Muscle building on the horse: this is how you do it

Well known horses like Weihegold, Shutterfly or Sam have something in common. They all look like real athletes! The charisma of these horses comes, among other things, from a well-trained physique. Regardless of whether it is a sport horse or a leisure horse, the musculature is vital for a horse. As a rider, you should be concerned with the topic of muscle building horse, so how it works and to what extent you can promote this specifically. A lot can be achieved in six or eight weeks!


How does muscle development work in the horse?

Only with the demand for ‘more’ do muscles build up. Muscles can be thought of as small power plants in which many biochemical processes take place. They are made up of living cells that require energy and oxygen. Building muscle means that the muscle cells grow – and does not stagnate or even shrink. Muscle development in horses can be achieved through a combination of training stimulus and rest as well as consistency in this sequence and appropriate feeding.

A horse consists of approx. consists of 40% muscle mass and has about 520 different muscles. The main task of the muscles is to move the horse, which is why they are responsible for jumping power, endurance and fine motor skills.

A distinction is made between three different muscle groups. The heart muscles are the motor of the entire circulation system. The smooth musculature is responsible for the internal organs and the skeletal musculature determines the motor function of a horse. In order to build up the muscles of a horse in a targeted manner, the differentiation into muscle groups is important.

The neck muscles

The neck muscles ensure that a horse can move its head in all directions. It has uniform muscle strands, which are distinguished between short and long neck muscles. The chest muscles of a horse are decisive for the carrying capacity of the forehand. it connects the front legs with the trunk, because there is no collarbone in horses.

The long back muscle

The long back muscle is the longest muscle of the horse and extends from the sacrum to the occipital bone of the skull. Healthy back muscles are of central importance for the bending and straightening of the horse, as well as for the freedom of the rib cage. Only with a strong back can your horse carry you without problems.

The abdominal muscles

Just as with humans, the abdominal muscles must not be neglected. Due to the linkage of abdominal and back muscles, the abdominal muscles are the counterpart of the back muscles. Without abdominal muscles, serious back pain can occur, as they support the pelvis and trunk by lifting and supporting the back.

Muscle groups of the horse's back

Muscle building horse: How long does the training take??

However, if you start from scratch, perhaps due to a real winter break or illness, more time must be allocated to building muscles in the horse. Ingrid Klimke estimates that it takes eight to twelve weeks for her horses to return to their previous training condition after a forced break.

Initially, the most important gait for muscle development is the walk, and riding straight is equally important. Only gradually it adds curved lines. The gaits trot and canter come a little later. That then also slowly building up. This can mean, for example: first five minutes of trotting, then constantly asking for more and more. Exactly Ingrid Klimke explains her approach in this blog article.

Condition and strength through cross-country training

Set training stimuli

With the training stimulus is meant that the cells in the Muscles must be given a stimulus so that they receive the signal to grow. Cells in the muscle grow when the training stimulus is set to or slightly above the performance limit. Because then the muscle cells, in simple terms, try to be ready for the next time. They therefore grow. For this process the break is needed. That’s why it makes no sense at all to practice the same thing at the same intensity for five days in a row. break means but also not standing day!

A rough example of such a sequence: one day intensive training, then one day loose on the lunge or in the cross-country and the next day loose pole training. Only then an intensive training follows again.

First longer, then faster!

If conditioning is the goal, then the muscle types that are used for long term work are needed. Not the ones responsible for strength. Different types of muscle fibers are actually responsible for strength or stamina, i.e. condition. Depending on the goal, the rider must therefore also work differently.

An example: The leisure horse, which is rather moderately trained in winter, should be prepared for longer rides again. The basic rule here is: first increase the time, then increase the speed! Ride a lot of walk, because this gives condition.

Another example: the dressage horse in private hands, which was ridden regularly during the winter, but with rather little intensive training stimuli. The goal is the next season, and to build up more consistency and strength again. Then it is a question of the muscles that are more responsible for strength. Many transitions between gaits and within gaits and, depending on the level of training, lateral gaits are examples of exercise sequences that require strength.

Muscle building horse in the field

Exercise the horse’s back muscles and abdominal muscles

A common rider desire is to build the horse’s back muscles. In fact, functional riding requires muscle groups to work together, not just one particular muscle to be strengthened.

One thing people tend to forget when talking about back muscles, for example, is that the abdominal muscles are very important as counterparts for the back muscles. The abdominal muscles can also be addressed very well by, for example, lateral gaits in the arena (if you enter the keyword ‘lateral gaits’ in the search function of wehorse, you will get many ideas for training possibilities).

The terrain is also a great training stimulus. Cantering outside helps activate the horse’s abdominal muscles. But also in the other gaits can be worked great in the field. If you have slopes, small climbing mountains and walls in the riding area, you can do much more for the horse’s body. How eventing trainer Christopher Bartle uses the ups and downs of the cross-country to Improve thrust and hindquarters activity, can be seen in this course.

