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.

Cross Training – What is it all about & why is it so important for EVERY horse?

No matter what discipline, if any, a horses’ training programme needs to be fully balanced and progressive to include all aspects of fitness (cardiovascular, speed, stamina, endurance, strength, suppleness, flexibility, coordination, agility, balance), plus working through the scales of training; rhythm, suppleness, contact, impulsion, straightness, collection, and improvement of skill level. A training programme needs to progressively overload the systems of the body for optimal and functional adaptation. Training and conditioning for all disciplines is a very fine balance between optimal adaptation and an overuse injury. Trying to work on all of these factors within one discipline can only be done through repetitive movements which is the major cause of overuse injuries such as ligament issues, mainly suspensory, tendon issues, muscle strain, wear and tear on the joints.

What is cross training?

Cross training involves adding different types of exercise, movement, disciplines or modalities into a training routine to achieve an overall more rounded fitness level and set of skills that the body can then call on when needed. If a horse is constantly trained dressage on a perfectly harrowed surface, one day for some reason there is a rut on the surface or a slightly hard patch due to frost or drought, causes the horse to roll on its step that it is not used to doing which takes the limb rotation into a different plane it is not used to, this can cause a strain on the DDFT or other soft tissues for example. If this horse was regularly ridden on varied or uneven terrain, grass, roads, hardcore, its tissues of the limbs in particular would be better conditioned to the variety in movement and would have no issue in coping with this minor anomaly in the surface.

Why cross train?

In human research athletes who specialise in a single sport had an 85% higher chance of injury than those who that do multiple activities (McGuine et al. 2017), this is expected to be higher in horses.

For a horse specialised in an individual discipline (ie exclusively a show jumper, exclusively a dressage horse), the repeated loading and strain from the one particular movement in one plane, doing the same thing day in day out will have the same effect. But also repeated riding in a poor movement pattern or with compensatory mechanisms in play being repetitively overloaded will also cause training overload associated injury, e.g. lack of flexibility, suppleness, fitness, subtle lameness/ unsoundness or asymmetry, pain, unbalanced rider as a one off may not cause much of a problem to the horse but if this is a repeated pattern will lead to injury. Hence, this is also another major reason for:

a.) Having your horse regularly checked and treated by an advanced qualified and experienced equine physical therapist to pick up on these minor anomalies in symmetry, posture etc. and correct these before they are repetitively loaded, affect performance, and cause lameness.

b.) having a coach that is dedicated to your horses’ correct way of going, global body mechanics and correct rider biomechanics rather than getting you to jump that big jump, perform movements that neither rider or the horse are ready for.

Cross training also allows for muscle recovery time, allowing the horses body time to repair and replace any damaged tissues.  DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) caused by build up of lactic acid that the body needs to remove and repair of muscle and free radical damage takes around 48 – 96 hours, replacement of muscle glycogen takes around 48 – 72 hours. Other types of exercise can be done within this time just not the same type of repetitive loading and alternative exercise and movement can actually help with these times.

Therefore, we cross train so we can continue to work them just in a different way, to work on different aspects of the scales of training or fitness to prevent excessive overload, to give them a better rounded education and to protect them against injury:

For horses cross training is adding a variety of exercises and training:

