How to Strengthen your Horse

by | Nov 9, 2022 | Uncategorized

In order to physically educate our horses efficiently and to enable them to carry us without suffering structural damage and to collect, we need to be aware of the biomechanics and train to strengthen the right muscles in our horses.

We all know that our horses’ backs aren’t designed to carry us riders – the spine between front and hind resembles a hanging bridge and gives in under weight. To be able to ride our horses without causing pain and structural damage, we need to strengthen muscles, ligaments, and tendons.

Whilst many believe the long back muscles are the ones that need strengthening, this is very misleading – the long back muscle (longissimus dorsi) is not designed to carry, it is designed to create movement/motion. It is one of the largest such muscles in the horse’s body.

To carry weight/us our horse needs to develop strong abdominal muscles (which are the counterparts/antagonists of the back muscles) and strong muscles in the neck (especially between the 2nd cervical vertebrae and the occipital bone) which helps to stabilize the horse’s back.

Abdominals are part of the ventral muscle chain and all important for correct back posture, they lift and support the back and keep the pelvis in the right position.

Abdominals consist of transversal and of inner and outer straight muscles. The long abdominals which start at the pubic bone enable the horse to tilt the pelvis and to lift the lower back so that the hind legs can step under.

If abdominal muscles are lacking, the horse cannot use the back and the hind quarters properly, and therefore the back can’t be lifted. A situation that can quickly create pain and structural damage.

To increase abdominal strength, it is important to encourage the horse’s hind leg action so that they are brought forward well underneath the centre of gravity. Correct leg aids are crucial to achieve this. The leg aid needs to come just shortly before the horse’s hind leg leaves the ground to bring the leg forward – if the leg aid gives an impulse then it triggers a natural reflex causing the abdominals to contract which then brings the hind leg further forward.

These are some exercise suggestions that can easily be integrated into the daily routine and might help to strengthen the abdominals, the back, and the hind quarters:

Lateral movements like renvers, travers and shoulder-in encourage the horse to step well under, hence strengthen the hind quarters and abdominals. It is important to exercise these movements in a calm, flowing and regular fashion. If the exercise is performed incorrectly, the wrong muscles will be used.

Change of tempi and change of gaits – when changing into a slower gait, the horse needs to step well under and to lift the back for which the abdominals have to work. When changing into a faster gait, the hind quarters need to create the power and momentum.

Working with ground poles and cavaletti – To go over ground poles and cavaletti, the horse needs to lift the legs higher and to take bigger steps/strides whilst stretching its upper line (the hind legs are lifted higher, brought further forward, the pelvis needs to tilt more and the back will lift).

The poles/cavaletti should be placed in distances of 80-90cm for walk, 120-150cm for trot and 300-350cm for canter depending on the individual height and stride length of the horse.

The right speed – whichever exercise we do with our horses, whether in the arena or leisurely trail riding, all should be done in a calm, rhythmic manner. If the horse is rushing through the exercise, the exercise won’t be balanced nor well performed and useful.

Using more leg (aid) does not automatically encourage the horse to step under – if we ask too much too early the abdominals might not be able yet to work with the pelvis tilting to the front and abdominals and pelvis fall out of balance, the hind legs can’t step under but will shift locomotion further out to the back.

Last but not least – training must not just focus on the abdominal muscles and hind quarters. Whether is as a human or an equine athlete, the secret to success is variety. It doesn’t make sense to focus on one or two specific parts of the body if the rest of it won’t grow as well.

On a personal note: As an equine sports therapist I see just as many horses suffering pain caused by underdeveloped strength in the back as I see horses suffering extreme sciatica, developing a hunters bump etc., due to hard training in collection without adequate stretching of the abdominals afterwards. Chronically shortened abdominals are often caused by scar tissue in overworked muscles – when either the training unit has been asking too much or has been going for too long (imagine you stopping in the middle of a sit-up and being asked to stay in this position for longer than you are capable of…). So please keep the training units short, let the horse walk on a long rein in between, don’t overdo repetitions and try to integrate a variety of exercises so the focus is not just on one part of the body. Appropriate warming up and cooling down time in walk before and after each training session is of utmost importance.

And to support your horse’s muscles in warming up and recovering after exercise, if you deal with movement restrictions, joint issues and inflammation (very common with weak muscled lower backs), then MSM Recovery Gel should be your go-to to support your horse. Apply before exercise (to help warming up) or after exercise to help with quick recovery, or once daily when dealing with inflammation and joint issues



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