Showjumpers present special challenges in assessing their fitness, say researchers

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Traditionally, jumping ability is evaluated based on qualitative parameters that are not only highly subjective but also require extensive experience and equestrian knowledge.
Image by Trine Melinda Vollan

How do you judge the competitive fitness of a showjumping horse? The answer is not necessarily simple, according to researchers.

“The training and management of showjumping horses is still largely based on traditional beliefs instead of scientific evidence,” Katharina Kirsch and her fellow researchers noted in the journal Frontiers in Physiology.

“The relatively low speed and short duration of exercise during showjumping frequently leads to the misconception that aerobic fitness is not particularly important in this discipline,” they said.

Training sessions specifically designed to improve aerobic capacity are therefore mostly not a regular component in conventional training programs of showjumpers.

“However, it has been shown that showjumping competitions elicit considerable increases in heart rate and blood lactate concentration.”

Furthermore, the jumping performance of a horse is much more difficult to assess than mere speed or endurance, which are crucial performance measures in other disciplines.

“Consequently, the practical implementation of standardized field exercise testing for performance evaluation in showjumping horses is still very rare,” said the study team, with the German Olympic Committee for Equestrian Sports and the Olympic Training Center in Westphalia.

Traditionally, they said, jumping ability is evaluated based on qualitative parameters that are not only highly subjective but also require extensive experience and equestrian knowledge.

More objective performance indicators for showjumping horses would be better, they said, allowing caregivers to monitor the animals’ long-term adaptation to training.

“This is especially important as showjumpers often compete year-round and perform a high number of competitions per year with minimal time for recovery between shows.

“Regular monitoring of objective fitness indicators by means of specific exercise testing protocols for showjumping horses that can be easily integrated into the daily training routine may help to recognize whether a horse is coping with the applied workloads or not and to minimize exercise-associated injuries,” they said.

To that end, the study team set out to investigate the value of non-specific and discipline-specific field exercise tests for performance evaluation in showjumpers. For their research, they looked at data obtained from a group of horses competing at Junior and Young Rider level in a typical competition and training setting.

The data used had been collected as part of the performance monitoring program run by the German Olympic Committee for Equestrian Sports. The program aimed to promote long-term health and performance of horses by providing performance diagnostic measures.

A total of 49 horses, comprising 24 mares, two stallions, and 23 geldings aged 8 to 17, were involved. Each horse had blood taken for analysis immediately after their showjumping competitions. Each horse took part in one to five competitions, leading to a total of 100 samples.

The blood lactate concentrations measured in response to these competition events indicated a significant contribution of anaerobic glycolysis to energy supply – that is, energy production by the muscles when limited amounts of oxygen are available.

Blood lactate concentrations in response to showjumping competitions rose with increasing levels of difficulty. Blood lactate increases during intense exercise when there may not be enough oxygen available to complete the normal bodily process of using oxygen to break down glucose for energy.

“This effect was statistically significant even though the horses observed in this study were all competing at a relatively similar level of difficulty (140 to 150cm),” the researchers observed.

An increase in fence height by only 10cm, with a related required increase in speed of 50 metres per minute, was enough to induce significantly higher blood lactate concentrations, they said.

The researchers found that post-exercise lactate values also increased significantly with the horses’ age.

In October 2020, another group of 12 showjumping horses was monitored during a three-day training camp for Juniors and Young Riders at the German federal training center in Warendorf. The horses were divided into three groups, based on experience.

The horses performed a standardized incremental field test exercise on a sand galloping track on the first day, which involved no jumping; a standardized showjumping course on day two, and a standardized grid exercise test on the third day, which also involved jumping. Blood samples were taken immediately after the sessions.

The researchers found that both the non-specific and discipline-specific field exercise tests yielded valuable information on the individual performance capacity of showjumping horses.

“However, the discipline-specific tests including jumping exercise were more strongly related to jumping performance as subjectively assessed on the basis of qualitative criteria.

Traditionally, jumping ability is evaluated based on qualitative parameters that are not only highly subjective but also require extensive experience and equestrian knowledge.
Image by Trine Melinda Vollan

“Discipline-specific tests would be very easy to integrate into the daily training routine of showjumping horses without subjecting the horses to unusual forms of exercise which may help to increase the practicability and acceptance of regular exercise testing in show jumpers,” they said.

“The association between a lower contribution of anaerobic glycolysis to energy supply during jumping exercise and a greater resistance to fatigue emphasizes the importance of aerobic fitness for performance in show jumping horses.

“However, the role of jumping technique, as well as the contribution of the alactic anaerobic metabolism to jumping performance, have to be further investigated.”

The study team comprised Kirsch, Stephanie Horstmann, Caroline von Reitzenstein and Henrike Lagershausen, all with the German Olympic Committee for Equestrian Sports in Warenddorf; and Christina Fercher and Julia Augustin, with the Olympic Training Center NRW/Westphalia.

Kirsch K, Fercher C, Horstmann S, von Reitzenstein C, Augustin J and Lagershausen H (2022) Monitoring Performance in Show Jumping Horses: Validity of Non-specific and Discipline-specific Field Exercise Tests for a Practicable Assessment of Aerobic Performance. Front. Physiol. 12:818381. doi: 10.3389/fphys.2021.818381

The study, published under a Creative Commons License, can be read here

 

 

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