  • Non-training related exercise – e.g. turn out, which has proven to be protective against lameness
  • Varying surfaces – helps with tissue adaptation and also educates the horse in matters of proprioception and coordination which, again, helps to protect against lameness
  • Stable exercises – good as a baseline before introducing other types of exercise and training, without the weight of the rider or challenge of movement. They increase flexibility, improve strength and endurance of the muscles and most importantly they switch on correct neuromuscular pathways. These include exercises such as active baited stretches, isometric contractions; ask your equine physical therapist for more and appropriate prescriptive specific exercises that are appropriate at the present time for your individual horse
  • Proprioceptive training – poles, bending, inclines, declines, circles, surfaces, again ask your physical therapist about specific proprioceptive training for your horse and their individual stage of development
  • Ground work and other work off the horses back – including lunging (video on correct use of lunging coming soon, keep a eye on social media for more info), long reining, straightness training, classical training
  • Cross discipline – a dressage horse going on a farm ride, hacking, a happy hacker having a little jump, a show jumper learning piaffe, half pass etc. puts the body into a different range of motion that can be extremely beneficial to aspects of fitness and help the body to avoid injury. The engagement to work on these movements can also help to increase overall suppleness and flexibility and it can always help to be able to make a jump off turn by a stride of leg yield that the horse is used to doing instead of having to perform a sharp turn which can be very damaging to limbs so it can help avoid injury in this way too.
  • Psychological benefits of cross training is also surmountable – it helps to prevent sourness and staleness of a particular discipline.

Overall, to prevent injury, for your horses health, fitness, sanity, and increasing their performance in your chosen discipline, cross training is essential for long term benefits.

Rehabilitation Plans How Can They Go Wrong

Rehabilitation plans can often seem difficult and daunting.  You have spent a lot of money on expensive veterinary treatments or operations and now your horses success or failure lies in your hands.  You know it is important that you get it right but often the support isn’t there or you don’t know where it is  going wrong until it is too late.

Rehabilitation plans are normally formulated by your vet & /or your physical therapist to provide prescriptive exercise to help your horse recover from injury or illness so that they can hopefully return to the same level of performance as they previously were, or as close to it as is now physically possible. The most common injuries that I formulate rehab plans for include back pain and spinal dysfunction including kissing spine, spondylosis, arthritis, soft tissue injuries such as tendon, ligament and muscular strains and tears, arthritic conditions, and fractures. Most of these conditions require veterinary intervention followed by a course of physical therapy and a prescriptive exercise plan.  These rehab plans use movement and specific exercises to strengthen and support the horse to initiate gait retraining to recover the injury, prevent further injury to the same area or another area in compensation and to optimise function.  These exercises need to be correct, appropriate, progressive and within the correct time frame.  Sometimes rehab plans fail in that the horse does not return to full expected performance level or soundness, or develops another lameness in another area due to compensation.  In my experience the main reasons for this include:

–          Not understanding what it is that is required at each stage – if you don’t understand the exercise or what it is exactly that you should be doing, no matter how stupid you think the question might be, ask anyway, as even doing something slightly incorrectly when repeated over and over can make a massive difference to the success or failure of a rehab plan.

–          Not executing the exercises correctly – the amount of time I see owners not doing exercises correctly, one that I see so often is in-hand walking, how hard can it be, you would think?! In-hand walking shouldn’t be just dawdling along.  It should be an active walk so the horse is doing more of a medium walk, you should be power walking along side the horse, if you are not out of puff from in-hand walking for 15 mins you are probably not doing actively enough for your horse.  You will get back in shape too!  For other exercises too, ask your horses physical therapist to watch you completing the exercise to ensure you are doing it correctly.

–          Not wanting to do a specific exercise because the horse/owner doesn’t like it, doesn’t enjoy doing it, finds it difficult. Rather than working with the horse to calmly encourage them to complete the exercise they try to get the horse to do it by force causing it to be rushed and fearful, anything the horse does out of fear will never be productive or successful in its aims. Time and patience are paramount when it comes to rehabilitation and exercises.

–          Being in too much of a rush – lots of owners are in a hurry to move on to the next stage, in a rush to get back on board, a rush to get trotting, a rush to go from box rest, to get the horse turned out again, etc.

–          Doing exercises too fast – most exercises are best done at a walk; poles, hills etc. So that there is control over limbs and movement, stability, the horse cannot use the momentum and ground reaction force to get itself over the poles that it does in higher gaits.

–          Using inappropriate training aids.  For the majority of rehab plans training aids are not required.  Sometimes a veterinary guided rehab plan they recommends using pessoa or similar. For the majority of cases this is most defiantly not required and can hinder regaining correct posture and movement.  Also the vets don’t check that it is being used correctly which again for most cases it is not!

