Muscle building in horses !! Horse Muscle Anatomy ?

Muscle building in horses is a topic that riders deal with again and again. Be it at the very beginning of a riding horse career, to train and encourage a young horse, after a break from injury, or to keep old horses fit. Building muscle in horses takes time and doesn't happen overnight. Nevertheless, with a few tips and tricks, muscle building in the horse can be sensibly designed and thus promoted in a targeted manner.

Why is it important to build muscle in horses?

Healthy muscle building is important for horses so that they can carry us at all and carry out the tasks required of them. The horse needs a well-functioning musculature, as these are vital organs of the animal. Regardless of whether it is a leisure horse or a competition horse: every horse that is asked to do something must be trained and prepared accordingly. Because only a horse with sufficient muscles can perform and enjoy exercise and training.


Muscles only build up with the demand for 'more'. In other words, muscles have to be activated and challenged regularly so that they build up. Muscle stimuli must therefore be set during training. The best way to do this is with an anaerobic workout. In addition to anaerobic training, there is also aerobic training in sports science. The interaction of both training variants and targeted regeneration breaks lead to a healthy muscle build-up.


A muscle can be understood as a small power plant in which many biochemical processes take place. This requires energy and oxygen to supply the muscle cells with sufficient energy. Muscle building only takes place when the muscle cells grow. Another important factor for healthy muscle building is the appropriate feeding of the horse. Behind all this is always the general well-being of the horse: only a satisfied horse that gets enough food, water, exercise, and contact with other horses can be physically and mentally fit. This fundamental basis is important to be able to train a horse and build muscle in a targeted manner.

How does horse muscle-building work?

horse consists of about 40% muscle mass. It has about 520 different muscles, which are the basis for the movement of the horse. Jumping power, cadence and endurance can only be developed by healthy muscles. The regular and constructive training of a horse is the only way to develop the horse's musculature in a meaningful way. This requires a lot of patience and discipline. Changes in the muscles cannot be seen or felt from one day to the next. The muscle-building itself never really stops or eventually turns into muscle maintenance and that doesn't happen by itself either.

As a rule, muscles begin to break down between six and twelve days without a (sufficient) training stimulus. Nevertheless, a regeneration time between training sessions for the muscles of about one day is just as important as regular activation of the muscles. A muscle can only grow healthily if it is alternately contracted and relaxed. This also includes trying to tense and relax the muscles during a training session - by trying to lengthen and shorten the frame of the horse during a session. The different muscle groups such as the back or neck muscles can be tightened and relaxed again and again by letting the reins chew out of your hand and varying the different gaits and tempos while riding in an upright position. The stretching and stretching of the muscles between the phases of contraction and relaxation is the focus of the exercises.


Muscle building in horses

Sports theory background

Basically, as with humans, it is also important to develop a balanced training process of anaerobic and aerobic training units. This means activating the energy metabolism of the muscles in two different ways. It is not possible to make a very clear distinction between the two training phases. Therefore, they often complement each other within a training session. Nevertheless, they can be differentiated in theory.

Aerobic training can be compared to jogging or slow swimming in humans. One speaks of aerobic energy metabolism when oxygen is also consumed when burning fats and carbohydrates. This is how energy is gained for the work of the muscles. This is what happens with a light but constant training load. The red (persistent) muscle fibers gain their energy from the oxygen they absorb from the blood. Because they contract quite slowly, they are used for low-impact, high-repetition movements. In horses, for example, it is comparable to a forward-down trot. Overall, the horse's body is capable of light exertion through faster breathing and heart rebalance and thus maintains the required (easy) level. The area of ​​aerobic training, therefore, helps above all in burning fat and increasing endurance.

During a particularly intensive and strenuous session, the energy requirement is so high that the oxygen requirement of the muscles cannot be compensated for by increasing the breathing rate alone. The reason for this is that the white muscle fibers are now increasingly being used. These can release more energy in a shorter time, but of course, they also require much more energy. The muscle then incurs an “oxygen debt”. This means that he has to get by with less oxygen than he needs for the ongoing training. This "guilt" can only be compensated for by increasing the supply of oxygen after the end of the training session. That is why the anaerobic energy metabolism then runs alongside the aerobic one..

