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Monday, April 12, 2010

Heart Rate Monitors

After waxing eloquently in previous posts and comments about the advantages of using available technology to improve and give relief to our hard-working horses, I come to the topic of heart rate monitors (HRM) and promptly contradict myself.


I hate contradictions.


It comes very close to being a hypocrite. 


When it comes to HRM, I believe there are two camps of people.


Camp #1 doesn't use HRM and believes people who do aren't in tune enough with their horses.


Camp #2 uses HRM and believes people who don't are old fogies stuck in the dark ages.


I am, of course, exaggerating for comedic effect but you get the idea. 


I used to use a HRM, but now I don't. 


HRM, in theory, give you another training tool to monitor a horse's fitness progress through a conditioning program.  Along with other information, it can help you determine correct pacing.  It is an essential tool if you choose to do certain workouts such as precisely calculated intervals.  It also can help identify problems due to fatigue or micro injuries if you are astute enough to realize that the heart rate is higher during a certain workload than usual.  


"This sounds great!", you say.  "I don't see how this isn't a good thing!". 


Hold your horses!  Whoa nelly! 


As a former user of a HRM, I'm going to go through each of the assumed benefits and explain why, after I accidentally lost the heart rate monitor at the vet check of Farley's first LD, I didn't bother replacing it. 


Idea #1:  Pacing and monitoring horse's fitness

Practically:  I bought a HRM when I had Minx, and then also used it on Farley when I got her.  The most interesting thing was realizing that all around, Farley had a much lower heart rate than Minx, even though Minx had the benefit of almost a year of conditioning.  Farley ambled around on the trail in the 40's, while Minx would be in the 60's doing the same work.  That was the ONLY "new" thing I learned while using the HRM.  Other things that the HRM told me were……

  • When the heart rate increased to a certain high level, my horses wanted to walk. So if we were trotting a hill and they wanted to walk than…..the HRM confirmed that they should walk.  If we were cantering along and my horse wanted to slow down….the HRM confirmed that yes, it was time to slow down.
  • When they walked for a while and then my horses wanted to trot……my HRM confirmed that the heart rate had dropped enough that my horses should trot.


So, in reality, my HRM told me that I had very honest horses and I should listen to them. 


My alternative:  As a better gauge of fitness I like to do pulse down on the trails.  I'll get to my turn around point, or I'll get to a good grazing/watering hole and get off.  Then, I will count the minutes that it takes for the horse to pulse down below 60.  I find this is a much better gauge of how much work the horse is performing than the HRM, which half the time showed me faulty readings or didn't work at all. 


I would go back to a HRM if:  ….I had a horse that had a problem pulsing down, or if I had a horse that wasn't honest about how hard they were working.  Metabolic issues would be another indicator to me that at least in the short term, I needed to use a HRM to try and figure out what was going on.  Neither one of my horses had/has a problem pulsing down.  I can actually trot or canter into a vet check with Farley and by the time I dismount and get my ride card out, she's under sixty.  She has never taken more than 60-90 seconds off the trail to pulse down to criteria, even during Tevis.  Both of my horses are very honest about their fatigue and effort level.  When Farley and I have our speed discussions, it's not because she can't go faster and be perfectly fine…'s because I'm trying to minimize wear and tear on her body by going a reasonable speed.   I don't have lazy horses.  If they want to walk, it's because they need to walk.


Idea #2:  Using it to generate targeted workouts

Practically:  Since I'm not looking to get every ounce of performance out of my horse, I feel like we do "good enough" by focusing on LSD with some random Fartlek work outs here and there.  Having preplanned workouts with heart rates and precise distance/time calculations would drive my OCD into the realm of insanity.  I would worry more about hitting my workouts than just having fun with my horse and using common sense in my training. 


My Alternative:  I know that walk/trot will get the job done and I throw a canter in here and there just for fun.  It works.


I would go back to the HRM if:I had a string of horses that I was trying to into shape all at the same time in the least amount of time possible.  Having HRM data means that each horse would have targeted training and there would be no "wasted" work outs.  If I had a business of conditioning endurance horses, both my own and other peoples.  If I was consulting on the topic of endurance horse conditioning.  In these cases, HRM data would be an extra layer of protection against not noticing a problem that gets buried under having many horses and many riders.  If I was serious about competing in endurance and campaigning myself.  If I had a horse that I felt had gone through an extensive conditioning problem, yet his performance wasn't up to par.  In the underlined scenarios I would give careful consideration to using a HRM.


Idea #3:  Identifying fatigue and micro injuries

Practically:  I don't put a lot of faith in heart rate for identifying injuries or illness any more.  When Minx was fatally colicking, her heart rate was in the 30's.  When she colicked the first time (non fatal) her heart rate was in the 30's.  When I rider optioned during a ride because midway through the vet check she had no gut sounds and wasn't eating, she had pulsed in within 30 seconds of leaving the trail and had passed the vet check with flying colors.  With double bowed tendons in both front legs, she was still trotting into vet checks and pulsing down immediately (and passing the CRIs).  When I pulled Farley for fatigue (and minor lameness) at Tevis, her heart rate recoveries were excellent.  While I think that heart rate is a useful tool, I find that it's a small part of the whole picture.   If something goes wrong, in most cases it will NOT just be the heart rate that goes haywire – there wil be other signs too.  In most cases when the HRM was giving me a weird reading- it was just that – a weird reading.  It didn't work well enough ALL the time to pick up any small subtleties that might have indicated fatigue or injury.