–          Not doing enough – some times owners seem to think that lengthening the rehab plan is beneficial for the horse and sometimes it can be, but this should be done in conjunction with your physical therapist and or vet as for certain injuries this is not always appropriate as it is the progressive loading exercise that actually aids healing and recovery so if you are lengthening this you may be hindering them.  But also lengthening the treatment plan you need to ensure that you are doing the same exercise for longer.  I have seen some rehab plans fail where the owner has discussed with the vet about lengthening the rehab plan but they take that as do a few weeks of rehab then nothing for a week or 2, then pick it back up again when they have time for a week, then rest for a few weeks again.  It needs to be consistently carried out.

–          Not keeping up to date with regular physical therapy treatments.  Quite often when a horse becomes lame, and is under veterinary treatment the owner will cancel their regularly planned treatment session, with a reasoning of well if the horse isn’t being ridden I won’t feel the benefit.  However, it is important that we do even more as if the horse is lame it will compensate its movement patterns or if it is on box rest will not be doing much movement at all. So it is important that we try to keep the joints as mobile as possible, we keep the rest of the horses body as free and as supple as possible, reduce as much of the secondary and compensation issues as possible.  This is all done under veterinary guidance, it is important that your physical therapist and vet work together for the long term benefit of the horse.

–          Not being fully open and honest with your vet and / or physical therapist.  When we come for a review and reassessment it is important that you are completely honest with what you have been doing with the horse.  If you haven’t been able to complete certain aspects of the plan, you hate hacking, or you decided to up it a level before it was recommended, you need to be honest as this will affect what we are seeing, feeling and the plan we make moving forwards, which can severely affect the success or failure of the plan. Don’t just be a people pleaser and nod yes I have been doing everything as per the plan when you know full well that is not the case

Everything you should know about fascia and it’s implications for training

fascia title

Fascia is often the forgotten tissue of the musculoskeletal system and until relatively recently was thought to be irrelevant.  However, a greater understanding of horse movement, injury, perception, coordination, transmission of muscle force, biomechanics and the adaptations of the fascial system, have shown the importance of this tissue.  There is not a vast amount of research into the equine fascial system, but human fascia research has become more prevalent over recent years as its importance has become more apparent. More research into equine fascia is coming through, however some of the human data can be extrapolated for use in the equine sphere, as in 2017 Skalec & Egerbacher investigated the structure and innervation of the deep fascia of the equine forelimb.  Using dissection, histology and immunohistochemistry, they found that the general structure of the equine forelimb fascia corresponds to the characteristics of the human limb fasciae. However, Ahmed et al. in 2019, examined the histological differences between horse and dog fascia at specific regions compared with the human model, finding equine fascia exhibits a tight, dense composition, while in the dog’s is looser with non‐dense structure.  Equine fascia appears to be different from canine and human fascia, whilst canine fascia is very comparable to the human model.  This shows the need for more specific equine fascia research.

