in positions further down the field.

“This suggests that when the drivers perceive that he/she is in a position to win, they will work harder (physical exertion and psychological excitement) in the closing stages.”

They found that difficult horses contributed to peak heart rate, but not to the same extent as some of the other parameters measured.

“The peak heart rate measured in some cases approached what would be considered the heart-rate maximum for these individuals, based on their age,” the researchers noted.

Despite this, anecdotal evidence suggested drivers tended not have a structured fitness programme, but rather relied on their regular trackwork and driving of horses during race training for fitness.

That, they said, begged the question as to whether improved physical fitness could result in a more relaxed driver during racing and potentially a better outcome.

The effect of harness racing on the heart rate of professional harness racing drivers. 
L. Nicols, C.W. Rogers, S. Stannard, J.C. Tanner, J. Bridges.
Comparative Exercise Physiology DOI 10.3920/CEP13012

The abstract can be read here.

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