Marginal Gains in Performance Horses
Date: 16 January, 2017
The marginal gains philosophy is based on the view that a series of small, positive improvements in training and race or competition day processes, will cumulatively result in a significant improvement in competition performance and ultimately contribute greatly to increased success.
British cycling raised awareness of this approach with their successes over recent years. It’s now firmly integrated into their teams training routines and permeates across cycling and other sports. In cycling this may range from improved manufacturing technology to increase bike performance, through to ensuring a good nights rest prior to competition by delivering each cyclist’s mattress and pillows to their hotel. The instigator behind this approach, Sir David Brailsford, suggests the winning of a competition or race is not really within your control, however the chance of winning increases considerably if the athlete is competing at their absolute best.
It could be said that the marginal gains philosophy simply expands upon the approach of ‘leaving no stone unturned.’ However, it is much more involved than making slight amendments to the way your team carries out one or two tasks or introducing a new piece of equipment. Marginal gains surpasses this and further requires a critical mind-set, where one is prepared to truly analyse the entire process of training and racing from start to finish and to then implement changes as an integrated approach.
Brailsford himself suggests that a key difference between those that succeed and those that don’t is the ability to be self-questioning, to assess where weaknesses or failures exist. Those that take responsibility for their actions and the actions of their team are more likely to review what they could have done differently to improve the outcome next time.
Trainers are the performance directors for each equine athlete
It often seems that in horse sports the trainer, owner or rider is constantly looking for the next panacea for performance, whether it is a particular product used by an esteemed compatriot, or a new supplement. Unfortunately, large performance gains rarely happen and we need to accept that in general, this kind of huge shift is very difficult to achieve by changing only one factor. However, marginal gains and the application to horseracing and wider horse sports is a fascinating subject and whilst my expertise is largely within the field of equine science and nutrition, I hope to provoke some interesting thoughts on the hugely complex process of training racehorses and further discussion around the touch-point areas of the wider horse industry.
When seeking potential marginal gains, all areas of the entire process of bringing a horse to a big competition or to the racecourse would need to be evaluated, to look for elements that could be improved by just a small amount. In isolation a 1% difference in performance may not be noticeable, particularly given all the other variables that affect performance on race or competition day. However, when a series of 1% improvements are added together, the cumulative effect leads to an increased chance of winning.
Trainers in horseracing and riders of sport horses are clearly both at the head of the entire process and could perhaps be regarded as the performance directors for each equine athlete. As such, one of their key tasks is to build a capable, reliable and informed team who are able to critically evaluate their own contribution to the objectives. Good staff are essential, as they are in continuous contact with the horses they represent the rider / trainers eyes and ears and can raise any issues they encounter. It’s no secret that a happy workforce is one where staff feel valued and appreciated, are motivated to reach a team goal and where they take ownership and responsibility for their own tasks and actions. The marginal gains achieved through such a team are many and with ongoing difficulties in recruiting and retaining good staff, this is perhaps one of the most critical areas for evaluation.
Ilka Gansera Leveque is a relatively new addition to Newmarket, UK’s band of flat race trainers; she is a vet by training, was an assistant in the USA, an apprentice jockey in Germany and has also spent time with horse behavioral expert Monty Roberts. Ilka supports the marginal gains philosophy and I asked for her thoughts: “Marginal Gains are really what a true horseman is constantly looking for. I’ve been applying this philosophy to every horse that comes to Saint Wendred’s, especially if they are second or third hand horses. It’s so important to listen to the horse (trying to understand and figure out their particular problems). Just doing what everyone else has done previously will not help the individual to improve. You need to be specific and individual in your approach. Being up to date on technology etc. is a must. A passion for horses and racing from the trainer and all staff is so important for this philosophy to work.”
Looking beyond the training process and to close connections such as breeders, bloodstock agents, jockeys, vets, physiotherapists and nutritionists, all have a part to play in realizing their own marginal gains to contribute towards the ultimate success of the horse.
Where to look form marginal gains
Genetic potential undoubtedly contributes hugely to performance. In racing, genetic profiling in terms of racing distance, talent and precocity are used more frequently these days and will no doubt bring new opportunities for characterizing equine athletes in the future. It may be the case that with better bred horses there is less pressure to find those small improvements. Although, it’s expected that riders and trainers would wish to get the absolute best out of each horse. If you have a yard of horses that are less talented or well bred, a marginal gains approach may allow them to achieve success beyond their genetic profiling.
