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Discipline: LD/Endurance, CMO, Trail Rider, Cartoonist, Writer, Co-Director/ Green Bean Endurance

January 9, 2010

Heart Rate Monitoring for Dummies

I wish that I had all of this information when I started training Phebes. All of the outward indicators were that Phebes was well conditioned for her first LD. You know...she is lean, she is muscled, she is pushing for more and more speed, she doesn't get winded. All those external indicators that tell a rider that a horse is doing well. Right? WRONG! The external indicators are only a part of the equation of what is going on with your horse. What is happening on the INSIDE? is a more reliable measure of how well your conditioning program is working.

The Heart Rate

Beats per minute (bpm) and what your horse's bpm's tell you.

32-42 ( is a normal resting rate)(All is well Zone)
132-142 ( is an aerobic working rate)(Safety Zone)
150-160 (horse is teetering into anerobic range where lactic acid will build)
180+ (THIS IS THE DANGER ZONE)(Red lights are flashing & Buzzers are going off)

How to use your Heart Rate Monitor to determine if your conditioning program is working.
Suppose tomorrow you are going to start a training program over a five mile course on your out of shape horse. You plan to use this same course to measure the horse's fitness over the weeks of training ahead. You will take the same route, climb the same hills, run the same flat section, essentially set up a testing ground to measure how fit your horse has become. Suppose the first week you do the course and your horse has a working rate of 150 bpm. Each week you will repeat this course and watch for the lowest working rate over the same variables (the same five mile course at the same relative pace). As condition improves you should begin to see a gradual drop in the working rate. 150 becomes 140....then 136....a few weeks out the horse is working at 122 bpm. This is a quantifiable measurement to determine an increase in fitness.

Working not "resting" rates are your measure of fitness.

Please take note that a horse's resting heart rate will not decrease with level of fitness. Unlike humans, the resting rate is not related to overall fitness. It is the WORKING rate that is an indicator of how fit the horse is, and how well the horse is handling the stresses of the work load. Working rates should be decreasing as fitness improves.

Monitoring Recovery is another way to measure the horse's level of fitness vs. workload.

A horse that is working within the limits of his level of condition will recover to less than 64 bpm / in ten minutes or less after ending an aerobic workout. Failure to recover may mean several things:

1)The level of stress exceeds the level of the horse's condition.
2)A metabolic imbalance caused by lactic acid build-up, electrolyte imbalance, or dehydration.
3)Muscle, skeletal, or connective tissue injury, or pain from equipment failure.

You can also monitor recovery times simply by recording how quickly your horse reaches baseline (64 bpm). Recovery times should drop as condition improves. Maybe the first week your horse takes 10 minutes to recover, but after six weeks of fitness training he is recovering in 5 minutes. This tells you that you can increase the intensity of work in your conditioning program. Also, a horse that pulses below 52 bpm within ten minutes after work stops is probably not being worked hard enough to cause adaptation towards a higher level of fitness. Step of the intensity gradually while continuing to reach your baseline pulse in 10 minutes post ride.

How to measure Cardiac Recovery Index (CRI)as a response to metabolic stress.

You are trotting down the trail and your horse is working at a good working rate of 120-130 bpm. Stop your horse, wait for a recovery to a baseline of 64 bpm then immediately trot out for about 100 yards, stop your horse, and wait one minute. The horse should be able to recover to 67 bpm. If the horse does not drop within 3 bpm of the initial reading you may be riding your horse faster than his level of conditioning warrants. Time to slow things down. CRI's of no more than 3 bpm above baseline are recovering well and working within their fitness level, more than 4 bpm above baseline means the horse is not recovering well, while 8 bpm over baseline indicates a lack of recovery. The horse is being over worked for his level of fitness. In this case you would rest the horse for fifteen minutes and repeat the CRI. If still elevated stop work and determine what is wrong with the horse.

Heart rates for Fartleks

Your heart rate monitor can also be helpful when you are using Fartleks (Speedplay) as part of your conditioning program. Fartleks are short bursts of speed within the overall training session lasting for several minutes. You are pushing the heart rate up into the anaerobic phase of 160-175 bpm range. Once you hit the range you hold it at that level for a few minutes and thn you back down to an aerobic working gait and heart rate (<142 bpm).

