How to get your horse to build more muscle...
It has been a while since I last posted on here but I have been very busy lately, in the next couple of months you will all find out why! I felt like I can't let you all down so I'm back to answer a question that I get asked a lot. How can I get my horse to gain more muscle? Most of us with horses want them to look their best when the enter the show ring. Not only do we want them to be clean with pretty rosettes in their mane but to look physically amazing with lots of muscle.
There are a few factors to consider when trying to get a horse gain muscle. Firstly their diet is an important. Take a look at what you are feeding your horse. Is it supporting their vitamin, mineral, fiber, protein, carbohydrate and fat requirements? Muscle is made up of proteins, these proteins are called amino acids. In order for the muscles to grow and repair after exercise it is important that the horse is getting the appropriate nutrients to support the deficiency the body goes into after exercise. If you look on your bags of feed you can find the nutrients table on the back indicating levels of protein (crude protein). The horse has a total of 21 types of protein in their body, this may sound like a lot but breaking it down the horse can produce 12 by themselves. Therefore, 9 of these called amino acids need to be supplemented in their diet. A horse roughly needs 630-900g of protein a day. To ensure the body can increase muscle tone these amino acids are necessary. One of the most important types of protein that a horse needs is lysine. Research has shown that the first amino acid to deplete in the horse's body is Lysine. If this runs out the muscle building process is stopped and the body can no longer repair the muscles. When exercising your horse any muscle that is strained, pushed or manipulated causes small tears occur within the muscle, then in order for it to repair it needs the proteins/amino acids to assist. Once repaired the muscle is larger than before with more fibers added. This is how a muscle gets bigger with regular exercise and a nutrient supportive diet.
It is important however that when increasing your protein levels in your horse's diet you are also considering the amount of fiber they are getting. If the feed is too high in carbohydrates and proteins the acid levels in the stomach can be increased and the horse will be more susceptible to getting ulcers. If ulcers occur then your horse will end up loosing muscle rather than gaining muscle! Good sources of fiber include grass hays and forage. Important note: hay also has protein in it.
Another way of increasing muscle tone is regular exercise. With a good diet and regular exercise you are on a good path to a healthy looking horse. For a horse to gain sufficient amount of muscle they should be exercised at least 4 times a week. This exercise should be tailored to the individual horse. A horse fresh out of the paddock should not be pushed in an hour long showjumping session. This will most likely cause an injury and prevent muscle growth. It is important to gradually increase the workload to an unfit horse to ensure the body has time to repair and build. I know I wouldn't like to be asked to go on a 10km run after 6 months off from training!
Some great exercises to build a good topline include trot poles and cavalettis. These are good aids in making the horse utilise other muscles in the body that may not be needed just from working on the flat ground.
Once you start exercising your horse regularly it is now important to make sure you keep the muscles supple and relaxed. This can be achieved by getting regular maintenance muscle therapy treatments for your horse. Bowen therapy, massage, chiropractor and acupuncture are all great therapies to help with muscle tightness and soreness. If your horse has a muscle injury or are very tight in some areas they will find it difficult to build muscle in other places because their body will be focusing on the tight and painful area. Once their issue is relieved the body can then grow and develop properly. Have you ever considered getting yourself a massage? If you are sore or tight anywhere you could also be potentially causing an inbalance in the horse which leads to them being tight and sore. Without knowing it we can cause imbalances in the horse from the way we ride!
The image below is a great example of muscle tone increasing!
Not only is diet, exercise and preventing injury all important for muscle growth, I believe the last factor is the happiness of the horse! Ticking off all the topics I have stated above is important for your horse to be happy and healthy. If their mindset is right they will be more willing to perform any task you ask of them. Changing the scenery of your rides and exercise routines is also amazing for keeping the horse interested and focused.
I am a big believer that in order for your horse to look healthy and full of muscle you need to look at the situation holistically.
Are they happy?
Are they getting the right nutrients in their diet?
Are the getting exercised enough?
Am I riding balanced?
Does the saddle fit?
If you have answered yes to all these questions then you are on the right track to having a horse that looks in the best shape possible.