In anaerobic energy metabolism, the carbohydrate reserves are now converted into energy without oxygen. This is done with the help of lactic acid fermentation, which produces the lactic acid salt lactate. In this phase, no fat reserves can be broken down, since oxygen would be necessary for this. In addition, the energy yield is significantly lower than in aerobic energy metabolism. The resulting lactate can lead to hyperacidity of the muscles and thus to a drop in performance. Therefore, intensive training units such as working on difficult lessons, canter sprints, or many jumps in a short time should always be dosed well.

Nevertheless, the (short) training in the anaerobic area is particularly efficient for muscle building and general performance improvement. Due to their many years of experience, trainers can best assess when horses and riders are in the anaerobic phase of training and how long they can work at this level. Because the threshold between aerobic and anaerobic energy metabolism is always individual for both riders and their horses.

To be able to build up and promote the horse's muscles in a targeted manner, it makes sense to create a training plan. This should be created depending on the age of the horse, the physical conditions, and the goal. The regularity of the training session and the variety are particularly important. Only horses that are routine in training and always get variety in the way training is designed to enjoy the work. This fun affects the motivation and often the willingness to walk a horse. This positive energy of the horse can be demanded and promoted during training and thus training can be more targeted and the muscle build-up in the horse can be controlled.

A brief description of the most important muscles in horses

In horses, a distinction is made between the following three muscle types:

    §  Cardiac musculature: It is the most important musculature in mammals in general, as it is the motor of the circulatory system. The heart muscles cannot be controlled.

    §  Smooth Muscle: It is responsible for the support of the internal organs and the movement in the digestive tract. These muscles cannot be actively controlled either.

    §  Skeletal Muscles: The skeletal muscles are also called the active musculoskeletal system. These include, for example, the leg, neck, and back muscles. This is the musculature that we want to target with our training. Because it serves to stabilize, move and warm the horse's body. The movement is created by the contraction, i.e. the contraction of the muscles.


All skeletal muscles consist of three parts origin, muscle belly and insertion

To build skeletal muscles

All skeletal muscles are made up of three parts. The first is called the origin and faces the center of the body. This is followed by the muscle belly, which is well supplied with blood and very elastic. The end of the muscle will approach called. The approach is turned away from the middle of the body. The tendons each originate from the origin or insertion of a muscle. These enable the transfer of muscle movements to the skeleton. In addition, tendons are only slightly elastic or stretchable but can withstand high tensile strength. They are supplied with blood via the muscles and are attached to the bones with special tendon fibers. These junctions between tendons, bones, and muscles are particularly susceptible to overuse injuries.

In general, muscles are made up of three-quarters water and one-quarter protein, carbohydrate, and fat. Each muscle consists of ten to fourteen muscle bundles, which are made up of countless muscle fibers. These in turn consist of so-called fibrils and the proteins they contain are then the trigger for the contraction of the muscle. Muscle fibers in horses can be divided into two types. Depending on the genetic distribution of the individual types, the musculature differs from horse to horse and thus paves the way for specific suitability for different disciplines.

With the two muscle fiber types, a distinction is made between the red, also known as “slow fibers”, and the white (“fast fibers”). With the white fibers, however, a distinction is also made between the two subtypes. Type IIA white muscle fibers contain a high proportion of myoglobin (red blood pigment). Myoglobin can absorb a particularly large amount of oxygen. This allows horses with a high proportion of Type IIA white muscle fibers to perform at their maximum over a longer period. Eventing horses therefore usually have many of these powerful muscle fibers of this type. Type IIB white muscle fibers, on the other hand, are particularly fast in contraction (the contraction of the muscle).

Their area of ​​application is therefore short, explosive movements. In equestrian sport, this naturally includes gallop sprints and jumping. Training can also influence the proportion of different muscle fiber types. If the focus during training is on speed and strength, the proportion of white muscle fibers increases. If the focus is on endurance and continuity, the red muscle fibers will develop more.