The Fascial System The fascial system in horses, people and dogs is an intricate complex interconnected network of tissue encompassing all fibrous connectie tissue, enveloping muscles, bones and organs individually and connecting them. fascia Fascia wraps around nerves, blood vessels and other structures forming an uninterrupted, three-dimensional web. This continuous mesh travels through the entire body as one net with no separation from top to toe, or from skin to core.  Fascia keeps the body organised, creating shape and function, and is therefore involved in overall musculoskeletal health.  It holds the musculoskeletal system together, pulling in on tissues as they press out as a tensegrity system. Due to the proprioceptive capacity of fascia and its influence on sensation signals between body and brain, the fascial system can be classed as the largest sensory tissue, therefore is required for structural integration, stability, balanced movement and postural compensation.  It is the organ of stability and mechano-regulation determining how a body is able to move and is necessary for muscles to function with approximately 30% of force transmission occurring through fascia.  Findley et al., 2015 studied the transmission of muscle force to fascia during exercise and found that substantial forces are experienced laterally through fascial tissues when muscle shortens. Fascias’ composition is varied depending on its location and role within the body.  Most is composed of dense, closely packed collagen fibres in layers of thick fibrous bundles with sparse elastic fibres covered by loosely woven laminae of areolar connective tissue. Nerve fibres and blood vessels are throughout; numerous in the areolar tissue but scarcer in the compact layers.  However, some fascia is extremely intricate like the delicate meningeal fascia of the nervous system. Fascias’ multi-layered composition of various densities, textures, molecular and cellular components is thought to facilitate resistance to gravitational forces, volume changes and transmission of muscle force during movement.  Deep profunda fascia under the superficial layer is dense fibrous sturdy tissue in some areas but is less developed in others.  Some deep fascia supports core structures such as the dura matter, mediastinum, pericardium, diaphragm and pelvic floor. Deep fascia can be divided into 2 types; aponeurotic and epimysial fascia.  The aponeurotic fascia envelops muscles connecting them, forming compartments of limbs and fascia septae between muscle groups, it  is thick and tightly attached to the underlying muscle, while the epimysial fascia is specific for each muscle defining it.  In areas of force transmission and movement change, stability is needed; these areas are covered with aponeurotic fascia, e.g. the lumbar back and ventral line. In areas where more movement is needed, fascia is thinner, providing proprioception for refined movement. Retinacula areas are all over the body, which sense movement and posture precisely. Microscopically  crimping of collagen fibres is visible in horse fascia, and histology reveals species variations between horse and dog fascia are related to the absence/presence of superficial adipose tissue and the amount of elastic fibres. Dysfunction of the Fascial System Good musculoskeletal function depends on pliability of the fascia, not just for movement but for sensory input, as the sensory nerves communicate between muscles and the central nervous system are found in fascia. When fascia is well-functioning, fibres slide and glide over one another allowing the fascia to move in all directions.  When it becomes disorganised, strained or dehydrated, its ability to glide is impaired, it loses its flexibility leading to reduced range of motion in muscles and joints. Areas of tissue become thickened and tug on the fascial network further up the chain and when the body moves with tension fascia thickens and stiffens even further.  The cause can be a natural consequence of trauma or injury, repetitive actions, inflammation, or immobility or when the body is forced to show movements its tissues are not prepared for.  Fascia adapts to restricted patterns and spreads it throughout the horse’s entire system beginning the cycle of restriction producing more restriction.  The result is fascia no longer has as much give contributing to overall musculoskeletal pain.  In turn this leads to local and global problems in the body, signals about joint position and muscle coordination falter causing acute and chronic imbalance, myofascial imbalance, joint, venous and lymphatic dysfunction.  This also accounts for the compensations that are seen in the body which can occur far away from the source; therefore restriction can be in one or several movement directions and will affect more than just that area. Fascia Training for Specific Disciplines Trainers of all equestrian disciplines are interested in finding a movement that is free and as effective as possible without compromising other areas of horse health. To achieve this, fascia needs to function well.  Depending on how the horses’ body is used, demolition and building will happen as fascia adapts to these changes applied to it. Peak limb force is a major determinant of the strain placed on the musculoskeletal tissues of the limbs. The peak load that can be withstood by the limbs limits maximum speed.  Every cell in the body is hooked into, and responds to the tensional environment of the fascia. The extra-cellular matrix of the fascia is capable of remodelling itself in a variety of ways, in response to direct signalling from the cells; injury; long-held mechanical forces; use patterns, gravity; and chemistry within the body. If mechanics are altered the cells can change their function.  