Tech advances - opportunities for trainers

From heart rate monitors to GPS trackers, smart treadmills to light masks and even Artificial Intelligence, a plethora of new technologies has breezed onto the market in recent years, all claiming to offer trainers an edge in a sport where every pixel in a photo finish counts. And it’s not just on the gallops where their impact is being felt; everywhere from the barn to the breeding shed, a raft of new gadgets is quietly powering a technological revolution that has the power to reshape the racing industry. So in this brave new world, how do trainers ensure that they are exploiting every possible technological advantage at their disposal in their quest to leave no margin left ungained?     The reality is that, in an increasingly data-driven world, racing has been ironically slow to catch on to technologies that have already become mainstream in sports ranging from running to cycling. Every MAMIL (middle-aged man in lycra) worth his electrolyte gel has his own GPS tracker fitted to his carbon fibre bike. Now, companies such as Arioneo and Gmax are helping the racing industry catch up to the peloton by providing real-time exercise data, allowing trainers to track horses’ speed, cadence, sectional times and stride length, as well as heart rate and other biometrics using a device fitted to the horse’s girth. These data are then fed back to an app, allowing every aspect of the horse’s work and recovery to be assessed.     Lambourn-based husband and wife team Claire and Daniel Kübler were easily adaptable to the cause. “We did a lot of research when we started training, going, “OK, what’s out there to actually put a bit more science behind what people do”? There’s so much data, so the more you can have, the better decisions you’re going to make”, explains Claire. “I started graphing out the data that we gathered, looking at frequency of stride to see where horses [and trip] correlate. It has actually helped to pinpoint when a horse does want a distance or it when it wants dropping back to a more speed trip. So it was really useful to help decide which way to go”.     Armed with a degree in Natural Sciences from Cambridge University, Kübler realised that the concept of marginal gains ( European Trainer  - December 2015 - issue 52) was as relevant to the racing industry as it was to other sports. Popularised by Sir David Brailsford—the erstwhile head of British Cycling and latterly doyen of professional cycling behemoth Team Ineos (formerly Team Sky)—the theory of marginal gains states that if you break down every element you can think of that goes into the performance of an athlete, and then improve each element by 1%, you will achieve a significant aggregated increase in performance.     “The optimum is getting 100% out of a horse. But for us, every little bit of marginal gain can hopefully get the most out of each individual”,     Artificial Intelligence (AI) may conjure images of a dystopian future, but it is already being used in technologies available to trainers in the United States and Canada. Billed as the world’s first ‘smart halter’, or headcollar, Nightwatch was developed by Texas-based Protequus to monitor horses while they are in their stables overnight. “Unlike a lot of other wearables, this technology is based on an AI platform, which means that it learns every animal’s unique physiology and looks for deviations in that physiology that correlate with pain or distress and will send a text, phone and email to you so you can intervene at the earliest signs of a possible problem”, says the company’s Founder and CEO, Jeffrey Schab. The company is aiming to make Nightwatch available to European consumers by 2020.     If the worst does happen, a host of companies are harvesting the latest tech to aid in pain management and rehabilitation. Among these is the ArcEquine, a wearable brace that delivers a microcurrent to aid in the repair of soft tissue injuries by increasing levels of Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP) within affected cells. While the benefits of water therapy and treadmills have long been recognised by trainers, the latest gadget from ECB is a smart water treadmill that essentially functions as a Fitbit for horses. Not only does it incorporate salt- and cold-water functions as well as an incline feature, the treadmill comes with a built-in computer that allows the user to set programmes for particular horses, while feeding this data back to a phone or tablet for analysis. “By playing around with speed, water depth and incline, you can target specific muscles, control the heart rate, dictate the horse’s stride length and work on the horse’s straightness,” says Richard Norden, sales and marketing manager.     Elsewhere, scientists are working on ways to help increase athletic performance even when a horse is resting. Dr Barbara Murphy, Head of Equine Science at University College Dublin, has pioneered the use of light therapy on racehorses. Her smart lighting system mimics the effects of natural daylight by exposing horses to the correct spectral intensity of light to synchronise their internal clock. This has been shown to have performance-enhancing benefits, as well as increasing reproductive efficiency in broodmares. Essentially, natural daylight has a high amount of blue, short wavelength light. This blue light targets special photoreceptors in the eye that stimulate the circadian control centre in the brain, boosting activity, metabolism and alertness.     “When we consider that horses have evolved outdoors under natural photoperiods, they received high intensity blue-enriched light by day, then the sun goes down and they experienced un-interrupted darkness at night. These continuous fluctuating light-dark cycles maintained their strong body rhythms. In contrast, when we stable horses in a box for up to 22 hours a day, it’s really important that we give them the light stimulus that allows their body to work as best as it can,”explains Murphy. Her company, Equilume, offers stable lighting systems and futuristic-looking light masks that shine low-level blue light directly into the horse’s eye. While the importance of correct lighting is only just beginning to be understood, it should not be underestimated, according to Murphy. “We spend so much money on nutrition, training surfaces and veterinary care, [but] the single environmental cue that makes everything work in synchrony in the horse’s body is the light that they receive through their eyes. Temperature and food plays a role, but it doesn’t play as important a role as light. So by improving lighting we can ensure that horses get better value out of their feed, out of their training, out of all other aspects of their management.”     It is not only in the area of performance that technology is playing a role. Programmes such as Stable IT and Equine Medirecord help trainers achieve gains at the margins through maximising efficiency. “The last thing you want to be dealing with is paperwork”, says Pierce Dargan, founder of Equine Medirecord. “Especially paperwork that, if you get it wrong, you can get fined and end up in the papers, or even get criminally prosecuted”. His app provides the racing industry with a one-stop-shop for ensuring full compliance with all medical regulations, including treatments and vaccinations. Gordon Elliot, Nicky Henderson and Nicolas Clément are fans. “It’s being able to run your yard from your phone”, says Dargan. “Not only does it ensure compliance, it saves time. So there’s one less thing for you to worry about”. Charlie Elsey concurs: “It is a massive efficiency gain. In a bigger yard and even in the smaller yards, just being organised in a sensible fashion is pretty useful”. Elsey launched Stable IT after a training career spanning two decades. “I have a long family history of racing, so I completely understand the business that we’re trying to help”, he says. Initially an invoicing and billing programme, its functionality has expanded to meet demand. “You can keep track of anything and everything on a horse-by-horse basis; for example, their weights, temperatures and training regimes, as well as all their medical records. In this day [and] age people are expecting those records to be digitised”.     As Elsey sees it, advances in technology have actually increased the pressures faced by trainers. “In a lot of ways, the requirements on them are a lot higher: the compliance issues, reporting and keeping records that are easily accessible... So, anything we can do to share the load can only be a good thing”.     Of course, no amount of gadgetry can transcend a horse’s intrinsic genetic ability. That is why handlers such as Jim Bolger have embraced genetic testing in order to take some of the guesswork out of training. Since Professor Emmeline Hill of University College Dublin first identified the role of a protein known as myostatin, which effects muscle growth, in determining whether a horse would be better suited to sprint, middle or longer distance races, the so-called ‘speed gene’ has become something of an industry obsession, with the Speed Gene Test now one of the most firmly established genetic tests for racehorses all over the world. The test categorises horses into three types: C:Cs, which tend to be earlier-maturing and better suited to short distances; C:Ts, the most versatile type, which can perform over short distances as two-year-olds and then develop into middle distances types as three-year-olds; and T:Ts, which are later-maturing and better suited to longer distances.     “As soon as the foals are born, we have them tested so we know almost from birth what they are, so I’m conscious of that from the word go”, says Bolger, who was an early investor in Professor Hill’s research. As well as helping him to place his horses in the correct races for their type, genetic testing can also lead to efficiency gains as crucial training resources are directed to where they are needed most: “We take in the two-year-olds to break them from October onwards. We then decide that we’re not going to need the T:Ts back again until well into the new year, so we leave them off and that’s a considerable saving from the point of view of effort, as well as giving them a chance to mature”.     “There is a clear economic gain to be made by trainers in having this information”, agrees Hill. “A lot of trainers will say, ‘Well, we know [what their optimum trip is]. We can tell from the pedigree’. But what our data shows is that some trainers may be missing a trick. In [three-year-old] sprint races, over five to six furlongs, 71% of runners were the C:C type, but they earned 89% percent of the prize money. So that’s an overperformance of 25%. In contrast, 28% of the runners were C:Ts, but they only earned 11% of the prize money. That represents a 61% underperformance in terms of runners to prize money”.     Bolger agrees. “I don’t care what anybody says about looking at a horse. Some people will tell you that they can look at a horse and know exactly what he is by just looking at him. That’s not true because there have been some very good trainers down the years who have run horses in the Derby who then eventually ended up as champion sprinters. That wouldn’t have happened if they had been following the science”.     For all that technology is changing the racing landscape, there remain some within the industry who are not convinced of its benefits. “Would you find out quicker what you would see eventually with your own eye? I don’t know”, says Willie Mullins. “We use experience and eye rather than technology. I found that I preferred doing it the way I’ve always done it. It sort of works”. In this, it would seem he has an unlikely ally in tech-savvy Claire Kübler: “Obviously, you have to always come back to the feeling. I’ve been around horses my entire life, and you do have to have a sense of ‘How is this horse? It is actually not enjoying itself at the moment. Why is it’? A machine isn’t going to tell you if a horse isn’t enjoying itself”. Perhaps the singularity is not so near, after all.