The interaction of the muscles

Every muscle has a job to do with every movement. The tasks can also change depending on the direction of movement. Three tasks have to be distributed depending on the movement. Each muscle is then assigned to one of three areas of activity: flexor, extensor, or rotator. Because the muscles have to work together as a team with every movement to enable fluid movement sequences. In every movement, there is an active muscle that needs to be tightened and a passive muscle that needs to relax to make the movement possible. When you move in the opposite direction, the two muscles then switch roles.

Rotator muscles, on the other hand, encase the joints and are particularly stretchy so that the joints can exploit their full range of motion. For the muscles to be able to carry out their tasks without any problems, an adequate supply of nutrients such as magnesium and calcium is very important. If horses are prone to muscle tension or even muscle cramps, a blood count can rule out or reveal a deficiency.

Within the horse's body, individual muscles are divided into different muscle groups. On the one hand, each of these groups has a specific task, on the other hand, all muscle groups work together again in muscle chains, to keep the whole animal upright and moving. It is important to note that the guiding principle “a chain is only as strong as its weakest link” also applies to muscle chains. Because the weakest muscle in a chain can affect all other muscles. The effects can range from tension, cramps, and the associated balancing postures and movements to serious injuries. Two muscle chains are particularly important in horses. The first is the dorsal muscle chain. It includes the muscle groups of the vertebrae and extends from the upper neck and back muscles to the croup and thigh muscles. The dorsal muscle chain includes the extensor muscles of the horse's trunk and hip.

The second important chain is the ventral muscle chain. It includes the lower neck muscles, the abdominal muscles, and the anterior thigh muscles. It is the counterpart to the dorsal muscle chain and thus enables the flexion of the extremities. That means lowering the neck and stepping under or carrying the load with the hindquarters.

Sore muscles in horses

The training session yesterday was great, the new lesson finally worked and the trainer was happy too. Full of euphoria, you drive into the stable today and have to realize that your beloved four-legged friend doesn't want to take a step towards you today. The enticing carrots are not convincing either. In general, the horse seems to move very stiffly and slowly. The assumption of sore muscles is quickly obvious.


There are two myths about sore muscles that still get a lot of attention. The first myth says that sore muscles are caused by over-acidification of the muscles. Because, as already mentioned above, a lot of lactate is released during long, very intensive training. For a long time, it was thought that the muscles hurt as a result of this over-acidification. In the meantime, however, we know that lactate is quickly broken down by the body and thus "disposed of". According to new studies, very fine cracks in the cell structure of the muscle fibers, the myofibrils, are responsible for muscle soreness. The associated muscle pain usually occurs 12-24 hours after the training session. Normally, these microcracks heal within a few days. If the muscle pain does not subside or disappear after a week at the latest, this can be an indication of a serious injury. In general, it is not just individual muscles that are affected by sore muscles, but rather muscle groups. In horses, these are often the muscle groups on the forehand, shoulder, and knee. These games work more when (suddenly) stopping, landing after the jump, or changing direction. However, unfamiliar movements can also trigger sore muscles in all other parts.


The second myth is that sore muscles need to be "trained away". Some even assume that only an even harder workout can "beat" sore muscles. This myth has since been debunked. Because you should move the horses the next day, but only slightly so that no new muscle stimulus is set. The movement only serves to loosen up the hardened muscles. Good blood circulation is particularly important for the rapid relief of muscle pain. Because they transport the resulting breakdown products of the body faster and the muscle can heal faster. In addition, all important nutrients are supplied faster. A simple measure for good blood circulation is heated. For this purpose, the horse can either be placed in the sun or under a solarium. But warm blankets or a hot-water bottle placed under supervision can also help. All in all, after intensive training with new movement sequences, the horse should be given a rest day so that the muscles can regenerate and major muscle injuries do not occur.


if the horse seems rather stiff and tough the day after intensive training, this is often a sign of sore muscles

How to recognize good muscling in horses

A look at the horse's body often reveals a lot about the health of the animal. Of course, due to the breed, there can be large physical and therefore also muscular differences from horse to horse. In principle, however, good and healthy muscling is more round than square. However, the round is not the same as the round. A round and filled-in back does not necessarily have to be muscle-packed, but can also simply be filled with fat pads. By looking at the horse as a whole, you always have to weigh up whether the missing or particularly pronounced mass on the horse's body is due to the training or feeding condition.