The intricacies of fascia remodelling are still being researched but knowledge of tensegrity (tension and integrity) and remodelling is the future basis for therapy and discipline specific training.  Change the demand on the fascial system, by training for specific discpline or sport, and it responds to that new demand for optimal posture and function essential for the demands of the discipline.  It also means small problems can be prevented from escalating into larger issues and to help the long-term consequences of injury. When thinking about discipline specific fascia training, fascial elasticity is also an important element to consider.  Fascial elasticity is stored and returned quickly so is only a factor when the motion is cyclic and quickly repeated, such as galloping, but not when the repetitive cycle is too slow.  Building in this elasticity requires putting demand on the tissues slowly. The fascial system responds better to variation than to a repetitive program. Evidence suggests that the fascial system is better trained by a wide variety of adjustments in angle, tempo, load, etc. Working in one track may be useful for muscles but is not beneficial for fascia. Loading the tissue one way means it will injure more easily when a movement out of its usual line occurs. This is vital to consider when thinking of a flat race horse where training is linear, with little if any cross training, variety is low and movement is highly repetitive.  Exercises that focus repetitively on the same range or plane of motion cause fascia to become sticky and thick, limiting glide which causes some of the dysfunction previously discussed. This is also important to consider at the elite end of dressage where demand to get the precise technical movements faultless, such as piaffe for example, can mean some highly repetitive training.   Not only that, the variation in forces of different movements change physiological demand, for example, in passage, there are higher vertical impulses than in collected trot, causing greater elevation of the centre of mass therefore greater ground force reactions. Forelimb and hind limb vertical force distribution determines the position of the centre of pressure. Horses are thought to adjust force magnitudes in order to control movements around the centre of mass the fascial systems proprioceptive and adaptive precision is thought to play a large role in this.  Elite dressage horses may also not be getting the same multidisciplinary exercise they were at the lower levels. A logical training regime based on applicable, variable strategies providing different movement directions and exercises at each horse’s level will help fascia develop well and remain healthy.  Seven myofascial lines have been found in the horse, whole body movements that engage these chains are the best way to train the fascial system and cross discipline training will help get the variation in movement required.  According to Myers 2009 looking at human fascial training these methods include exercises of adaptive movement; due to the role of fascia in proprioception and kinaesthetics, proximal initiation; starting movements with a dynamic pre-stretch, initiation in the desired direction and letting the more distal parts of the body follow in sequence, like an elastic pendulum, however this is difficult to achieve with horse.  Also surface tissue stimulation to enhance proprioception; rubbing and moving the skin and surface tissues to enhance fascial proprioception can be extremely effective.  This is due to the multitude of sensory nerve endings, which may also help to communicate to the nervous system there is no longer need for tension in the area, also the basis of some fascial release techniques which aim to improve the slide and glide of the tissues, hydrating them through compressing and releasing. This pushing on fascia between bones, muscles, organs, and nerve fibres has been shown to free mobility more than passive stretching alone.  Research shows that due to the influence of myofascial release on the nervous system, it largely helps with the baseline tone of muscles too. spock3 (2) A well hydrated fascia network plays an enormous role in overall fitness too, so it is vital that the facial system is fully functional and well trained.   Management and overall state of health also has a big effect on the fascia such as amount of turnout so the horse can get the chance to use its body freely, in many different ways, on different surfaces and terrain. Conclusion The effect of a healthy fascial system on the horses’ body as a whole has been shown to be highly relevant, and an important factor to consider when training horses’, be it for racing, show jumping, eventing, barrel racing or dressage.  For example in flat racing good fascia health is required so the whole of the musculoskeletal system is working at maximum effectiveness to get the speed and stamina required.  In the dressage horse the refinement and precision that comes from the sensory and proprioceptive capacities of the fascial system are of highest importance.  A need to ensure the fascial system is not over looked, as it has been in the past, has been highlighted in this review. It is extremely important when choosing training methods to ensure fascia training is taken into account, consequently all the structures of the musculoskeletal system will be supported and enhanced by a well maintained fascial network in the course of the horse’s education, as well as helping refine the skills involved in each discipline and preventing injury.  Developing better fascial training plans based on the demand of each individual equestrian sport can extend functional movement up the age scale to ensure career longevity future proofing the horse.  More equine specific research relating to fascial response to specific training is required so more specific equine exercises can be developed.