Running, breathing and being a horse

Yesterday, Chris Clarke wrote a post that I read three times so far, then finally submitted it myself for Reed’s consideration for the anthology. Most science bloggers are excellent writers, but rare is the gift that Chris displays in many a post, of weaving many threads into a coherent story that is also gripping and exciting – even when he writes about stuff like respiratory physiology, something that usually puts students to sleep in the classroom. But add a dash of evolution, a cool movie, some dinosaurs, and a personal experience and suddenly the story comes alive for the reader.
This was started as a comment on his blog, but it got long so I decided to put it here instead. You need to read his post in order to understand what in Earth I am talking about.
Human, like a horse.
First, I used to run a lot when I was in middle/high school. My favourite distances were 800m and 1500m and I usually held the school record and came in the top 10 in my age group for the city of Belgrade (pop. 2 mil.). Sure, I am lightweight and have ling legs, but I attributed my success to breathing – in exactly the same way Chris describes: 4 steps to inhale, 4 steps to exhale to begin with, then reducing it to 3, 2 or even 1 step for each inhalation and exhalation as I am approaching the finish line (or on an uphill). I was also breathing very loudly – sounding almost like a horse. And I actually imagined being a horse when I ran – a little imagery helps squeeze those last ounces of energy out of painful muscles in the end.
Horse, like a human.
Back in 1989 or so, I rode a champion sprinter racehorse throughout his winter fitness program, which was pretty much miles and miles of trotting around the track as a part of interval training. He was already getting older at the time and skipped two entire racing seasons out in the pasture, so he needed a good fitness program in order to get back on track and face the younger horses. Two decades later, he still holds the national and track records on 1000m and 1300m, going a kilometer well inside a minute. Translation: a damned fast horse! When the spring came and the professional jockeys arrived, it was time for me to give the horse to them to continue with the fast portion of the training. But, the owners wanted to reward my work by letting me, just once, get the feel for the speed. So, I took him out on the track and started in a steady canter around the course. The old campaigner knew just what to do – when we passed the last curve and entered the final stretch he took in one HUGE breath that made his chest almost double in diameter (I almost lost my stirrups at that moment when he suddenly widened) and took off. There was no way I could look forward without goggles – too much wind in my face. That was friggin’ fast! About 60km/h, I reckon, for that short burst of energy. And, during that entire final stretch he did not breath at all – he did it pretty much all on that one large breath plus anaerobic respiration. Chris, in his post, explains why horses do that. Oh, and that summer, the horse devastated his younger buddies by winning the biggest sprint of the year by several lengths, leaving the rest of the field, including that year’s Derby winner, in a cloud of dust. The audience roared as he was always a people’s favourite.
Horse and human, like a centaur.
One of the most important things in riding horses, something I always did and always taught, although it is rarely taught by others or mentioned in books, is the necessity for the rider to breath in sync with the horse’s movement. This is especially important when riding a nervous or spirited young horse who would otherwise explode. When trotting – three steps for inhale, three for exhale. Canter is more complicated. Stopping breathing leads to stiffening of the body which the horse immediately detects and it makes the horse nervous and more liable to stop at a jump or do something dangerous. It is easy to teach the adults to breath. But for the little kids, they forget, or even do not understand exactly what I am asking them to do. So, I made them sing while jumping courses. If you sing you have to breath all the time. You cannot stop breathing. So, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star got many a scared little kid over all the jumps in my classes as breathing relaxed them and gave their ponies confidence to jump.

3 responses to “Running, breathing and being a horse

  1. When I first started running, quite a few years ago, I was very conscious of my breathing, almost to the point of distraction. Later, as I became a longer and faster runner, I almost never thought of how I was breathing, except when climbing hills. At that point I would begin to chuff like a steam engine climbing a grade. Anyway, as a former runner with bum knees, it’s still nice to think about.

  2. Thank you for the kind words, Bora.

  3. This is interesting. I was told that horses breathe with every stride when running, because of the bulk of the abdominal organs being pressed forward into the diaphragm with every stride; that does sound like what they’re doing.