With good back muscles, the spine should be embedded between the muscle rods and not protrude. Likewise, no hollows should be visible in the saddle area. Because that can indicate an unsuitable saddle that pushes away the muscles. The horse's neck should be evenly shaped, especially in the upper area. The lower neck should not have too much muscle mass and give a flat picture. The muscles at the shoulder should cover the shoulder blade. If there is a lack of musculature, the shoulder blade protrudes at the transition from shoulder to neck. A healthy abdominal musculature can be recognized by a tight, round shape. Visually, only a slight bulge should be visible and the belly should not sag too much.


The same applies to the croup muscles as to the shoulder muscles. If you can see the iliac tuberosities protruding (two bones to the right and left of the spine at about the transition from the back to the croup), the horse is missing muscles in the hindquarters. The thigh and calf muscles should curve outward. If you look between the inner thighs, there should only be a slight gap. If the musculature is weak, the entire hindquarters appear rather flat and sloping. To train your eyes, you can give an assessment of the muscular condition of your horse and then listen to the opinion of the experts every time, for example, a veterinarian, osteotherapist or physiotherapist, or hoof carer comes.

Possible causes for a reduced musculature

The following factors are not only possible causes of reduced muscle mass, but should also be clarified and, if necessary, taken into account when building muscle:


·        Metabolic disorders: As explained above, many metabolic processes take place in the muscles during training. So if metabolic problems occur in the horse, these also cause losses in muscle action. Metabolism problems, like muscle problems, always affect the entire organism, no matter where they occur or what their origin is. Therefore, metabolic problems are also expressed by several indications in horses (e.g. also by a matt, dull coat). Common metabolic diseases that also affect the muscles are Cushing's or Equina Metabolic Syndrome (EMS). In addition to coordinated feed and training, horses with metabolic disorders sometimes have to be looked after with medication.


·        Wrong feed composition: The right feed composition also contributes to successful muscle building. It is important to adapt the feeding plan to the needs of the horse. For example, a three-year-old horse that is just being introduced to working with people has different needs than a 12-year-old dressage gelding that is being trained at an advanced level. Sufficient, good-quality hay should always provide the basis for feeding. This can be supplemented by concentrated feed rations distributed throughout the day. In addition, certain additives such as muscle-building preparations can also be fed. However, you should always pay attention to the ingredients and composition.


·        Age-related muscle loss: Old horses are like old people – if you rest, you rust. Nevertheless, the training must also be precisely coordinated here, because older horses find it much more difficult to build up and maintain muscles. In addition, you have to reckon with health restrictions that can make training difficult.


·        long breaks in training: After long breaks in training, the horse must first be carefully introduced to the work again. Excessive demands or overexertion can lead to injuries such as a cross -over. Therefore, the intensity and length of the units should only be increased slowly.


·        Wrong training: In the long run, wrong training leads to enormous wear and tear on the horse's body, which can be accompanied by many injuries.


·        Wrong or Improper Equipment: Improper equipment is a common factor that prevents muscle building. With saddles, in particular, there is a high risk that they will affect the back muscles as they grow. Because of this, you should have your equipment regularly inspected by experts and repaired if necessary.


·        Sedentary posture: Horses are running animals. The best training will not be of much use if the animals cannot also move freely. The horse's body is designed to cover several kilometers every day. If, for example, the animals are denied grazing and only kept in the box, both muscles and soul atrophy.

Effective methods and tips for maintaining muscles in horses

·        Training plan: A training plan is important for the mentioned regularity of the activation of the muscles. The training plan should include weekly rest days when the horse is not trained. Other activities such as intensive grooming or quiet walks are of course still possible. Muscle building in horses can only succeed if there is an optimal alternation of targeted training and recovery phases.


·        Floor work: You can also build muscles with floor work. Indeed, the same muscles cannot be built up as when a horse has to carry a rider and balances itself and the rider's weight during the various exercises. However, the muscles can also be promoted through specific exercises, such as high yielding, shoulder-in, etc. In addition, groundwork supports the bond and trust in the horse. That can also come in handy when you're in the saddle.


·        Riding: Dressage, show jumping, riding in the country, riding over poles/pole gymnastics, or canter training is important to activate and promote muscles in a targeted manner.


