Secretariat, Man O’War, Frankel, Bucephalus; all are incredible horses with amazing athletic abilities. But what makes a great horse great? As described by Latham et al. in a recent Animal Frontiers article, the mitochondria, or powerhouse of the cell, is at least partially responsible for athletic performance. Through a complex chain of events, mitochondria use electrons and other intracellular proteins to generate adenosine tri-phosphate, or ATP. ATP is then used by muscles and other tissues in the body as an energy source. The number and productivity of the mitochondria impact how efficiently ATP is produced, and the potential for athletic ability in the horse.
Athletic horses may perform endurance or sprinting competitions. In horses competing in endurance competitions, where they require relatively small amounts of ATP over a long period of time, there are many mitochondria present in the muscle. In contrast, horses performing in sprinting competitions have many fewer mitochondria. However, the number of mitochondria present in the muscle increases with exercise training, regardless of the type of training (sprint or endurance).
Recent work by Latham et al. has identified that different mitochondrial characteristics may cause one animal to be suited to specific types of activities. In Thoroughbred racehorses, preliminary data indicates that future sales price (a proxy for predicted success) is positively correlated with mitochondrial efficiency (Guy et al., 2020) and that race earnings as two- and three-year-olds is associated with measures of mitochondrial function (Latham et al., 2019). Initially determined by genetics, these mitochondrial characteristics may be refined by exercise and other factors (e.g., nutrition) to refine their function and improve performance.
In the future, it may be possible to use mitochondrial “type” to identify the athletic events in which you (or your horse!) are most likely to be successful.
Explore the infographic to learn more:
Take a further look into what makes an athletic horse in these related articles in Animal Frontiers:
- “Osteoarthritis: A common disease that should be avoided in the athletic horse’s life” by R. Baccarin, S. Seidel, Y. Michelacci, P. Towkawa, and T. Oliviera
- “Neurologic conditions in the sport horse” by D. Bedenice and A. L. Johnson.
- “The Olympic motto through the lens of equestrian sports” by Hobbs, S. J. and H. M. Clayton.
- “Equine exercise physiology – challenges to the respiratory system” by M. Mazan.