By Alysen Miller

From heart rate monitors to GPS trackers, smart treadmills to light masks and even Artificial Intelligence, a plethora of new technologies has breezed onto the market in recent years, all claiming to offer trainers an edge in a sport where every pixel in a photo finish counts. And it’s not just on the gallops where their impact is being felt; everywhere from the barn to the breeding shed, a raft of new gadgets is quietly powering a technological revolution that has the power to reshape the racing industry. So in this brave new world, how do trainers ensure that they are exploiting every possible technological advantage at their disposal in their quest to leave no margin left ungained?

The reality is that, in an increasingly data-driven world, racing has been ironically slow to catch on to technologies that have already become mainstream in sports ranging from running to cycling. Every MAMIL (middle-aged man in lycra) worth his electrolyte gel has his own GPS tracker fitted to his carbon fibre bike. Now, companies such as Arioneo and Gmax are helping the racing industry catch up to the peloton by providing real-time exercise data, allowing trainers to track horses’ speed, cadence, sectional times and stride length, as well as heart rate and other biometrics using a device fitted to the horse’s girth. These data are then fed back to an app, allowing every aspect of the horse’s work and recovery to be assessed. 

Lambourn-based husband and wife team Claire and Daniel Kübler were easily adaptable to the cause. “We did a lot of research when we started training, going, “OK, what’s out there to actually put a bit more science behind what people do”? There’s so much data, so the more you can have, the better decisions you’re going to make”, explains Claire. “I started graphing out the data that we gathered, looking at frequency of stride to see where horses [and trip] correlate. It has actually helped to pinpoint when a horse does want a distance or it when it wants dropping back to a more speed trip. So it was really useful to help decide which way to go”. 

Horse wearing a heart rate monitor and GPS tracker.

Horse wearing a heart rate monitor and GPS tracker.

Armed with a degree in Natural Sciences from Cambridge University, Kübler realised that the concept of marginal gains (European Trainer - December 2015 - issue 52) was as relevant to the racing industry as it was to other sports. Popularised by Sir David Brailsford—the erstwhile head of British Cycling and latterly doyen of professional cycling behemoth Team Ineos (formerly Team Sky)—the theory of marginal gains states that if you break down every element you can think of that goes into the performance of an athlete, and then improve each element by 1%, you will achieve a significant aggregated increase in performance. 

“The optimum is getting 100% out of a horse. But for us, every little bit of marginal gain can hopefully get the most out of each individual”,

Artificial Intelligence (AI) may conjure images of a dystopian future, but it is already being used in technologies available to trainers in the United States and Canada. Billed as the world’s first ‘smart halter’, or headcollar, Nightwatch was developed by Texas-based Protequus to monitor horses while they are in their stables overnight. “Unlike a lot of other wearables, this technology is based on an AI platform, which means that it learns every animal’s unique physiology and looks for deviations in that physiology that correlate with pain or distress and will send a text, phone and email to you so you can intervene at the earliest signs of a possible problem”, says the company’s Founder and CEO, Jeffrey Schab. The company is aiming to make Nightwatch available to European consumers by 2020.

If the worst does happen, a host of companies are harvesting the latest tech to aid in pain management and rehabilitation. Among these is the ArcEquine, a wearable brace that delivers a microcurrent to aid in the repair of soft tissue injuries by increasing levels of Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP) within affected cells. While the benefits of water therapy and treadmills have long been recognised by trainers, the latest gadget from ECB is a smart water treadmill that essentially functions as a Fitbit for horses. Not only does it incorporate salt- and cold-water functions as well as an incline feature, the treadmill comes with a built-in computer that allows the user to set programmes for particular horses, while feeding this data back to a phone or tablet for analysis. “By playing around with speed, water depth and incline, you can target specific muscles, control the heart rate, dictate the horse’s stride length and work on the horse’s straightness,” says Richard Norden, sales and marketing manager.

Elsewhere, scientists are working on ways to help increase athletic performance even when a horse is resting. Dr Barbara Murphy, Head of Equine Science at University College Dublin, has pioneered the use of light therapy on racehorses. Her smart lighting system mimics the effects of natural daylight by exposing horses to the correct spectral intensity of light to synchronise their internal clock. This has been shown to have performance-enhancing benefits, as well as increasing reproductive efficiency in broodmares. Essentially, natural daylight has a high amount of blue, short wavelength light. This blue light targets special photoreceptors in the eye that stimulate the circadian control centre in the brain, boosting activity, metabolism and alertness. 

“When we consider that horses have evolved outdoors under natural photoperiods, they received high intensity blue-enriched light by day, then the sun goes down and they experienced un-interrupted darkness at night. These continuous fluctuating light-dark cycles maintained their strong body rhythms. In contrast, when we stable horses in a box for up to 22 hours a day, it’s really important that we give them the light stimulus that allows their body to work as best as it can,”explains Murphy. Her company, Equilume, offers stable lighting systems and futuristic-looking light masks that shine low-level blue light directly into the horse’s eye. While the importance of correct lighting is only just beginning to be understood, it should not be underestimated, according to Murphy. “We spend so much money on nutrition, training surfaces and veterinary care, [but] the single environmental cue that makes everything work in synchrony in the horse’s body is the light that they receive through their eyes. Temperature and food plays a role, but it doesn’t play as important a role as light. So by improving lighting we can ensure that horses get better value out of their feed, out of their training, out of all other aspects of their management.”

It is not only in the area of performance that technology is playing a role. Programmes such as Stable IT and Equine Medirecord help trainers achieve gains at the margins through maximising efficiency. “The last thing you want to be dealing with is paperwork”, says Pierce Dargan, founder of Equine Medirecord. “Especially paperwork that, if you get it wrong, you can get fined and end up in the papers, or even get criminally prosecuted”…

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