·        Alternative gymnastics: Different muscle groups can be trained and built up not only while riding but also through targeted training on the lunge or through free jumping.



Muscle building exercises

1. Pole work: This offers a great change from dressage training and offers clear advantages. Horses need to be extra focused and use their bodies when pole work. Through the targeted, active stepping down over the bar, the legs are lifted higher, which activates the entire musculoskeletal system. It also trains the body awareness and balance of the animals.


There are countless ways to set up poles. They can be placed one behind the other, adapting to the stride length of the different gaits, or raised with the help of wedges on one side. Alternating the wedges on different sides makes the horse concentrate more and raise its legs higher. Of course, you can also lay whole constructions with rods. Crosses, rows, L-shape, etc. – there are no limits to your imagination. You can do the whole thing riding or lunging. The pole work can also be supplemented with Cavalettis to vary the heights even more.


2. Off-road training: If you don't have poles available or you don't have a riding hall or a place at the stable, you can also train well off-road. Well, suited are hilly, uneven places where the horses have to exert their hindquarters. This not only promotes surefootedness but also physical condition. Steeper climbs where the horses have to “climb” are also good. However, the following also applies: in moderation! It's very strenuous at first and you shouldn't overtax the horses, but rather start small and increase slowly. In addition, after consultation with the local farmers, you can also use the stubble fields for extensive canter training in the summer. However, you should walk the chosen route beforehand for holes or other stumbling blocks.


3. Targeted dressage exercises: In the arena, you can ride exercises such as going backward or many transitions. The most suitable transitions are trot-gallop and canter-trot. When backing up, the horse has to arch its back, when transitioning from trot to canter, the horse has to tighten its abdominal muscles to be able to jump. When transitioning from a canter to a trot, the horse has to sit up and tuck the hindquarters under properly so that it doesn't fall onto the forehand and run away from the rider. Many horses tend to "run" because they fall on their forehand and try to keep their balance. So it doesn't always have to be spectacular lessons. A targeted and meticulous basic work alone will get you very far in terms of muscle building.


4. feed specifically: The metabolism of muscles is particularly dependent on proteins. Muscles need a lot of energy and enough protein so that they can metabolize. Antioxidants are just as important to counteract hyperacidity in the muscles, which could damage the muscles. A horse's feed should always be adapted to the training and physical requirements. Muscles can only be built up and maintained if a horse consumes sufficient energy and protein through the feed. There are some different feeds and supplementary feeds that can support a horse. However, a realistic assessment of the performance ratio to the feed ratio is very important. Because too much feed cannot be utilized with average exercise and builds up as a fat reserve.


Building muscle after injury-related breaks

Unfortunately, injuries to horses cannot be avoided. Major injuries with long periods of absence are usually attended to by a veterinarian. Ideally, they will also create a plan to train the horse again. In the case of particularly complicated injuries, horses can also be built up completely without the rider's weight in rehab. In a horse rehabilitation center, there are various therapy options to rebuild the horses. The aqua trainer is one of the most effective devices. Many veterinary practices now have an aqua trainer that you can use for a fee.


Training after an injury should therefore always be done in consultation with a veterinarian and never be exhausted. Especially the first phase of muscle building after an injury can be particularly strenuous for the horse and influence the whole further course of the build-up. In addition to a suitable nutrient supply for the horse through possible additional feed and targeted development training, care should be taken to ensure that the correct equipment is used. Once horses are injured and taken out of their usual training, they lose muscle. As a result, the saddles often no longer fit and have to be readjusted. In the course of training, it may be that a saddle has to be readjusted several times, as the horse goes through different muscle stages during this time. The horse can only develop the right muscles if the equipment fits. If a saddle doesn't fit, the opposite can even happen: a muscle continues to shrink. Not only the lack of training but also the no longer suitable equipment cause the back muscles in particular to atrophy. This means they continue to regress instead of growing.


After an injury, the entire musculoskeletal system first has to get used to the training and certain movements again. Therefore, you should pay attention to conscious and targeted development training and regular exercise. A training plan and regular consultation with the veterinarian and trainer are also particularly important for this.

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