Evidence is Everything in Sport Horse Evaluation, Performance & Longevity
Tuesday, December 14, 2021
Canadian horsemen Tim Worden, PhD, and international show jumper Sean Jobin shared their evidence-based approach to horse management during a free webinar presented by Haygain and Ontario Equestrian in November. From simple journal-keeping to analyzing high-speed video and complex performance data, Dr. Worden and Sean advocate tactics that ensure the horse’s mental and physical “batteries” are fully charged to attain peak output. Their methods incorporate advances in human athletic performance and encompass reducing injury risk and extending career longevity.
This article covers approximately half of the webinar discussion. The full discussion can be viewed at the bottom of this article.
Analytics in Equestrian Sport
Haygain: How did you meet and discover your mutual interests?
Dr. Worden: It was a U25 presentation that Beth Underhill organized. Amy Millar spoke the first half, then I talked about what I’d done toward better understanding what made jumping horses tick: how to analyze them, where faults come from, looking at high speed video and looking at every available metric. At the end of the day, I’m not a very original person. I’m just looking at everything that’s done in the human world, then throwing it at the horse world to see what sticks.
Sean: I thought what he said was really interesting. Especially in 2016, which is a long time ago! I’ve always been really interested in analytics used in other sports and how to find ways to incorporate some of that into horse sports. Until I’d heard Tim, I’d never heard anybody talking about integrating some of this knowledge into our work with horses.
Haygain: What is a specific example of a method for analyzing performance and incorporating what you find into training? (Both respond while watching video of Sean and Darius over a big combination in a $200,000 Grand Prix in Ocala, and then while looking at a data spreadsheet tracking details of Darius’ daily routines and performance.)
Dr. Worden: I’m a big fan of high-speed video. This technology can shoot 120, 240 and higher frames per second, so it allows you to see more information about the horse’s movement. Sean and I use it a lot. You can really appreciate how hard Darius tries, how much he stretches and knows that as soon as he leaves the ground, he needs a big effort to stretch and get across the jump. You can see if he is pushing off symmetrically or asymmetrically or if he’s drifting. You can watch the rider to see how he is helping keep the horse in balance and set a correct take-off angle.
It's very valuable for putting together all the pieces of this test that a rider and the horse have spent months preparing for. We don’t just look at the mechanical aspects. Does the horse have the mental skills to figure out the test? Watching Darius, he clearly reads everything well. He knows where the back rail is and he has the motivation to stretch out that extra little bit.
Sean: Watching high-speed video is so valuable as a rider because everything happens so fast. Your perception of how the horse jumped and how everything went can be so different than the mechanics of how the horse is actually moving. The whole thing becomes a wash in your mind. Sometimes you don’t even remember what happened.
It shocks me how much Darius gets involved with his front end. I see I may have extra weight in my left stirrup. I may have been trying to keep him away from a gazebo that he might spook at in the middle of the ring.
Looking at the spreadsheet, this covers a whole season including competitions and time off in between. This idea came from Tim and it’s something a lot of top riders do and anybody can do without any special equipment. For competition, the details include rails hit, if any, with what foot, where in the course, fence type, etc, and my subjective comments on how things felt and the likely cause.
I glean from this sheet that I am often coming to the jump too fast: that he’s too flat and low to the ground and couldn’t get the right angle for take-off. This confirms my feeling that, with Darius, it’s never a strength issue, it’s a dexterity issue. Often when you have a rail, you know why. But tracking this info is a good way to spot trends.
If you have a hot horse, for example, you might not worry about cross-cantering after a jump. But I might realize that it’s part of my horse getting really strung out or unfocused by not getting the lead change done properly, not balanced enough or not flexed enough. So, maybe you would stop and take a second to hammer out those lead changes at home.
Haygain: How do you apply the data when looking at prospective jumping horses?
Dr. Worden: It’s great to watch this kind of video of different horses jumping through different combinations. You can see which have the mental aptitude, which jump well mechanically, which may be naturally gifted. You might find a horse at a lower price point that is actually reading the test well, but not strong enough yet to handle it. Maybe you can get that lower price point horse and put on the strength and explosiveness it needs to go from a 1.4M horse to a competitive FEI horse in six months or a year.
Hay Steaming Evidence
Haygain: How did your interest in evidence-based approaches influence your incorporation of Haygain Steamed Hay?
Dr. Worden: I first heard about Haygain while attending an Equine High Performance Sport Group conference a few years ago and I went back and looked at the research behind it. I thought it was a perfect product for a lot of horses, especially those struggling with breathing issues or allergies. Having a system that’s able to kill mold that is inherently present in hay seemed like a good idea. It’s not that anything’s been done wrong on anyone’s part: mold is just a byproduct of growing and using hay. It’s just there.
Sean: Tim and I had been working together for a while tracking heart rate and biometrics, but we had not gotten heavy into nutrition. Tim told me that Haygain is a system with a lot of research and empirical evidence backing it up. Darius was having some allergy issues. I wouldn’t say they were really affecting his performance, but our general philosophy always goes back to keeping our horses happy and treating them like rock stars. So we wanted to stay on top of the allergies.
