Sports Tech: Technology to keep racehorses safe
Image credit: Kurtsystems
Professional sport for humans is becoming increasingly reliant on technology. Could horse racing, one of the world’s most traditional and conservative pastimes, be going the same way?
Whichever horse owner wins the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe this October will take home around €3m. Total prize money for this race is around €5.4m - and this isn’t even the most lucrative race on the international circuit. There’s around $6m up for grabs at the Melbourne Cup in November and $10m at the Dubai World Cup in March. No one keeps tabs on how much money is bet on horse racing each year, but UK bookmakers predicted that £300m-worth of bets would be placed on the Grand National alone.
No wonder there are so many millionaire horse owners and even more gambling addicts. It’s no surprise that the horses are pushed hard and animal welfare organisations such as Animal Aid and Peta want the sport banned or at least heavily regulated, particularly against some of its more barbaric practices, such as whipping and the use of drugs to mask injuries.
A major complaint is that horses are made to race and train too hard at too young an age. During these formative years, a horse’s developing skeletal system is not strong enough to handle competition racing on hard tracks. They are more prone to suffer tendon or ligament damage – injuries that are thereafter likely to recur throughout their life.
Peta says vets find it difficult to diagnose strained tendons or hairline fractures. Of course, the horse itself, unlike a human athlete with an injury, can’t tell you when it’s in pain.
Earlier this year, a new technology designed to help horses avoid these injuries was unveiled at Kingswood stud, in Berkshire, UK.
Kurtsystems, which takes its name from Kingswood owner Mehmet Kurt, one of Turkey’s leading industrialists, helps trainers develop young horses in a gradual, incremental way. The tech looks and operates a bit like a rollercoaster cabin, but it’s basically a motorised unit attached to an overhead rail.
Trainers connect up to 10 horses, aged between 10 and 12 months, to each unit with loose reins, so they all exercise at the same time. The aim is for the bones, muscles, tendons and ligaments to reach the required strength before actual race training begins. There are no grooms or jockeys on the horses’ backs, pulling at reins or pushing the horse too hard. The horses move at various speeds, from a walk or trot to a 30mph canter around the all-weather training track.
“Horses naturally move at the speed of something around them, so when we turn the vehicle speed up or down, they naturally follow,” says Simon Turl, Kurtsystems architect.
Turl adds that there’s also an automatic cut-off if a horse stumbles or falls and a jockey sits in the car with his or her own emergency stop button, to pick up any visual and behavioural signs from the animal that the technology can’t pick up, like a startled look.
David Sykes, director of equine health and welfare at the British Horse Racing Authority – the regulatory body for horse racing in Great Britain – thinks any technology which gives the trainer feedback during training is good for a horse’s welfare.
Kathy Guillermo, senior vice president with Peta, isn’t so sure. “Any piece of equipment that takes a horse out of field can be bad for it,” she says. “Their natural instinct, to be outside as part of a herd, is denied them on the racetrack.”
However, Guillermo is in favour of technology that indicates if racehorses have injuries. There are new and imminent training technologies that use electronic fitness-monitoring equipment to measure and record the physiology of horses during exercise.
Most record heart rate, gait and respiratory functions and can help trainers track long-term changes in a horse’s fitness levels and detect fitness problems. Others monitor what the horse does and eats when in the stable or on the field. Some enable the horse to listen to music to relax. There’s even a pair of high-tech goggles, which help riders calm their horse during training.
“Trainers are not with the horse all the time, so are not always aware of what is going on with the animal,” says Enri Strobel, CEO of German firm Horse Analytics, which is testing a wearable sensor for horses.
Berkshire-based equine behaviour consultant Sharon Smith adds that trainers could use wearable sensor technology to see how their horse’s behaviour changes depending on where it’s stabled, how much time it spends sleeping, walking or displaying signs of stress. She even thinks vets could use it to remotely monitor animals under their care.
“There are many tell-tale signs that a crisis is imminent with a horse,” Smith says. “Nodding in trot could be indicative of lameness. A horse might not lie down as much because it is struggling to get up.”
Sykes sees these new technologies as additional training aids, but believes there will always be a place for the keen eye of experienced trainers and jockeys, who will still need to notice what’s going on with a horse and interpret any data collected. “This technology is particularly useful for an inexperienced jockey, who might not be aware of how fast a horse is moving,” Sykes says.
Strobel thinks monitoring technology will help owners make sure their trainers don’t get sloppy. “The idea is to make sure the horse isn’t pushed beyond what it’s capable of,” she explains.
Racing is a conservative business driven by money. Performance goals come before the welfare of the horses, even if no one will say this in public.
While many influential racing figures, including former champion jockeys AP McCoy and John Francome, support the Kurtsystems idea, certain racing aficionados have already shown their disdain with quips about white elephants and James Bond gadgets.
Kurt wants to make his system available to other training facilities and is already offering free trials. Turl says there has already been some interest, but adds that it will take at least 12 months to prove the system works.
In the end, though, whether Kurtsystems or any other horse-training technology is widely taken up by owners and trainers around the world will more likely depend on how many winners it helps them produce, rather than how many horses grow up injury-free.
There is also the danger that a particularly ruthless or unscrupulous trainer, armed with more precise data about a horse’s performance, will simply push the horse even harder, towards the level required to achieve success.
“We often see horses who don’t have the desire to race, or the physical attributes, pushed far beyond their capabilities,” Guillermo says. “Once information is gathered about a horse, it must be passed on in a way that actually benefits the animal.”
Horses for courses
The Pacer: sits in the saddle and uses smartphone motion sensors to analyse movements when training, resting and sleeping. Algorithms recognise gait, movement and intensity. It displays stats in charts and graphs, which help trainers monitor performance. Strobel plans to add a heart monitor and GPS to the technology.
Open-ration: stands for Optimising Pasture for Equine Nutrition. It’s a pasture-grazing consumption model that tracks what the horse is eating and adjusts nutrition plans. The trainer puts in parameters, such as grass length, body weight and time in the pasture. Algorithms then calculate how much grass the horse has eaten and give a UK nutritional average for that grass at any point in the year. “Trainers can tell whether any problems are linked to a dietary imbalance,” Smith says.
Define: a wearable electronic device that collects information about how much grass a horse eats, where it moves and how much energy it expends. With this, the trainer doesn’t have to manually enter the horse’s work programme into Open-ration.
Google Glass goggles: Japanese trainer Noriyuki Hori used Google Glass eyewear to help train his horse for this year’s Prix de l’Arc De Triomphe. A girth strap on the horse sends information to a screen on the rider’s goggles. The rider can see the horse’s heart rate and GPS technology provides the time for each 200m the animal runs. It helps trainers and riders to understand better what a horse is capable of.
Music for horses: a wearable device consisting of headphones for the horse, a rider headset and a smartphone app. Bluetooth enables the horse to pick up sounds played on the rider’s phone. Both horse and rider listen to the same sounds. There are playlists for walking, trotting and galloping. The music blocks out external sounds and is said to help the horse focus and stay calm.