Everyone knows the situation: A horse is not fit, shows behavioral problems or is otherwise somehow conspicuous. Now the difficult question arises what’s amiss. Neither owner, trainer, rider nor medical staff or caregivers have any idea what is wrong with the horse.
For several decades, hair analysis has been used in human medicine with considerable success. Therefore, it was obvious to examine whether a hair analysis could also provide similar indications in horses. In addition, it was examined as to whether hair analysis can be used to predict the performance potential of horses. In concrete terms, the aim was to investigate the extent to which a horse is able to perform at its best.
In order to answer the questions regarding health and performance, hair samples from 261 horses were analyzed. In the selection of horses, explicit consideration was given to very successful horses, but also to those that performed below expectations.
In the first investigations, hair from thoroughbreds as well as from warm and cold blooded horses and ponies was analyzed. For several reasons, it seemed appropriate to focus on thoroughbreds. Finally, 234 hair analyses of thoroughbreds were performed.
All horse hair analyses were subjected to a blind test. Age, sex, feeding, diseases, medications, etc. were not known at the time of the analysis. In some cases, the analyses were performed completely anonymously, i.e., the horses had pseudonames or were numbered and only the trainer/owner knew the assignment.
At the beginning of the study, a meaningful set of different tests had to be found. Once this challenge was met, all hair samples could be analyzed under the same conditions. Mathematical formulas were then used to determine which of more than 4,000 traits were significant in answering health and performance potential.
Surprisingly, results were already available after about 170 hair analyses, but these did not stand up to a subsequently practiced examination. Thus, further tests were necessary. After about 90 further hair analyses, significant results were obtained.
In addition to numerous psychological findings, significant information was obtained about health aspects that are crucial for performance. Finally, six performance characteristics could be identified.
It is obvious that successful high performance horses fulfill four of the mentioned six characteristics. One level below that, horses that achieve three of the six traits are still capable of very good, but not excellent performance. Horses that meet less than two performance characteristics are inconsistent in their performance. It is entirely possible for such horses to win a major race/tournament, but there is a lack of consistency.
Another finding is that performance factors are changeable. Horses with low performance factors can develop into higher performance potentials with proper effort. In this context, it must be mentioned that complete rehabilitation could not be observed. Horses with low performance potential could improve, but reaching the two highest levels was not possible.
Finally, one characteristic crystallized which is of importance with regard to continuity. In numerous conversations with trainers and owners, horses were mentioned that were successful in important races, but then followed several weeks, even months, in which they could not participate in any competition due to injury. Strikingly, exactly in these horses a characteristic, which was not one of the already mentioned performance characteristics, was negative.
In order to be able to answer the question concerning health, clear statements can also be made in this regard. The individual health of a horse is directly related to its performance potential. Only in top healthy horses could very good performance potential be discovered. Conversely, it was noticeable that ponies, cold-blooded and partly also warm-blooded horses differed clearly from the thoroughbred from a health point of view.
The results of the study clearly confirm the high importance of hair analysis for the assessment of health and performance in high performance horses. To what extent a statement regarding the suitability of a horse for class, list or group racing is possible could be the subject of a further study.