The Amazing Athletic Horse
By: Triple Crown Insider- Sammi Majors
Equestrian sports are always under a lot of scrutiny from the general public for being not a “real sport.” With the incredible shows of athleticism seen in the Olympics this month, I hope more people now have a different point of view.
As horse people, we know our horses have superior athleticism, but do we really know the science behind it? Sure we know they are amazing—how could a horse gallop around a cross country course for over 10 minutes, jumping massive jumps, and then come back and do show jumping the next day? Or spin fast and do sliding stops? Or jump a Grand Prix course? Or gallop at 40 mph while racing? Yes, horses are amazing! Below is a brief outline about six things their bodies do in order to perform such amazing things.
1) Efficient thermoregulation – In short, exercise = heat production. Horses have an excellent way of releasing heat to keep cool during exercise. This keeps them from overheating and therefore can perform longer.
2) Efficiency of their gait – Horses have a lot of fiber elasticity within their tendons and ligaments to store energy (ATP) and not use up excess reserves. The check ligament and the stay apparatus are great examples of this.
3) Intramuscular energy stores – Horses can store extra glycogen within their muscles that can be used to produce ATP during exercise. Adenosine triphosphate or ATP is the source of energy stored and used within the body that keeps everything going. Glycogen is also a way to store energy. So basically, with the ability to store extra glycogen in their muscles, a horse can turn that glycogen into ATP to perform harder and for longer periods without tiring out as soon. As a quick comparison in horses vs humans, it’s 140 vs 80-100 mmol/kg of muscle respectively, so horses have quite a larger storage capacity.
4) Increased blood oxygen carrying levels – The horse’s spleen has a large warehouse for extra red blood cells. During intense work, the spleen releases these red blood cells into the horse’s body which can double the blood oxygen carrying level. This means the horse has double the oxygen pumping throughout the body during this intense work, which can help them perform much harder for longer. While humans start breathing super hard and panting, trying to get in as much oxygen as possible, horses can carry much more oxygen to keep going and not tire as quickly. Additionally, more blood oxygen getting to the horse’s muscles means a greater ability to synthesize ATP for continued performance.
5) High muscle mitochondrial volume – This is used for ATP production. (Can you start to see the importance of ATP extra energy?)
6) High aerobic capacity – This is the ability to transport oxygen from the air to the muscle for ATP production. While humans and other animals do this, horses have a bigger, better, and more efficient way of doing it, hence why it makes them special.
I hope these six things helped you understand a little more about our amazing equine partners. This is not meant to be an in depth scientific explanation, but rather a very brief overview of the science behind what makes equine athletes so special. Next time you’re out conditioning or just simply riding your horse and you’re tired and out of breath while your horse seems to still have energy to spare and want to keep going, this is partly why! Many top equestrians do extra workouts outside of riding and barn work, because they need to work extra hard to keep up with what comes naturally to horses!