Nutrition is a key area where considerable marginal gains can be made for the yard as a whole or for individual horses, whether that’s forage, concentrates or supplements. Equine nutritionists can highlight areas that can be improved within a feeding program and can make recommendations on changes to aspects of feed management to secure marginal gains.
We know that forage has an impact on the incidence of gastric ulcers and respiratory health, as well as psychological well-being. All of which has an effect on performance. The most important factors when it comes to feeding forage to racehorses are, is it clean? And, how much to feed? Ensuring clean forage all of the time can be a challenge as you may experience varying standards from the same supplier and there are numerous choices to be made. For example, whether to use hay, haylage or another alternative? Homegrown hay or imported hay? Do you intend to test new batches? How to store the forage and whether to soak or steam hay? Ascertaining the optimum intake per day for both performance and health is a difficult balance. Do we even know what it should be?
Turning to concentrate feed, thinking beyond brand comparisons and the relationship you have built with your supplier and how easily they meet your needs. Could we find a marginal gain by feeding less per meal and feeding small amounts more often or do we encourage horses to graze on their concentrate feed? This may or may not be logistically possible and may require increased use of technology such as automatic feeders. What about starch content? Is performance increased with high starch feeds, or are horses healthier on a feed with a low to moderate starch content and better able to perform to their genetic potential.
There are also many supplements available, all offering differing benefits. Some offer no realistic gain, whilst others are well researched with data to back-up a proven effect in horses. These will also offer a marginal gain in addition to the other improvements achieved.
Technology such as GPS and heart rate monitors have the potential to offer small but significant gains through the monitoring of key metrics such as, stride length, speed, split times and heart rate recovery. Therefore allowing improved evaluation of talent, fitness, health and readiness to compete.
Aside from our equine athletes, jockeys and sports horse riders are clearly key to each individual sport and should also regard and treat themselves as athletes. A similar marginal gains philosophy could be applied to their training regime, nutrition, psychology and the clothing and equipment used. This could have a compounding positive effect when added to the gains made in the training of the horse.
Jockeys often face the challenge of balancing optimum racing weight against maintaining optimum nutrition for performance and this is a critical area where there is potential for positive change. Certainly as jockeys embrace good nutrition as a way of maintaining a sustained racing weight, they can be more able to ride to their best.
Equipment used in horseracing particularly rarely changes over the years and perhaps there is scope to redesign certain items, for example, racing exercise saddles have changed very little and yet there are many horses that experience sore backs during their career. Perhaps recent technological advances could be applied to saddlery including a change in design?
The financial reality
There are of course financial implications of making any kind of change and the implications of a marginal gains approach are largely unknown in horseracing. However, suffice to say that striking a careful balance between analysing any extra costs involved and realising expected gains must be achieved. There is always scope for improvement to horse management, some of which has either no increase or limited increase in cost. It would seem like a sensible first step to put in place a few changes to achieve some early gains, to then encourage further development of this concept. For example, could it be worth looking at the timing of exercise during the day? Is there a benefit in exercising horses at a particular time, or is it just that it’s always been done that way? What about working hours and the retention of staff? Perhaps more horses could be allowed access to pasture on a more regular basis? Which may increase gut and respiratory health, as well as lessen the stress on a stabled horse in training.
To realize and benefit from marginal gains these suggestions should not be viewed or implemented in isolation. It is only when they are used as part of a holistic approach that they potentially become a more significant factor. All processes should be assessed and analysed approached with an open mind and the answer should never be ‘because we’ve always done it like that.’ There is a balance to achieve between challenging our traditions and embracing a science led approach, whilst also respecting practical experience. It is to be expected that a marginal gains approach may take you beyond commonly accepted knowledge and into the realms of innovation. This kind of trial and error approach taken over time is not new to equine folk; we often try different things with different horses. Embracing the marginal gains philosophy could be a natural thing to do, albeit challenging, but potentially immensely rewarding for individuals and for the horse industry as a whole.