1. Natural movement is the name of the game
The development of muscle is greatly supported by the natural movement of the horse in the pasture. As a flight animal a horse naturally spends 16 hours eating in the wild. But he does not do so in just one place. When seeking food, a horse may cover up to 30 km in one day (mainly at walking pace), thus helping to preserve muscle and prevent the breakdown of muscle mass. Of course, horses naturally also move in faster gaits for a certain amount of time, for example trotting or galloping. This however is generally prompted by the flight reflex or, given our stabling systems, sometimes through high spirits. In addition, social behaviour involving other horses in the wild in the form of harmless “jockeying for position” and possibly seeing off rivals, likewise has a positive impact on equine musculature. It is not only muscles that are worked here, but also tendons, ligaments and joints, and in a manner that the rider of a horse is unable to produce. This does not just greatly help to stabilise the connective and supporting tissue of the locomotor system but also has a positive, balancing effect on equine mentality if horses are permitted to play out social behaviour with plenty of movement. Turning horses out to grass should therefore not be limited to “solitary confinement” in the paddock but must cater for all needs according to a horse’s nature: food (grass), companions (social behaviour), sufficient space (horses should be able to gallop freely for at least 20 metres).
2. What counts is a balanced diet
Whether during competitive training, following lengthy pauses due to sickness or injury, with breaking-in or advanced age: The reason for the targeted developed of muscle should also significantly influence a horse’s diet, as the maintenance and build-up of muscle mass strongly depends on the composition of its everyday rations. The key factor here involves what are known as the essential proteinogenic amino acids. As basic building blocks for muscle development, they must be contained in a horse’s feed in sufficient quantities if this process can take place at all. It is not the amount of protein that is critical here, but the quality. If these building blocks, the essential amino acids, are not available in adequate levels in feed, all the protein it contains will not be able to bring about muscle building. Feed should thus be adjusted to the fitness and health of each horse, according to the conditions in which he is kept, current weather (horses do not have the same nutrient requirements in summer and winter), the specific characteristics of the breed and of course the training objectives of the animal’s holder.
3. Mastering all terrain
Hacking (preferably in a group) is highly recommended in many regards for ensuring equine fitness. Besides varied fitness training riding both uphill and downhill, an activity that is excellent for developing muscle and strength, different types of terrain also help to make horses more sure-footed, e.g. negotiating forest ground, sandy paths, tree roots, jumping over natural obstacles or patches of water. With frequent variations in terrain, blood flow is supported by the hoof mechanism through constant changes in the shape of the horn of the bulb of the heel, acting here like a sort of muscle pump. In addition, many exercises from dressage or western-style equestrianism are in particular excellent for training specific groups of muscles on suitable ground, ideally riding cross-country. Frequently riding horses in open terrain allows many to become more confident and so develop stronger nerves.
4. Miracles possible with gymnastication
Groundwork, and in particular training with cavaletti (either on the lunge or with a rider), have proved to be highly effective when it comes to gymnastics and loosening muscles, above all those of the back. It is not without reason that riders such as Olympic and European champion Ingrid Klimke rely on schooling with cavaletti. “Working on the lunge with cavaletti is perfect for training qualities in the horse such as suppleness and coordination to optimum effect,” comments Klimke. She adds, “Training with cavaletti strengthens the muscles, promotes hoof cadence, improves expression and sense of rhythm and encourages the horse to think for itself and work independently. Cavaletti exercises on a curved line are above all good for training suppleness of the rib section, length bending and understepping of the inside hind leg.” See here for a video showing Ingrid Klimke using cavaletti with EQUISTROs Siena Just Do It
5. Aqua-training for strength and fitness
It is not essential to buy an aqua-trainer to apply this method for muscle development as it is often possible to make use of such equipment at veterinary practices or physiotherapy facilities. Rivers, lakes, ponds and of course the sea are also excellent for building muscle in water. For gradual muscle development the first step is to start the horse off walking through shallow water (reaching to around the carpal/hock joints) for a period of 10-15 minutes. Training can then be extended to include faster gaits and higher or lower water levels depending on the individual training objective (strength and endurance or selective strengthening of specific muscle areas). It is important here that the horse does not tense up (particularly where the back is concerned) as this could do more damage than good. Something that also makes a nice change for horse (and rider) is to let the horse swim with its entire body immersed in the water on hot days. This enables the horse to exercise all muscles without having to bear its full weight. Aqua-training is thus also an excellent method for rehabilitation following sports injuries.
Vet Dr Caroline FRITZ