Perol Chico’s Sacred Valley Ride and Pancho Fierro Ride are high altitude rides, probably one of the highest altitude rides offered in the world of equestrian tourism. Starting at 9.200ft/2.800m we climb to an altitude of 14.270ft/4.350m. In this article we will try to explain the impact of high altitude on horses.
Regardless of their fitness level, horses do not perform the same at high altitudes as they would at sea level. Altitude begins to take its toll on horses above 5.000 feet (1.524m) and is prominent above 7.000 feet (2.143m). At high altitude the air pressure is lower and there are fewer molecules of oxygen present in the air. For every 1.000 feet (305m) above sea level that you travel, the amount of oxygen in the air decreases by approximately 3%. That means that at 14.000 feet there is 42% less oxygen molecules available per breath! Therefore, the horse’s body must make adjustments to compensate for the difference.
The most obvious way for the horse to compensate is by increasing its respiration rate, or taking more breaths per minute. As the respiration rate increases so does the heart rate in order to pump oxygenated blood throughout the body. The body also responds and starts to generate more red blood cells and capillaries to assist in oxygen transportation. This takes somewhere between 4 to 7 days. After that “acclimation” period, a horse at high altitude may have up to 50% more red blood cells than a horse at sea level. In order to protect vital organs such as the brain and heart, the body also shifts blood flow. As a result, more blood flows to the brain, heart, and lungs and less flows to the other organs in the body such as the digestive organs. The negatives of this protection mechanism are headaches (caused by a sharp increase in the amount of blood flowing through the cranial arteries) and digestive upset (caused by the decrease in blood supply to the digestive organs). But perhaps the largest concern for horses at altitude is dehydration due to the dry air and increased respiration rates. In fact, above 6.000 feet the body exhales and sweats nearly twice as much moisture as it would at sea level.
While our horses live continuously at high altitude (9.200ft./2.800m) they are adjusted to these conditions but it can still be stressful to them when traveling to higher altitudes.
From experience (and mistakes) I have learned that on our long rides we need to allow them two or three days of acclimation time before asking our horses to perform at their best. Our horses seem more fit during the last days of our long rides than on the first couple of days, but that makes all sense knowing what it takes for a horse to get up those high mountains and the time they need to adjust their body.
Honestly, I sometimes get a bit sad when some riders expect a fast pace ride at such incredible high altitudes. They lack common horse sense and don’t realise what it takes for a horse to get on top of the world, and with a rider's weight on his back.
We are always very proud of our horses after each ride, as they always perform incredibly well high in the mountains. They show so much stamina and, as they say in Peru, ‘mucho corazon’. Our horses would outperform any horse coming from sea level, any time.
Eddy van Brunschot