My alternative:  Observe the horse.  Don't rely on any one physical indicator, instead evaluate the whole picture.  Using just the heart rate can lull you into a false sense of security. 


I would go back to the HRM if:…I don't have a good answer for this one.  Although I would return to using a HRM for a variety of reasons, to identify fatigue and injuries would not be a reason.  One possibility is if I had a horse that wasn't honest about letting me know it was tired – then I might consider it (as described in the first section of this post).


Conclusion:  Overall I decided that a HRM for me, right now, with this horse was not necessary.  It was an additional piece of equipment I had to prep, worry about, and make sure it was not rubbing my horse.  Instead of enjoying the scenery and listening to my horse, I was looking at my HRM, tapping the receiving, wondering whether the reading on the receiver was "real", and generally annoying my horse.  Maybe it was Farley that took matters into her own hooves and "lost" the monitor at the vet check?  All I can say is that so far, both of us are better without this bit of technology. 


As always, would LOVE to hear your opinions in the comments.




  1. Since you've had such a negative experience -- faulty readings and time-consuming setups -- I just have to ask: What brand were you using?

    I just started out with endurance in November and since I'm a very organized person, I knew I would want to keep a training log from the beginning. So I looked into the current GPS systems that runners and cyclists use and settled on the Garmin Forerunner 305 which happens to have a heart rate monitor as well. I got it on sale for $150, and it's worth every penny.

    I love that thing! What can I say... but then I'm into gadgets ;) I plug it in after every ride and it gives not only distance ridden (and the map to go along with it) but also fastest speed and corresponding heart rate, average speed, ascent and descent, pacing, etc. I find this incredibly helpful as patterns will emerge.

    As far as the heart rate monitor itself goes, I have found that very helpful as my horse is new to me and I'm new to the sport. And I don't feel quite "tuned in" enough yet. My mare can be a bit on the lazy and slow side and it's definitely not because she's tired. Or she can go go go when I really urge her on and make situation more competitive with another horse. So I'm not convinced that I would always know when to adjust right away. And she's also smart in that she will trick me into believing she "spooked" (we must then observe the "monster"and slowly walk around it) when in fact instead of spiking her heart rate stays exactly that same! With a real spook it can easily shoot up to 200...

    So, all in all, I have had a good experience with this tool and don't let myself get too distracted with it while riding. But I do love to analyze it at home later :)

  2. Finally got a HRM a couple years ago, after being around distance riding since the 70's. I like it for vet checks, to see when the horse meets criteria, and, I can seeif the horse is doing any "spikes". Spikes indicate pain, or discomfort. Hank also only had about a 48 to 52 pulse when he coliced, and was 60 I think, heading to sugery. BUT, if I DID have elevation, it makes me say What the heck???

    Also, because time is so critical at Tevis, I can see the exact moment he meets criteria, to call for pulse.

    But, right now it is off the saddle until the spring shed is over, as it is more prone to rubs until then.

  3. I found my HRM to be a great tool for understanding what various gaits do to my horses cardio system. Because my horse will gallop ten miles if I'd let her, and she would not necessarily show any ill effects at the time, the HRM for me is a wake-up call. If I see a pulse above aerobic range, then I need to re-assess what I'm doing, and what I'm asking from my horse. If an alarm goes off fine, but I want to see a quick drop when the hill is done, or we've dropped from canter to trot. Phebes is not an easy horse to read. I need all the help I can get, and HRM is one item I can't do without. Maybe someday...but for now, we're "packin."

  4. I gave up carrying a HRM when I ran it through the washing machine accidently (they don't work after that...go figure...) and haven't prioritized the money to buy a replacement.

    For the most part, I agree with your analysis. I use the HRM to assess recoveries more than in-motion heart rates...although now that I'm bringing a new horse into the sport, it might be nice to see if Fee's heartrate increases in later loops (indicating fatigue).

    Fee is a very game mare--usually self-protective and sensible, but also willing to take on a challenge. The HRM might be a useful tool for me to use in balancing her willingness against her sensibility. If only I had one. Ah, well.

    I do recommend that new riders get a stethoscope and learn to listen to heartrates. I didn't do this until recently (stymied by partial deafness, overcome by a good-quality stethoscope) and am amazed at the quality of information I can gain just by listening to my horse and others. If you haven't yet "worked" a ride as a pulser, try it. The education is worth the gas money.

  5. What did you learn??? Can you expound on that or write a post on it?

    (so says someone who has NEVER listened to a heart, as she can feel it much better and probably has a problem with excess wax build up in the ears, although she would deny it)

  6. Some hearts are loud boomers, some are quiet whooshers. Some hearts sound the same all day, some change. I don't necessarily know what it all MEANS. I'm a librarian, not a vet >g<

    One of the good things about working at the vet check is that during slow times, you can ask questions! So, next time I'm working at a ride (ummm, end of this month) I'll ask a bunch of questions.

  7. I can hear Hanks HR go up and down constantly when I have the stethscope on him. Often not steady at all. It is slight, and something many do not hear, and of course the HRM will not show the slight changes.


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