Factors Influencing Jumping Horses' Performance Reviewed

Researchers believe that aerobic capacity is likely associated with improved performance and reduced fatigue over the course of longer competitions.

Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt/The Horse

You know your show jumper requires strict care and conditioning to perform at his best. But what, exactly, is the key to a happy, healthy, and sound show jumper?

Colin Roberts, BVSc, MA, PhD, FSB, FRCVS, of the University of Cambridge, tried to address this question at the 2014 British Equine Veterinary Association Congress, held Sept. 10-13 in Birmingham, U.K. He reviewed the results of a recent study in which he and a group of researchers evaluated factors influencing show jumping horses' performance.

International show jumping horses "perform impressive feats of athleticism and the appropriateness of their preparation is crucial in terms of both performance and, more importantly, their health and longevity," Roberts said. However, relatively little objective research exists on factors that impact these horses' performance compared with some other equine athletes such as racehorses.

"One multinational survey of show jumping horses found that 6% of training and competing days were lost for health reasons, 78% of which comprised orthopedic conditions—mostly injuries considered to be related to overuse," Roberts said. In that study researchers found that common orthopedic injury sites included the hoof, forelimb, flexor tendons, suspensory ligaments, joints, and the back, he said. Respiratory disease and gastric ulcers can also cause decreased performance or training days lost, he said.

To take a closer look at factors influencing jumping performance, Roberts, together with his colleagues on the World Class Performance Scientific Advisory Group (John McEwen, BVMS, MRCVS; Pat Harris, MA, VetMB, PhD, Dipl. ECVCN, MRCVS; and Rachel Murray, MA, VetMB, MS, PhD, MRCVS) and a number of other collaborators, carried out a study, commissioned by the British Equestrian Federation, from which information was used to help prepare British horses for the 2012 London Olympic Games. It examined 10 upper-level show jumping horses ridden by their usual five riders at a world class training session.

The riders took part in a program formatted to mimic a three-day Nations Cup show jumping event:

  • On the first day, the horses and riders jumped one 15-fence course;
  • On the second day, the horses and riders jumped two 15-fence courses; and
  • On the third day, the pairs jumped one 15-fence course and an 8-fence course, to simulate a jump-off.

The fences in all the courses ranged in height from 1.35 to 1.45 meters (about 4 feet 4 inches to 4 feet 7 inches). Additionally, the riders received coaching from an international coach during their warm-ups and after completing the jump courses.

The researchers monitored each horse's warm-up closely, noting factors including the number of jumping efforts, canter leads, and fence height, among others. A veterinarian and a physiotherapist examined each horse daily before and after jumping. The researchers monitored the horses' heart rates, blood lactate (a product of anaerobic metabolism) concentrations, and serum creatine kinase (CK, an enzyme indicative of muscle damage) levels. Further, the research team collected data regarding each horse's jumping technique, take-off distances, stride length, how much time the horse spent on each lead, and more.

In warm-up the team found that:

  • The warm-up duration varied between riders, ranging from 12 to 27 minutes;
  • The time horses spent in each gait and on each rein did not differ between days for each rider, but did differ between riders;
  • The number of jumps each rider took, the fence type, and fence height all stayed similar throughout the study;
  • The horses spent more time on the left lead than the right and landed on and took off from the left limb more frequently than the right;
  • In warm-up, the horses' canters were slower and their strides were shorter compared to when they jumped the courses.

"If this asymmetry of warm-up is a common occurrence in show jumping horses," Roberts said, "it could have implications for injury risk."

When it came to the jumping rounds, the team found that:

  • Horses' blood lactate concentrations were significantly higher than their baseline concentrations one minute after the jumping round;
  • When horses jumped two courses, horses' lactate concentrations were significantly lower after the second round compared to the first, but still higher than baseline levels;
  • There was a positive correlation between lactate levels and jumping faults, a decrease in jumping technique, and the likelihood of a horse showing muscle soreness;
  • Horses with higher heart rates were likely to have higher lactate concentrations;
  • An increased heart rate was associated with jumping inefficiency and muscle pain;
  • Plasma CK levels were significantly higher one minute and two hours after jumping than before; and
  • There appears to be a relationship between the degree of head and neck ventroflexion (flexion of the cervical spine towards the underside of the barrel), thoracolumbar and lumbosacral flexion, and limb angles during jumping.

"Clearly there is much work to be done to determine better the physiological and biomechanical responses that occur during show jumping, the ways in which they affect performance and health, and how they may profitably be modified," Roberts concluded. "It appears, however, that increased aerobic capacity is likely to be associated with improved performance and reduced fatigue over the course of longer competitions."

In the meantime Roberts recommended jumpers condition their horses carefully by including aerobic fitness work in training regimens, avoiding overjumping, cross-training horses on a variety of surfaces, monitoring horses carefully, and seeking veterinary advice at the first sign of injury.

About the Author

Erica Larson, News Editor

Erica Larson, news editor, holds a degree in journalism with an external specialty in equine science from Michigan State University in East Lansing. A Massachusetts native, she grew up in the saddle and has dabbled in a variety of disciplines including foxhunting, saddle seat, and mounted games. Currently, Erica competes in eventing with her OTTB, Dorado.

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