Supporting muscle development in the horse through correct posture

As already mentioned, a horse’s muscles ensure that it can move well. The right posture can ensure and maintain muscle development. It should be ensured that there is enough exercise in the pasture, so that the muscles are in motion every day. Open stables and active stables are also advantageous, as the horse has the possibility to move freely at any time.

This has a positive effect on the joints and the blood circulation of the muscles. A paddock or roundpen are also beneficial for muscle growth. As a rider, you should make sure that a horse gets enough exercise, regardless of the daily training. If a horse is mainly kept in the box, it suffers from lack of exercise and loses muscle.

Muscle development in horses through alternative training

To support the muscle development of the horse, the training with the horse should be varied. For muscles to grow properly, they are pushed to a limit in training, after which they grow during rest periods. Therefore, after demanding training, calmer days should be built in between.

A good alternative training method to promote muscle development in horses is ground work. Especially the work on the lunge line, with and without poles can have a positive effect on the muscle development. Poles are very helpful for muscle training, because the horse has to lift his legs a little higher. In alternation with normal steps this provides for an increased demand of the back musculature.

In this wehorse course, you will learn the basics of ground work and how to use it to improve the relationship between you and your horse. Also the motto of handwork expert Kathrin Roida is "Keeping horses healthy through training is paramount". In her courses she shows you how she gymnastics horses and helps them to build up their muscles. Here you can get an impression of her work.

Another effective way to help build the horse’s muscles is to ride cross-country. Long rides at a walk, with the opportunity to ride uphill and downhill, help to build muscle in a targeted manner.

If you have the opportunity to ride through water in the field, you should definitely use it to loosen up the horse’s muscles. The resistance of the water makes it more strenuous for the horse to lift its legs. With a loose rein in a forward-downward neck position, the horse’s back is well loosened by a water walk.

For Colonel Kurd Albrecht von Ziegner, as a representative of classical riding culture, the most important thing is the horses’ looseness in cross-country work. In this course he will show you how to gymnastize the horse’s back by riding on the slope in order to build up muscles.

Promote muscle development in the horse through riding

Correct riding, correct gymnastics and a purposeful build-up training are inevitable for the muscle build-up of a horse. In daily work, the rider should design a varied training program. Riding lessons keeps the horse elastic and supple in the rib area.

Riding transitions

Riding forward-downward is a good basic workout because it targets all muscle groups. Transitions are also supportive for healthy muscle development. Performed starting from the hindquarters through the horse’s body, transitions are the premium lesson for the back muscles. Transitions favor the arching of the lumbar spine, stabilization of the thoracic spine, relief of the neck-back ligament and train the abdominal muscles.

For gentle muscle building, it is recommended to ride simple transitions first. From walk to trot and vice versa, and from canter to trot and vice versa. In order to improve the hindquarters muscles, it is then a good idea to change to gait transitions. This means from walk to canter and from trot to halt. Furthermore, frequent changes of hand, bent lines and differences in tempo help to support muscle development.

Backing and bent lines encourage the hindquarters to take up the load

Another effective exercise to build muscle and strengthen the hindquarters is the backward walk. In order for it to have a beneficial effect on the horse’s ability to collect, the backward walk must be performed correctly. The horse should step diagonally backwards in a two-beat gait and be permeable to the aids. In order to promote mobility in a horse’s shoulder girdle, a lot of lateral gaits and curved lines should be included in daily training.

The bending of the horse in these lessons stretches the outside of the muscles and helps to improve the mobility of the joints and promotes load bearing. Load bearing is the active under-stepping of the hindquarters under the horse’s center of gravity.

In this course, dressage trainer Uta Graf will show you what a correct stretching posture for a horse looks like and which exercises are helpful for building up muscles.

Pole and cavaletti work

For a varied training the rider can incorporate cavaletti and jumping exercises. Cavaletti exercises force the horse to lift its legs more, so that it has to put its hindquarters more under the center of gravity. This results in an arching of the entire topline and improves the horse’s suppleness and suppleness of movement.

A well-known representative of cavaletti work is riding champion Ingrid Klimke. She often incorporates exercises into her jumping, dressage, and eventing horses to loosen them up and help them build muscle. At Equitana she presents her Cavaletti exercises live with two students and explains what you have to pay attention to during the exercises. Look nevertheless times purely.

Small jumps for gymnastics

Gymnastic jumping can also be integrated into training to promote muscle development in the horse. So that the requirements are not too demanding for inexperienced or young horses, small obstacles should be ridden from a rhythmic canter.
In order to successfully implement jumping gymnastics, you will find in this course simple exercises with which you can improve the muscle structure of your horse step by step.

Muscle building in the horse: through the right feed

In order to support the muscle build-up of a horse in the best possible and targeted way, it is important to also deal with the subject of nutrition and feeding.

The muscles of horses consist mainly of proteins (egg whites). Therefore, a sufficient protein supply through feeding is very important for the horse’s muscle development and muscle maintenance. Proteins consist of amino acids, which can be divided into non-essential and essential amino acids. Non-essential amino acids can be produced by the horse’s own metabolism, essential amino acids must be taken in through the feed.

