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Half Dome, Yosemite National Park

Half Dome, Yosemite National Park

The absence of any blog last week after my last entry may have led many to believe I did a Thelma and Louise with T-man. Not so, the bad day ended, the sun shone on the next day and I found myself 3,000 miles across country and 7,000 feet in elevation. I went hiking with the “forever young” in the altitudes of Yosemite and read a good dog book along the way. It was a welcome break from covering the laments of the racing and casino situation in New Jersey. But those three topics, altitude, dogs and racing, wandered indiscriminately through my head while I attended to the Jersey Squat, hiking in the snow at Yosemite. (for the unfamiliar, the Jersey Squat is squatting down on your knees in precarious footing so you don’t slip and break an ankle. I have no pride when it comes to avoiding injury.)

Some of the hiking in Yosemite is up in the 6-8,000 feet range. High enough to make you huff a bit sooner than normal due to slightly less air molecules. Huffing made me think about stories of the Quechua in the Andes, who are described as having superior lung capacity and resulting stamina. Seems being born in the rarified atmosphere produces a larger, more effective lung at moving large quantities of air without wearing down the respiration muscles.

Jumping across the rocks, my mind also jumped to racing and what makes a winner. I’m not involved in the race industry but know that every angle of the horse is studied. The racehorse is bred for speed and anything that has a positive effect on speed is on the breeding check list. Top of the list is breathing power. If there isn’t enough oxygen to fuel the cells then it doesn’t matter how fast the muscles can move, or how much blood there is to move the oxygen, speed is not going to happen.

I did a wee little investigation when I got home and looked up some lung facts in Marlin and Nankervis’ book Equine Exercise Physiology. Great little book if you are serious about how you horse actually converts food into energy and then energy into movement.

available at Amazon

available at Amazon

Well, it turns out that you can’t increase lung size with training. You can increase the muscles that move the air in and out in the lung with training, up to 30%. That’s huge. But what if you could, through the environment and breeding, increase the actual size of the lung. Instead of growing the racehorse down in beautiful fields, what would happen if they were born and grew in high meadows, say 4-6,000 feet above sea level. It would take generations before a change was made. The doggy book described an experiment with foxes that took 40 generations, but significant (dramatic) changes were noted in that time. 40 generations is a long time for an experiment with horses, but doable. What if the high altitude produced a steed of larger lung capacity. This is assuming the stock bred was quality race material for muscle power, etc.

At the gallop the horse’s lung is a limiting factor. It would be interesting to see if just breeding and growing in a higher environment could enlarge the lung function and make it more efficient.

Of course nothing stands alone. What does thinner air do to the strength of bone, hemoglobin content, heart rhythm, etc.? The Quechua come out adapted, but populations of other high altitudes don’t fare as well. There is a definite genetic component. And what happens when that 2-year old comes down to train at sea level?But by using the environment as an influence there might be less alteration of the other aspects needed for racing.

I wonder, though, if you could produce a superior racehorse through high altitude breeding, would that actually change the breeding industry. At what point is there too much investment in real estate, facilities, and support industries to make such a huge change.

True, true, it is all fanciful thinking. But it sure kept my mind busy for the plane ride home.

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