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.