When will it be ready to run Part 2
Looking at the individual
Last week we looked at how we might get a rough idea of when a horse would be ready to run based on its birth date and its genetics (see here). This type of information gives us clues as to what we should expect if that horse conforms to the norms of the population. But, every thoroughbred is a special individual. No two are quite alike. The data we discussed is based on general groups within the population and as such gives a general idea. What the data doesn’t do is account for the variation amongst individuals. Training winners requires us to understand the individual horse.
Every horse matures at a different rate. For centuries horsemen and women and followers of the sport have thrown around phrases like backward type, early one and the like. Inherently in racing we understand these variations in growth and maturation exist. The same is true of humans. I’m sure we can all relate to the fourteen year old who had no trouble getting beer in the off license, while some are still lucky enough to get asked for ID in their thirties.
Why do we analyse an individuals maturity?
Perhaps, this is most easily explained by referring to human sport. Following a twitter post about one of the approaches we use to evaluate maturity of a horse we enjoyed an enlightening discussion with Sean Cumming PhD. Sean is a researcher on growth and maturation in sport at University of Bath. We kicked around a few ideas and got a great general overview on the latest thinking in the field. Chief amongst them, is that many youth football academies have moved to “bio-banding” for training groups rather than age groups. He regaled us with some wonderful stories of players who missed the cut (Harry Kane at Arsenal) or nearly missed the cut (Gareth Bale at Southampton). This was often as they lacked co-ordination as they underwent growth spurts and lost their way temporarily.
This approach means rather than look at age on the calendar we look at biological development. Are we dealing with a fifteen year old with the body of a typical thirteen year old or a fifteen year old with the body of a typical seventeen year old? If we can understand that, we can understand why a fifteen year old might be struggling, or conversely that although they may stand out now, they might be in trouble once their peer group catches up. It also means we can adjust their training load to a more appropriate one. This bio-banding approach has led to big reductions in injuries at some academies.
A racehorse reaches full physical maturity around five years of age. Most are able to be trained successfully at two. Several peer reviewed studies have shown horses trained at two have lower injury rates and longer careers than those who aren’t. However, just as with young footballers too much work too soon also poses a risk. Understanding where a horse is in terms of growth and maturity allows us to make the best decisions for their welfare. It guides us when it comes to making decisions about increasing or decreasing training load. It’s also helpful to us to understand their potential ability too.
How we analyse an individuals maturity?
Traditional horsemanship gives us lots of clues. We are constantly looking at our horses, feeling them and listening closely to our team who ride and care for them every day. This tells us a lot of what we need to know. We can also use some more scientific approaches to understand how mature or not a horse is physically.
As horses grow they grow at different rates in different parts of their body. A very good sign a horse will still grow more is when we refer to a horse being up behind. This is when the back end of the horse is higher than the front end of the horse. This can lead a horse struggling a bit with their finer co-ordination. Think of a gangly teenager. The picture above illustrates a mature five year old at the top and herself and her half sister as yearlings in the lower two pictures.
Knee Survey Radiographs
One of the more scientific tools we use is a radiographic survey of the knees. These x-rays give us a great guide as to the skeletal maturity of the horse. As mammals mature the growth plates at the end of their bones fuse in a specific order, giving us a great guide to biological age. The knees are easy to view and also fuse about the time that most horses will withstand intense training readily around two years of age. The same joint in a human (actually the wrist) fuses at around 19. Roughly when we’d expect human athletes in most sport to be transitioning to high level training required for top level sport.
How “easy” are they finding their work
This is about watching horses on the gallops and listening to their riders. If a horse is finding their exercise easy its always a good sign. They should be full of life and finishing their exercise travelling well. If they are we can begin to think about if they are ready for the next step in their development and an increased training load. In the early stages of training we find visual assessment and feedback from our experienced riders sufficient. We can and do use heart rate monitors to look at recovery times, the faster the recovery are the easier the horse found the work. However, this tends to be more valuable information when horses are in more intense phases of training.
Paying attention to the mental side of the horse is critical to success. A horse has to be willing to go about what we ask of it to be trained successfully. When a horse is struggling with their training is it because there is a physical issue? Which may be injury, illness or simply just weakness. Monitoring for these is important. However, often there is nothing wrong physically it’s simply that mentally a horse isn’t ready for the demands placed on it. Judging the this and picking the right path forward for a horse at this stage is the art of horsemanship.
All the science and data in the world doesn’t account for the thoughts of an individual. Which is why for us training winners requires combining the analysis of science and data together with horsemanship.
If you’d like to enjoy success on the track through this approach get in touch to discuss your horse. We also have shares available in some exciting young horses on our for sale page.