Heart rates for Interval Training

Interval Training differs from Fartleks in that the session is shorter, more intense, and done in repeated sets. Remember the danger zone (180 bpm +)? With interval training you are purposely pushing into the danger zone for very short periods of time (1-2 minutes) with heart rates as high as 200 bpm, followed by active rest (aerobic trotting along), then as soon as the pulse hits aerobic rate, bam!!! You are pushing hard to the danger zone again, then backing off to active rest, only to repeat for however many repetitions your program warrants.(Tom Ivers is a good resource on this subject).

There are folks who think that HRM's (heart rate monitors) are a waste of money. But I'll never regret having one more tool on board to assist me to analyze how my horse is working (aerobic vs. anaerobic), and perhaps increasing the odds that I'll be finishing with a healthy horse. If riding by my HRM means I'll never cross the finish line first...well that is alright by me, because To Finish is to Win! ~E.G.


  1. I think its also important to remember that sometimes technology fails us and just doesn't work. If there is a high reading that seems out of place, best to check the readings first with a stethoscope before freaking out!

    There have been numerous times when I've gotten a wrong reading before, there can be many causes for false readings!

  2. What I've found in my limited experience is that if you get an "unusual" reading, such as you are trotting along at a nice rythmic pace and suddenly you have a reading way above the norm....better look and see if your contact sensors have come loose. It happened to me three times at Spook Run, and I didn't realize what was up the first time, then noticed the dangling wire. That is going to be one of my projects when I get the new pad is to put some velcro attachments onto the back of the grounding sensor and the underside of my pad so the sensor stays EXACTLY where I want it.

    Your HRM is not the end all and tell all, but another helpful tool in getting to know your horse's norms, a gauge for knowing if your conditioning program is working, and a meter to signal the danger zone.

  3. I just got a HRM for Christmas and this info will deffinatlly come in handy! While I have read this all before, it takes a several reading to sink in!

    I love being able to monitor every part of my horses condition, but also think that nothing beats knowing your horse really well and being able to assess things without the HRM if needed.

    Great post!

  4. Thanks EG- I just got a Polar heart rate monitor for Christmaas as well. Ofcourse, it sits on the coffee stable , starting at me, while I wait for the footing to improve so I can actually learn to use it. I think your post will be quite helpful. I realized after the Riverslide Glide last fall, I definitely needed on...thanks for the informational post. The directions just made my head spin more.. I am one of those that has to try it, screw it up and then learn from it!

  5. It is pretty simple actually. Slap some hair gel, dippity doo, or hey! actually use the high priced gel they say for the Garmin onto both sensor. Place the ground sensor under the pad, and the reciever sensor under the left side girth. Girth up, power up your wrist receiver, press the button until you get Exe. Wait for the pulse to pop up. Every now and then the watch reciever will go on power save so you'll have to repress the button to get a reading.

    As far as uses to track condition. There are just a few areas.

    #1 Pulse Down: Keep track of how quickly your horse is pulsing down. > 10 minutes he might be working to hard <6 minutes you could probably push a little harder.

    #2 Working pulse: Over a set course is your highest working pulse decreasing week by week. There are factors that will affect this such as heat and humidity, but you are looking for a gradual drop in pulse from where you began training.

    #3. CRI is living in the moment. Is what I am doing today affecting my horse in an adverse way. On a particularly tough set of riding conditions CRI could keep you out of trouble as it is an indicator of how well the horse is doing RIGHT NOW.

    #4. Keeping in the aerobic zone is just like watching a speedometer on the car. But in our case you want to stay below 140 bpm. I rode thirty miles that way and it worked really well for me.

    #5. Progressive loading, working intervals and pushing purposely to the upper limits for short repeated sessions (intervals) which I don't expect to attempt for a long time. I like the idea of Fartleks better but again, a good tool to make sure you do not push into the danger zone, but just right to the edge where it is still safe, and purposely drop back down to aerobic.

    Also it is actually kind of fun to see how the horse responds to scary stuff. Stuff you may not be picking up as scary, as the heart rate suddenly shoots up!

    Definitely not a replacement for knowing your horse, but helps to know more than you did.

  6. Very interesting post! I've been on the fence about getting a HRM - seems like most people say it's better to know your horse and it's not necessary, but I think it would be nice to have more data. Good info about them!

  7. EG- I didn't realize that hair gel could be substitued for the expensive stuff..are there ingrediants that must be present or must not be present in order to work ?? Or does it matter?

  8. Jonna,

    The gel just serves as a conductor between the horses skin and sensor. It is the "gelness" of it rather than so much what it is made of. One of my endurane friends put me onto that little money saving trick.