Plus, going to shows where you get different hay and different climates affecting pollen and dust and everything else in hay, it just made the Haygain system make a lot of sense.
Haygain: There are a lot of product claims in the equine health world. What advice do you have for differentiating claims from proven evidence regarding a product’s effect?
Dr. Worden: I regularly do quick searches of what’s been published in the equine realm, in scientific, peer-reviewed sources. That takes me to studies that are more controlled and have some evidence behind them. PLOS.org, for example, is a platform where Haygain research has appeared. Looking at these papers, you can be confident that in many scenarios you will get the same effect from the product as what was found in the research.
It’s very expensive to do research with horses: it can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. So, often times, you get products popping up trying to take a little bit of research and trying to translate that to broader applications. Studying something in a petri dish, for example, is cheaper and some may make the jump to say maybe it will work the same in the living animal. Sometimes those products do and sometimes they don’t. I need to be able to confidently defend my decision for using something.
There’s a lot to be said for having a network of people you can trust and communicate with: vets, farriers, mentors, etc. Don’t try to do things in isolation. The more ideas and information you bring into the equation, the more likely it is that you’ll make a correct decision.
Sean: A lot of times, the challenge ends up being how to keep things simple. There are so many products available, training programs online and things to do, it’s easy to get overwhelmed yourself and to overwhelm the horse with a bunch of conflicting technologies, supplements, feeding programs, etc. A lot of the best training programs are amazing in how simple they are.
Sources of Information
Attendee: What specific sources can you recommend for good information?
Dr. Worden: Being Canadian, the University of Guelph puts out good content in their newsletter. Most equine veterinary colleges do something similar. I encourage you to check out the Sport Horse Research Foundation and the Equine High Performance Sports Group.
In general, there are not a lot of great resources like there are on the human side, but I see there is growing appetite for it. For sure there is a lot of great information, but it is not shared to the broader world. I know the Sport Horse Research Foundation and Equine High Performance Sports Group have highlighted the need for it and we are slowly working on that.
Haygain: Dr. Worden, you talk about the horse’s “battery levels.” Can you explain what you mean?
Dr. Worden: It’s the idea that, when a battery is fully charged, you get a really good output from it. And when you pull from it, it drains over time and needs to be recharged. I look at an athlete as having many different batteries:
- Physiological: Does the horse have the athletic potential for his job, are his muscles firing correctly and is his movement correct mechanically?
- Mental: Does he have the awareness and processing capacity to do the tasks we are asking?
- Emotional: Does the horse have an inherent desire to do the job?
It’s so important with athletes to make sure they are always feeling good. You are not going to accomplish much in training and competition if the battery is drained. You’ll get a bad outcome. It’s about knowing that if you showed over the weekend, or over several weekends, the horse needs time to recover and to have some therapeutic inputs to make sure he’s feeling good next time.
When I was tracking Canadian team horses, there were some that really struggled with a farrier or vet visit, or with the travel. They were drained for two days after that. So, it’s knowing that maybe any flat work for those days needs to be light to help the horse pop back up. You never want to put a horse in a position where the battery is drained and you are asking more of it. That is a guaranteed recipe for injury or a horse not wanting to do its job.
Sean: At the end of the day, what we are always doing is pushing the horse to a limit, then a little past that. Fundamentally, the process of growing muscle causes tears in the muscle: breaking it down. As a human, we know how it feels two or three days after you’ve worked really hard in the gym. What I see with top athletes and programs in the human world is how much they emphasize recovery.
Most of the time, training horses is fun, especially when you are getting them bigger and stronger. It’s easy to get caught up in that without thinking of the wear and tear it takes on the body because, as the rider, we are not feeling that.
Journaling for Success
Haygain: What’s the best low-tech type of monitoring device for us “regular” riders?
Dr. Worden: Keeping a journal is something pretty much every professional athlete does, whether it’s handwritten or done another way. The NFL, NBA and NHL use them to bring in as much data as possible. What it shows is that even with a lot of complex data, what is often the most important correlation to performance are the things we can all easily track: how did you sleep? How did you feel in the morning? How much soreness? etc. All of that is incredibly valuable.
You can go back and look at those notes in the four weeks preceding a competition and see how it relates to your output at that competition. If you had a bad round on Sunday, for example, you might conclude it was a bad idea to do jump schools on both Thursday and Friday before that.
It is also incredibly valuable to spend time studying how your horse moves. Putting in this foundational time and homework will, down the road, allow you to almost instantly detect when something is a little off.
Sean: I agree. Keeping a detailed journal is probably the first thing we incorporated into our program and it’s probably still the most useful tool we have. It’s easy to forget stuff, especially the little details.
In the rest of this 50-minute conversation, Dr. Worden and Sean demonstrate and discuss specific performance monitors, the importance of variety in a horse’s work and life, re-injury rates in equine and human athletes and what research they are most excited about. Enjoy the complete talk for free here, compliments of Haygain and Ontario Equestrian.