Editor's note: This article is part of TheHorse.com's ongoing coverage of topics presented at the 2012 International Society of Equitation Science conference, held July 18-20 in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Have you ever wished for a device to measure how fatigued your horse's muscles are getting during a workout? Well, thanks to equitation scientists, this might soon be a reality.
Surface electromyography (EMG) is a novel analytical tool that allows researchers to read muscle activity through sensors attached to the skin, even at a distance, according to Jane Williams, PhD candidate and researcher in the equitation science department of Hartpury College in Gloucester, England. By attaching these specialized sensors to close-clipped areas over a horse's muscle, Williams said, scientists can receive electrical data in real time, indicating how that muscle is working and--more importantly--when it's getting fatigued.
"When you think about what training is meant to achieve, you know that it's to prepare horses' musculoskeletal and cardiovascular systems to cope with and achieve our demands for performance," Williams said at the 8th conference of the International Society for Equitation Science, held July 18-20 in Edinburgh, Scotland. "But at the moment trainers subjectively base their programs on a 'feeling' without having any objective feedback about what's going on with the muscles during the effort, and that can lead to injury."
In a study carried out using British National Hunt racehorses, Williams and her fellow researchers attached surface EMG sensors on horses' croups, just over their right and left superficial gluteal (rump) muscles. Then, using the associated computer equipment, she had the horses gallop past her uphill as the EMG sensors emitted data over a wireless connection.
The results came in very clearly, Williams said, with easy-to-read information about the muscles' energy and fatigue levels in real time across the full length of the established gallop path.
The study also revealed that muscular effort varies considerably during training in horses, with many increases and decreases in activity in a single run, she said. Activity also varied from one horse to another, which could support the theory that horses should have individualized training programs. Interestingly, the surface EMG readings did not correspond to the trainers' evaluations of how physically fit each horse was, she added.
Even so, none of the study horses experienced significant gluteal muscle fatigue during the recorded period, with the exception of two horses that showed temporary fatigue and then recovered quickly, Williams said. And for the most part, the muscle activity was balanced between the left and right side, she noted.
"This study is a real success because it shows that this system does work, and it's the first time this has been done," she said. "What's more is that it's very practical, meaning you can just stick on the sensors in the stable and then go out in the field and read, and that's great."
Although surface EMG only provides a "snapshot" of what's going on with one muscle during one training session, Williams said, it still has great potential as a useful training tool for both improved welfare and performance
Disclaimer: Seek the advice of a qualified veterinarian before proceeding with any diagnosis, treatment, or therapy.