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Heart Rate Training for Horses

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Understanding the Resting Heart Rate ( A Horse Training article copyrighted by Saddle & Bridle Magazine.)

The resting heart rate of a horse is an essential indicator of overall health. Horse professionals urge owners and handlers to become familiar with individual horse vital signs including respiration rate; body temperature; and heart rate in order to effectively monitor health.

An elevated horse heart rate in a resting horse can be an indication of extreme pain and injury; infection; intestinal pain or colic; reaction to drugs or toxins; and the onset of disease. A resting heart rate over 90 carries a poor prognosis for survival, regardless of the cause. A weak or extremely soft pulse means the heart is not pumping forcefully and may indicate heart disease.

Textbooks on conditioning the sport horse will also make mention of the rate of return, after exercise, to a normal heart rate. This statistic is the single most effective indicator of fitness in equines. The ability to simply take a horse s heart rate allows you to evaluate and monitor training and fitness in an equine athlete.

In humans, resting heart rate tends to decrease among more fit people. The fact that the resting heart rate of a horse does not decrease after a period of training, nor does resting heart rate tend to change in older horses, is supported by recent equine research. This fact makes normal or elevated equine resting heart rate an even more predictable indicator of horse health.

Equine resting heart rate is best taken first thing in the morning when a horse is newly awake, calm and relaxed, but before feeding or exercising. Resting heart rates are genetically determined, vary considerably from horse to horse and can range from as low as 25 beats per minute to as high as 40 beats per minute. Most horses fall in the range of 26-33 beats per minute and the resting heart rate will vary slightly day to day even if the horse is perfectly healthy. Foals will be much higher with newborns giving readings of up to 100 beats per minute.

To determine the resting heart rate for a specific horse it s important to take and record the resting heart rate every day for five consecutive days. Then take the average of these five measurements. For example: if a horse s resting heart rate were 27, 26, 28, 29, and 25 beats per minute on consecutive days then an average would be 27 + 26 + 28 + 29 + 25 = 135 divided by 5 = 27 beats per minute. So our example horse s average resting heart rate is 27 beats per minute.  In order to ensure a correct resting measurement, make sure your subject horse is in a healthy state, is injury free, has no abnormal environmental stimuli, and has had no strenuous exercise for two days prior to starting your five day measurement study. It s vital that measurements are taken under similar conditions every day.

 Day to day fluctuations in a subject horse s resting heart rate of two-three beats per minute is quite normal. A heart rate that is four-ten beats out of the normal range is cause for concern but is often an indicator of nothing more than hard training the previous day, anxiety, or unusual weather conditions. A resting heart rate of ten beats outside of the normal range should prompt you to look for additional health warning signs and it s recommended you consult with your vet.

There are three main ways of measuring resting heart rate. A manual heart rate can be taken by feeling a horse s pulse beat at a major artery, or a stethoscope can be used to hear the heart beat. This can be a daunting task for the amateur enthusiast, or nonveterinarian. Veterinarians often recommend horse owners employ Polar s Horse Heart Rate Monitor which is an easy to use measurement tool. This Horse Heart Rate Monitor is pressed against the horses coat near the elbow and within ten seconds an ECG accurate heart rate is displayed. Count the heart rate for ten seconds and then multiply by six to get the average beats per minute.

Resting heart rate is a key indicator of horse health and it takes less than a minute per day to get a reading. You will soon become familiar with fluctuations in resting heart rate as an early warning sign for changes in horse health.

(Information in this article was gleaned heavily from Patricia Humphrey DVM, Healdsburg, Calif., and from Pdar.)

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