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How do I build muscle on my horse?

This is a question that I get asked a lot especially regarding a certain area. For example, lack of back muscle, hind end, gluteal region, top line, neck etc. Where ever your horse might be lacking, there is one simple answer, exercise & correct nutrition.

There is no magical topline gaining feed or supplement that is going to make your horse gain muscle in the specific area it needs to, however saying that he horse cannot build correct muscle without good general nutrition.  The horse needs to get more energy from the food than it is using per day putting them into a positive energy balance and specifically it needs good quality protein.  What denotes protein quality is the essential amino acid lysine but you cannot simply increase the amount or protein or lysine in the diet to increase the amount of muscle, it doesn’t work like that.  They cannot absorb or use more than their recommended daily amount, feeding too much can cause other problems putting the kidneys under pressure to filter it out into urine.  You will find creatine in lots of horse muscle building supplements which although they have been shown to work for human muscle building, have absolutely no effect on horses as they cannot absorb it. Overall for muscle & general health it is recommended to replace energy from starches & sugars with energy from oils, a balanced vitamin & mineral supplement especially vitamin E, lysine and sufficient salt & electrolytes if in heavy work.

When it comes to the exercise, a variety of correct and appropriate exercise gradually increasing in intensity, duration & frequency over an appropriate amount of time (that varies depending on the individual horse their signalment; age, fitness level, ailments, etc.) is the one thing that in conjunction with correct nutrition can build muscle. We do not increase intensity, duration & frequency at the same time we only ever do one at a time and take a great amount of care not to over train as eventually this will have a negative effect on both muscle building and overall fitness. Once they are at a good general level of health and fitness we start to use more targeted exercises to help with the areas of concern in particular.

What increases the intensity for them? Some things such as terrain, speed, duration, environment, type of exercise, surface all have an effect on the intensity so we can control & use that to help our training. However, other things naturally increase the intensity for the horse that we don’t have as much control over but we need to take into account when thinking about building muscle such as their overall health, weight and condition score, their conformation, the riders weight, weather etc.

Muscle training & training horses in general is a very fine line between loading the muscles hard enough to not only increase the number of muscle fibres (hyperplasia) but also to increase the size of the muscle fibres too (hypertrophy), while at the same time avoiding damage to bone, joints, tendons and ligaments. This why it is important to have regular assessments with someone like me that is a strength and conditioning coach, rider coach and equine physical therapist to ensure that the training programs’ intensity is correct for this horse at the present time.  If there is failure to gain muscle despite targeted training we must consider that this could be due to musculoskeletal disorders or pain, again why regular reassessments with your equine physical therapist are required to monitor this. Just because your horse is not “lame” this does not mean that there cannot be an underlying musculoskeletal condition such as back, neck or SIJ pathology, pain from issues like saddle fit, bridle fit, bitting problems or pain from other disorders within the body such as gastric ulcers. For more information or to discuss your horses training plan, please feel free to contact me.

Why is rider biomechanics so important?

Rider biomechanics is such a massive subject area and one that I am very passionate about, but I don’t want to get in too deep in a simple blog but it is important to me not only as a coach, trainer and rider, but also as an equine physical therapist, it is such an essential aspect of riding that for some reason is so often over looked by coaches. Everyone knows that poor riding can have a negative effect on the horse, their health and way of going. No one likes to think of themselves as a “poor rider” but to me this includes poor rider biomechanics too, as this can massively have a negative influence on the horse. Its not just about having a pretty position it is so much more than that.

So many riders have been taught incorrectly or using out of date research over many years and this has become their body’s default riding position. There is now so much more data that shows how we need to sit, our weight aids, posture, harmony, neutrality, and now it is not been corrected by many coaches and because you can now “ride” you go to coaches that are going to get you jumping higher, wider, bolder, braver, doing higher level dressage moves etc., rather than concentrating on these foundations and the basics of your own biomechanics which if they are not correct, your centre of balance is in the wrong place, your weight aids are incorrect, the horse can’t carry you properly in balance, or you cause him to brace through his back, blocking him, which affects his dynamic posture, he doesn’t move right which over time leads to a long term compensatory lameness issues, but not because of his own compensations (he has those to deal with as well any way!), but because of compensating for you. So in a nutshell; YOU CAN MAKE YOUR HORSE LAME! I see it so often, more often than I would like. Even in some riders at quite a high level, they don’t understand why their horse is blocked through the back when they ride, struggles with certain movements and I can feel it when I come to treat them. Then when I strip everything back and watch them ride, look at their biomechanics on the horse it all becomes obvious. Sometimes all it takes is a few tweaks to their dynamics here and there and it can make a massive difference to the horses comfort and way of going.

A lot of the time when I first start coaching people I take lots of photographs and video’s and use an app called the coaches eye so I can slow everything down, draw on it and show riders exactly where the issues lie, and we can compare the beginning of the session to the end, or in a few sessions time to see the differences that such small alterations make to the horses performance. So often when riders look at videos people take of them they are looking at the horse; is his head in the right position, how much is he clearing the fence by, etc. not at themselves, or they can pick out their flaws but are not sure how to correct them, and some are completely oblivious that their posture is causing the horse to shorten his stride, tighten on the left side etc.

Studies have shown correct seat and position are the basis for a good performance. One study in particular aimed to measure deviations from the correct seat, test a seat improvement program (dismounted exercises), and investigate whether horse behaviour was affected by the rider’s seat and found that in particular improvement of backward tilted pelvis, which I see very often, showed a reduction in horse behaviour classed as “evasive,” and the horses’ heart rate decreased (elevated heart rates are associated with stress and pain). Heart rates of riders decreased therefore it was a either a lot less effort for them to ride in a biomechanically more efficient posture or it was less stressful for them too when the horse is less evasive. 78% of riders felt the exercises improved their riding performance.

It also applies if you have any physical medical issues, tightness, old injuries in your body that affect what you can do, your posture, movement etc. This is when you need to go see a good human body worker yourself, get yourself sorted, as again you will be affecting your horse. Most people put their horse first but there is no point in getting the horse treated if their problem is being caused by you. I work in conjunction with some really fantastic human bodyworkers so that together, both specialists in our own field can get you and your horse to be happier, healthier, sounder, in better harmony and balance so that you can achieve your goals.