What makes the perfect equine athlete? *H&H VIP*

  • It’s been a great year for British teams, with medal-winning performances and international victories across the disciplines. Seasoned campaigners such as Big Star and Valegro have proved themselves time and again, but what are the attributes a horse needs to reach — and stay at — the very top of his game?

    Among those in the know are the Team GB vets, who work behind the scenes to keep our medal prospects fit to compete. We asked dressage vet Andre Buthe, eventing vet Liz Brown and director of sports science and medicine John McEwen to reveal some of the secrets of success.


    Physical form: alongside a willingness to enjoy the challenge and make work look easy, the dressage horse needs a formidable physique.

    “He should be balanced, with his shoulder, back and pelvis each making up a third of his size in proportion,” says Andre Buthe. “He needs an ‘uphill’ build, with a laid-back shoulder and sloping croup to allow better compression of the hindquarters. Both croup and pelvis should be angled at about 20°. The back and the gluteal muscles of the quarters must be strong, and the feet square under the horse.”

    Focus on stats: the dressage horse works predominantly under aerobic conditions, where heart rate and oxygen use are steadily increased, with some short spells of higher-intensity anaerobic demands.

    “The average heart rate during a grand prix test is 120-150 beats per minute [bpm], so aerobic exercise makes up the greater part of training. Conditioning for the anaerobic work is needed about three times a week, at a higher heart rate of 150-180bpm, adds Andre.

    “Every horse is different, but piaffe, passage and pirouette are generally the most physically testing movements.”

    In a nutshell: “The dressage horse must maintain an extreme degree of collection. The repeated work in ‘slow motion’ requires tremendous core strength. In competition he must be under complete control in terms of posture, with one challenging exercise following another.

    “In human terms he’s a mix of ballerina, considering the higher marks that are achieved with good expression, and gymnast, looking at the general work — with some characteristics of a weightlifter.”

    Danger zone: “Wear and tear injuries are typically seen in the lower hocks, the lumbar and sacroiliac areas and the suspensory apparatus [the supportive bones and ligaments that give the leg its spring].”

    Role model: “Rembrandt would be a prime example of the expression and athleticism needed, but Nip Tuck’s willingness to work, combined with having one of the most gifted riders we’ve ever seen in Carl Hester, shows how physical limitations can be overcome if other contributing factors are exceptional. But Valegro must surely top the list of horses meeting the required criteria. He’s an incredible performer, yet so relaxed that even my one-year-old son could sit on him during competitions.”


    Physical form: the multi-talented eventer must be made of tough stuff — robust yet agile.

    “He needs a strong, well-muscled back, a symmetrical pelvis and good hindlimb conformation,” says Liz Brown. “This essential ‘unit’ is not only the powerhouse, but provides balance and takes weight to save too much wear and tear on the front limbs.

    “Limb conformation should be straight when viewed from the front. Limbs turned in or out can create uneven stresses and contribute to suspensory ligament injury, especially suspensory branch injuries, as well as causing uneven loading and wear on joints and feet.

    “Pasterns should be neither too long, as this increases strain on tendons and suspensories, nor too short, creating jarring through the fetlock.

    “Other must-haves are feet of even shape and size, with good depth of heel and quality horn, plus a healthy heart and respiratory system.”

    Focus on stats: “On a four-star cross-country course the horse is travelling at 570 metres per minute [mpm] for 11-12 minutes, with 40-45 jumping efforts. The maximum heart rate is 220-240bpm, falling to 100-140bpm shortly after he pulls up at the finish. Heat produced by muscles can raise the body temperature as high as 40-41°C [normal resting temperature is 37.5-38°C ].”

    In a nutshell: “The cross-country is the ultimate test. The horse must be bold, quick thinking, agile and responsive, with the speed and stamina to complete the course. As such, an eventer is like a human heptathlete — competing in a multi-discipline sport.”

    Danger zone: “The factor that most often interrupts or ends an event horse’s career is lameness — typically injury to tendons, ligaments or joints, or general wear and tear.

    “Heart arrhythmias such as atrial fibrillation can affect performance. Respiratory infections or inflammation can reduce the efficiency of the lungs to supply oxygen to the body, while upper airway problems such as laryngeal paralysis and dorsal displacement of the soft palate can obstruct airflow to the lungs.”

    Role model: “For agility and cardiovascular fitness, with outstanding ability across country, it would have to be Opposition Buzz. He always looked as if he could go round again. Chilli Morning’s temperament is amazing — he always has a sense of calm about him, although one of the most impressive tests of nerve was how Miners Frolic held his concentration at the London Olympics in 2012 when a severe gale during the dressage blew the plastic roof off one of the judge’s boxes.

    “Imperial Cavalier always seemed very comfortable in his back and body, although often a little too jolly in his mind. Over To You was another legend, who represented Great Britain in seven championships and completed Badminton at the age of 19.”



    Physical form: John McEwen has seen a shift in showjumper type over the past 40 years.

    “The showjumper needs a back end able to supply the immense power needed to lift 650kg of bodyweight into the air, with a front end that can land and absorb the impact from descending at speed from a metre and a half in height,” he explains.

    “But having the back end of a cook and strong front limbs is no longer enough.

    “From the Irish draught/thoroughbred we’ve moved towards the warmblood and on to the sport horses we see today — designed to cope with the fast reaction times and accuracy required to jump modern courses.

    “To describe conformation essentials, I would start with balanced and well-shaped feet along with good angles to the pastern and shoulder. Hips should be long and sloping, both for strength and to enhance the effect of those powerful hind end muscles. A more angular stifle tends to give a longer and more substantial stride, but I prefer a fairly straight hock.”

    Focus on stats: “Fast-response muscle type is needed — we’re not looking for the stamina required for endurance and cross-country. A showjumper is more of a sprint athlete, working at maximal cardiovascular capacity for a short period of time. His heart rate is around 150bpm as the starting bell goes, peaking at over 190bpm further around the course.”

    In a nutshell: “The showjumper has an ability to combine immense jumping power with speed — the equine equivalent of a human 100m hurdler.”

    Danger zone: “While this type of athlete can be prone to a multitude of sport horse issues, there’s a growing tendency towards suspensory ligament problems.

    “This could be due to the more technical nature of the courses, or the increased amount of competition nowadays, although there is no scientific evidence to back these theories up.”

    Role model: “Milton was, to my mind, a perfect example of athletic prowess, and at the big event he always raised his game. He knew that the crowds came to see him and him alone,” continues John.

    “David Broome’s Philco was a wonderful athlete, but he was an American thoroughbred — very different from, say, Ryan’s Son. David referred to Philco as ‘the arrogant Yank’ — again, a horse needs not just the physical attributes to win, but also the mind.”

    Ref Horse & Hound; 29 December 2016