In the wehorse "Basic Course in Horse Feeding", horse nutrition expert Conny Rohm explains in detail how you can calculate your horse’s individual requirements in order to optimally support the muscle development of your horse.

Muscle building in horses: After an injury

After an injury or a longer break, horses have usually lost a large part of their condition and musculature. If you were able to move your horse at least slightly during a break, this is more advantageous for training, since a certain basic fitness is present. In order to avoid muscle soreness caused by too demanding training, you should place special emphasis on alternating between training sessions and rest periods in the first few weeks.

In the recovery phases your horse adapts to the increasing performance level and builds up muscles. If muscle building is started too quickly after a longer break, lactate will build up in the horse’s muscles. This leads to overacidification. This results, for example, in a sprain and a drop in performance. It is difficult to predict how long it takes to build muscle in horses, as it depends on the individual condition and circumstances of your horse.

Ingrid Klimke says that muscle building is a long-term task and takes place in an average period of 8-12 weeks. It should also be kept in mind that tendons and ligaments have to adapt to the increasing level of performance.

Muscle building in young horses and muscle maintenance in older horses

Especially the muscle development of young horses should be done gently and slowly. The development of the horse’s body should be supported with sensible ground work, so that the muscles develop without the rider’s weight for the time being. Breaking in should only take place when bones and tendons have been strengthened, so that no overloading occurs and a horse remains rideable for a long time.

Muscle development and maintenance in older horses is usually more protracted than in younger horses. Because tendons, bones and the muscles of old horses have been stressed over the years, a lot of emphasis should be placed on the warm-up phase when riding to loosen up the muscles.

Daily work should be based on a varied program. Walks, rides and loosening up on the lunge line are very beneficial for muscle maintenance in oldies. FN ambassador Christoph Hess shows you in this wehorse course how to keep your older horse healthy and fit for a long time.

What the rider can do for his own fitness

If we riders want our horse to become fit in the next few weeks, then he can promote this quite strongly through his own fitness – or hinder it. Besides the feeling of movement, body control is the means to ride better. Riders need far more body tension for body control than most believe! It is worth paying attention to this. For Fitness and balance is a set screw that every rider can turn! The better the rider trains it, the better he can follow and channel the horse’s movements.

How much training should there be in addition?

For flexibility, Eckart Meyners would like to see us riders on the gymnastics mat every day. But effectively it becomes already, if we go twice a week on the mat. His rule of thumb is: "Training once a week maintains condition, anything over that increases condition!" This is what Eckart Meyners told us in this interview.

4 rules for building your horse’s muscles

  1. The mixture makes it! You need a good sequence of training days, between training stimulus, loose training resp. Alternate breaks. Neither the direct result of training stimuli, nor too many rest days or slack days will cause muscle cells to grow.
  2. Technique is crucial! Hardest point: Only physiologically sensible exercise brings muscle growth in the places we want it to be. There is unfortunately no shortcut, the sentence of Paul Stecken applies: "Riding correctly is enough". This may be difficult, but it is not a bad thing: riding is a lifelong learning process. Along the way you gain a lot of knowledge and your horse benefits directly from it.
  3. Take the horse’s head with you, involve it mentally! The most physically useful training isn’t worth much if your horse isn’t with you mentally. Pay attention to his signals, even small ones that show discomfort or stress! They have a reason.
  4. Keep in mind: It’s never just about building muscle, but also tendons, ligaments and fasciae.

What is a training stimulus?

No muscle growth without training stimulus. To set a training stimulus means to go up to or slightly over the performance limit. Of course, this does not mean that you let your horse gallop until close to exhaustion! But just go into the area, which is clearly strenuous. Especially in the recreational area, this kind of training is often neglected. For example, if you do ground work three times a week (which is not physically demanding for the horse) and then go for a 45-minute ride on another day, you are not doing your horse any favors. On the contrary: This physical underchallenge is one of the causes of many diseases of affluence in leisure horses, which used to exist much less in the past. Most people who ride their horse recreationally tend to do too little rather than too much.

Source of error 1: Practicing too little intensively

Between job, child and all kinds of obligations it is not easy to keep a reasonable training schedule. Even if you’d rather ride a lot than do anything on the ground, sometimes that’s the quickest solution. A way out of this "vicious circle" can be, for example, regular lessons with a trainer. These can help you enormously not to stay in the comfort zone, but to really ride more sportive and to challenge your horse in training.

Source of error 2: Practicing the same thing too intensively and frequently

Of course, there is also the other extreme: riders who sit on the horse for too long and practice the same thing every day with the same intensity. "The riders are then surprised that the horses become more and more tired, more and more tough ", explains dressage trainer Claudia Butry. "They are surprised that the musculature becomes less and less, although they train so much."If you do too much, you will not gain muscle, but your performance will be reduced by this overtraining.

Tip from Ingrid Klimke: build up muscles after a longer break

The horse was injured, now it can finally start again. But: How do I build up my horse correctly after a break?? This is what a viewer asked. Good question, we thought, because this has probably already experienced every rider. This is how Ingrid Klimke told us in a video message how she proceeds in such cases.

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