An insightful Equine Sport Science Day for World Class Programme athletes at Hartpury College

On Monday 6 November, British Equestrian held an insightful ‘Equine Performance and Fitness’ Day at Hartpury College for athletes on its World Class Programme (WCP), plus invited athletes from the Youth pathways of British Dressage, British Eventing and British Showjumping. The day was hosted by some of our own WCP practitioners and researchers at Hartpury, and gave attendees discipline-specific insight into some of the physiological and structural changes that need to be in place for a horse to perform at its best, and how to apply these to their fitness programmes at home.

Speakers on the day included:

  • Dr Kathryn Nankervis, who set up the Equine Therapy Centre at Hartpury in 1999 and continues to oversee its commercial, teaching and research activities.
  • Rachel Murray, who is Podium Potential Pathway Vet for the World Class Programme and a highly experienced sport horse clinician who has led many studies investigating sport horse training, injury, and performance.
  • Tim Randle, who has had a long-standing involvement with the World Class Programme and currently supports the showjumping teams.
  • Liz Brown, who is Eventing Team Vet for the World Class Programme and a partner in a specialist equine practice that focuses on performance horses in eventing, racing and dressage.

It was Kathryn who kick-started the day by presenting an overview of the physiology of equine fitness. Her talk focused on the importance of tailored training and good turnout at all stages of a horse’s career, both to enhance performance in competition and protect the horse from injury, therefore, extending its career and ensuring good wellbeing throughout its life. She explained that training horses is a combination of ‘art and science,’ with each horse needing their own individual training programme determined by many different factors.

This neatly led onto discipline-specific theory and practical sessions on training strategies and anatomy of the performance horse, with a focus on how correct muscle development and core strength enables horses to performance highly skilled movements.

The afternoon’s practical sessions to put the theory into context. Kathryn and Rachel used one of Hartpury’s water treadmills to demonstrate how it can be used to alter the movement of a horse’s walk. This was followed by a series of polework exercises, both from the ground and ridden, which can have similar benefits of the water treadmill.

Concluding the practical sessions, Tim and Liz explained how fitness monitoring and technology can be used to assess the horse during a training session, such as with the Alogo Move Pro app. The app developed by researchers monitors components of the horse’s movements throughout the session, including precise gait metrics and analysis of strides. This sparked intriguing debate amongst the cohort of riders over the use of technology within the future of equestrian sport.

After an engaging and thought-provoking day, the cohort left feeling inspired to take their fresh knowledge and ideas home with them to put into their own practices.

Eventer Kristina Hall-Jackson, who is on the Podium Potential Pathway of the World Class Programme, explained why a day like this can be so useful for her and other athletes, “It’s been a really educational day. We spend so much time on the horse that we don’t actually sit and do the academic side, but it’s really good to be able to do this so we can put it into our training – it’s all those small gains to help the overall performance.

“The most interesting thing I learnt about was the anatomical working of the performance horse, with the information on VO2 max of the horses and their lung capacity and how they don’t lose fitness as quickly as we do, so we can treat them differently to us in terms of training.”

Dressage rider Caitlin Burgess, also from the Podium Potential Pathway, enjoyed the opportunity to access knowledge from such experienced vets and researchers. “I found today very valuable and interesting, with lots of new knowledge that I can take home and put into practice,” she said.

David Hamer, British Equestrian’s Head of Performance Pathways, commented: “The unique element of equestrian sport is the requirement for the human athlete to best prepare their equine partner for the competition arena.  The fitness of the equine athlete is crucial in ensuring a long and successful sporting career and this is the responsibility of the rider. Today provided an opportunity to bring science and practice together to help riders gain information and an understanding of equine fitness of how to do this from world-leading experts”.

The day was funded by Sport England and UK Sport, and further equine sport science and medicine sessions are planned for the future.

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