Tuesday, August 29, 2017

The Olympic Athlete of the Animal Kingdom: The Circulatory System of a Horse (A Guest Post)

By Emily Fandrey

How do you judge the abilities of an athlete? Is it all about speed? What about endurance? Strength? How would you judge an animal that can run up to 48 kilometers per hour (30 mph), cover 48 kilometers (30 miles) in a day, or clear a 2.4 meter (8 foot) jump, all while carrying a human on its back? Because of these abilities, the horse (Equus caballus) is often considered to be one of the animal kingdom’s best athletes. The major factor behind horses’ advanced athleticism is their unique circulatory system, specialized for delivering large amounts of oxygen throughout the body.

Image by Paul Kehrer at Wikimedia Commons.

A horse’s circulatory system has three major players: the heart, the spleen, and the frog (and no, this has nothing to do with the animal frog, but rather a specialized unit of a horse’s hoof). Due to these three components, horses have one of the best aerobic capacities in the animal kingdom. Let’s look at a racehorse for example: During a race, a thoroughbred can reach a maximum oxygen capacity (the amount of oxygen the blood can carry) of 200 milliliters per kilogram per minute, meaning 200 milliliters of blood per kilogram of weight (or 3.1 ounces per pound) are transported to the body every minute! This is more than twice the oxygen capacity of the most elite human athlete!

This diagram illustrates the horse’s circulatory system,
including the heart, arteries, veins, and spleen. Diagram by Emily Fandrey.

So let’s break down this superior aerobic system, starting with the horse heart. Typically, a horse’s heart weighs 1% of its total body weight; meaning if a horse weighs 450 kilograms (1000 pounds), its heart will be roughly 4.5 kilograms (10 pounds). If this was true for humans, a 68 kilogram (150 pound) human’s heart would be 0.68 kilograms (1.5 pounds), although the average human heart is only about 0.23 kilograms (half a pound). The horse’s heart functions very similarly to a human heart. It contains four chambers and is responsible for getting oxygen to the body by pumping the oxygen-filled blood. After the body systems have used the oxygen in the blood, this deoxygenated blood enters the heart and is sent to the lungs where the blood is resupplied with oxygen from breathing air. This oxygenated blood reenters the heart and is pumped back out to the body. Because of the size of their hearts, horses are able to supply large amounts of blood with oxygen to the body with each heartbeat, averaging a combined 38 liters (10 gallons) per minute (this is about ten times as much as a human).

Horses also have very different heart rates than humans during rest and exercise. A horse’s resting heart rate is 28-44 beats per minute (bpm), compared to the average human’s, which is 60-80 bpm. During exercise, a human’s heart rate is 90-170 bpm, depending on age. A horse’s heart rate, however, rises to 80 bpm during a walk, 130 bpm during a trot, 180 during a canter, and 240 bpm while galloping. At top speed, the fast beating heart of the horse is what allows the heart to pump much more blood to the body than a human, increasing their athletic abilities.

A diagram of how the horse’s frog sends blood back to heart quickly,
working against gravity. Diagram by Emily Fandrey.

With the long legs of horses, the heart also has to work against gravity to get blood from the limbs back to the heart. To combat this, the horse has its “frog”. For a horse, the frog is a vessel-filled tissue structure on each of its four hooves. When weight is placed on the frog, this structure can help the heart work against gravity. How? When the horse’s hoof meets the ground, the ground will push up on the frog, resulting in the frog being compressed and squeezing blood in the vessels out and rapidly up the leg. The frog helps heart work against gravity by sending the blood up the leg and back to the heart, allowing for faster blood circulation, increasing the athleticism of the horse.

The last key factor to the horse’s circulatory system is the spleen. This organ improves aerobic capabilities and the horse’s athleticism. Now, the primary function of the horse’s spleen is to remove damaged blood cells. However, when a horse is relaxed, their spleen will fill with up to 30 liters (8 gallons) of oxygen-filled blood. And then, once the excitement of activities like running or jumping sparks, the spleen will contract and send up to 25 liters (6.6 gallons) of this stored blood back into circulation in mere seconds! So in seconds, the spleen is capable of almost doubling the maximum amount of oxygen the blood can carry, increasing the athleticism of the horse as well.

So if you ever need an excelling athlete on your team, consider an animal with a superior circulatory system: the horse. With a large and powerful heart capable of pumping large amounts of blood, a spleen to provide an extra burst of blood in seconds, and a “frog” to work against gravity, there is no wonder why horse is considered to be one of the world’s superior athletes.


Allen, K.J., Young, L.E., and Franklin, S.H. (2016). Evaluation of heart rate and rhythm during exercise. Equine Veterinary Education 28: 99-112. DOI: 10.1111/eve.12405.

Cardiovascular System (2007). In EQUINAvet.

Circulatory System of the Horse (2010). In Helpful Horse Hints.

Equine Circulatory System Vet, Horse First Aid (2012). In Equestrian and Horse.

Norton, J. (2013). The equine circulatory system. In EquiMed: Horse Health Matters.

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